The United States women's national team has filed a wage discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against US Soccer.
The moment the news hit earlier this morning, you just knew the responses would be predictable. One of the most common is "They should earn money proportional to what they bring in!" Another is "But the free market dictates what they're worth!"
Both of these arguments like to act as though sports exist in some kind of purely theoretical vacuum that can be used as an example in an intro to economics course. But the reality is that sports are often surrounded by heavily politicized context, whether it's issues of race, gender, nationality, or socioeconomic status.
Players on the men's and women's teams are literally doing the same thing: running around on a field, kicking a ball, and occasionally showing up at publicity events to talk up the team. That these activities bring in disparate amounts of money and attention (or they used to; the WNT is definitely closing that gap) is partially a function of sexism, both from within and without the federation.
The valuation of women's sports has always been discounted by society, with the pricing of their activities set arbitrarily lower than men's because "no one wants to watch women's sports." The perception that no one wants to watch women's sports is influenced by a great number of factors, among them the relative youth of women's sports, their lack of marketing and funding, and, yes, sexism.
Men's sports have been given the time and opportunity to flourish. The NFL didn't suddenly spring into creation making hundreds of millions of dollars and ruining cultural discourse with overexpensive Superbowl ads. The NHL started with four teams and lost one of those but was given room and space to grow. MLS has spent decades becoming stable. Let's not ignore that many men's leagues were founded at a time when they didn't have to compete with an oversaturated sporting landscape covered 24/7 by a hellish neverending media cycle.
Let's also not forget that women's soccer has not been developing on a uninterrupted timeline since the first organized women's game in 1895. The women's game was outright banned in both England and Brazil for decades and only officially restarted under the auspices of FIFA in the 70s. The first Women's World Cup didn't even take place until 1991, and even then FIFA didn't really want to put their name on it, so it was called the "1st FIFA World Championship for Women's Football for the M&M's Cup."
Women's soccer as we know it has only really been developing since the early 90s, giving the sport less than three decades of history to work with - and a huge chunk of that development in the United States is directly tied to whether the women win the World Cup or not. For American women, they either have to be the best in the world or they're irrelevant to the media, a level of pressure that certainly does not exist for the men's national team.
Now women can barely elbow their way into both the social consciousness of sports and into the media coverage. In fact, coverage of women's sports as a percentage of total coverage seems to be declining. So yes, overall the number of women's sports stories getting told is increasing just because women's sports are still finding ways to grow, but they still take up the same infinitesimal slice of the overall landscape.
Then there's the money that owners or federations simply refuse to put into women's sports. Women's sports are small time, so they don't draw big audiences, so they don't bring in money, so they stay small time. But what we've seen with big sporting events like the Women's World Cup or Grand Slams is that if someone is willing to interrupt that self-perpetuating cycle of limitations at any point, then the audiences are there.
Just look at the viewing figures for the WWC, as compiled by FIFA:
· Canada: CTV and RDS broke the Canadian viewing record for any FIFA Women's World CupTM match (quarter-final: average audience 3.2 million)
· USA: FOX scored its biggest ever audience for a football match (semi-final: average audience 8.4 million)
· France: W9 achieved its best figures on record and set a new French digital terrestrial viewing record (quarter-final: average audience 4.1 million)
· Japan: Fuji TV attracted more than twice the number of viewers for the semi-final than in 2011 (semi-final: 9.3 million)
· 20 million unique visitors to FIFA.com's FIFA Women's World CupTM section, consuming 225 million pages and spending 7.8 billion seconds engaged
· 9 billion impressions of Tweets about the FIFA Women's World CupTM
· FIFA's YouTube channel hed its all-time monthly views record in June (28 million views vs. 19 million in June 2014 during the 2014 FIFA World Cup BrazilTM)
The 2015 World Cup on Fox picked up where 2011 left off in terms of promotion and production value. Germany's staging of the tournament in 2011 set a new standard for the way the tournament should look and feel, with top notch production value coming from multiple cameras and a good ESPN broadcast crew. Then, with the tournament moving to Fox, the tournament still managed big numbers despite Fox, Fox Sports 2, and its streaming platforms being in millions fewer homes across America than ESPN. The networks saw the opportunity and took it, then reaped the financial rewards; Fox took in $40 million in ad revenue, five times what ESPN did in 2011. Promote, deliver content, collect cash.
Keep in mind that they got this ad money in spite of companies being hesitant to advertise during the WWC. If more big-name brands had been willing to buy into the event in addition to "non-traditional advertisers," who knows how big that figure could have been. But no one wants to watch women's soccer, so advertisers don't buy in, which depresses the actual monetary valuation of the event, and by extension, the sport. It's that classic pricing error: lowballing a product hoping to entice buyers, but instead just signaling to buyers that the product is cheap and worth passing over.
These are all symptoms of the constant, unending socialization that women's sports are just not good, which is absolutely tied up in fears based on women stepping outside of traditional gender roles. Just look at the avalanche of typical responses to coverage of women's sports: get back in the kitchen, women can't play sports, get back in the kitchen, no one cares, and my personal favorite, get back in the kitchen. It's an instinctive and automatic response for so many men (and women) based on the cultural image we carry of who is an athlete and what is a sport, reinforced by popular media constantly turning women's sports into a punchline (looking at you every single TV show that has made a joke about women's sports being fake just because they're played by women).
So no, the "free market" hasn't determined that the WNT is actually supposed to make less than the MNT because they're less popular. The market is shaped and influenced by people who choose to make a gender-based valuation about a women's team in spite of results. The WNT is paid less than the MNT even when they bring in commensurate revenue and way more prestige. Sexism is a market factor, plain and simple, and people who don't want to accept that are usually those that benefit, whether directly or indirectly, from the existing market structure.