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Financial Context for the Fair Pay Fight between the USWNT and USSF

USSF is in the midst of a tense legal fight with the USWNT over fair pay & treatment. Let’s stop and talk about the economics for a moment.

Soccer: U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team at White House Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

You may have heard that the USWNT has an ongoing lawsuit with USSF (You can read the initial complaint here.) As part of that lawsuit, the USWNT players have alleged that their compensation per game is worse than the USMNT’s, but also that they are generally treated worse, such as getting inferior playing surfaces, worse travel, and inferior marketing. USSF president Carlos Cordeiro released a letter talking about the compensation for the USWNT with accompanying salary data in connection to this lawsuit. But I’m not really interested in breaking down what is problematic about that letter (Stephanie did that here.) I mostly try to keep my thoughts on these sorts of things to myself as I view them as highly public labor disputes that will eventually be settled. But some things have been said, often in the name of economics, that have rankled me a bit. So here are a few of my notes and observations about the USWNT dispute over pay and treatment.

1. The USWNT helps fund MLS

In the US, there’s a media* company called Soccer United Marketing, or SUM, that controls the broadcast rights to games played by MLS teams, games played in the US by the Mexican national team, the CONCACAF Gold Cup, the USMNT, and the USWNT.* This means that when you play one of these games, a cut of the money goes to SUM, and, by extension, the owners of SUM.

The owners of SUM are the same people who own all the MLS teams (when you get an MLS club, you also get an equal share in SUM). That cut is worth a lot; SUM was estimated to be worth over $2 billion in 2017. Connect the dots and you’ve got money from international women’s soccer going into the pockets of MLS’s owners. From there, the owners are free to spend that money as they see fit, though a lot of it has been funneled back into MLS. Remember, one of the fundamental reasons MLS was founded was to give American players opportunities as players and to help push their development to a higher level. That means that the big salaries of players like Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley, along with foreign imports that elevate the quality of the game like Carlos Vela and Josef Martinez, are funded in part through the USWNT.

2. FIFA Does Not Separate the Men’s and Women’s World Cups

Quick question, how much do the broadcasting rights for the women’s World Cup cost?

That’s a trick question. Nobody knows the valuation of the women’s World Cup television rights because they are bundled with the men’s tournament. Fox Sports paid over $1 billion for the rights to showcase all FIFA tournaments through the 2018 and 2022 cycles (and were given a sweetheart deal for 2026). That includes the men’s tournaments as well as the women’s during that time period. Because of how they are bundled together, it’s impossible to tease out how much money goes for one tournament vs. the other.

And, for the record, most major financial deals FIFA makes look like this, whether it is broadcasting or sponsorship rights. You pay for one, you are paying for both.

3. FOX Sports treats the Women’s World Cup like a Big Deal

Well, I guess it’s more fair to say “Crown Jewel”. Their words, not mine. Here’s what Fox Sports producer David Neal told reporters ahead of the 2019 tournament.

They said the women’s World Cup needs to be on the same footing as the men’s World Cup, ... We don’t want it to be a laboratory; we don’t want it to be a boutique event; we want to give the Women’s World Cup the same prominence. ... All the resources we’ve ever needed have come to both events, not just the men’s.

That’s actually slightly wrong. Fox provided more resources for the 2019 World Cup than the men’s tournament in 2018. With the USMNT failing to qualify, Fox decided to send a limited team to produce content in Russia. That was not the case for this summer’s tournament, where the US women won.

And, frankly, it makes sense for the network to prioritize the women’s game. The most watched soccer game in American history was the 2015 final between the USWNT and Japan with over 25 million people tuning in. While this year’s final didn’t quite match that (the 2015 game was a grudge match played on primetime, so it had a lot going for it), it did surpass the 2018 men’s tournament final.

While we can’t say how much that valuation I mentioned above is for each tournament, these numbers imply that the broadcast rights for the women’s tournament (at least in the United States) is worth at least as much the men’s.*

4. USSF Has Tied NWSL Play to the USWNT

In an effort to create a sustainable league structure, USSF made an arrangement with NSWL when the league was founded in 2012. USSF covers the NWSL salaries of USWNT players and adds that on to their contracted payment for national team play, allowing the league to sign a slew of high quality of players that they might not otherwise be able to afford. In exchange, USSF is able to get their players playing 20 or so games in a relatively high-quality league every year.

But the thing is, there are strings attached.

If you want to play on the national team, you basically HAVE to play in NWSL. Crystal Dunn told the Guardian about exactly that:

My time at Chelsea was incredible and I would go back in a heartbeat ... I had to make a really tough decision of either enjoy my life in London or come back and just be seen by the coaching staff, so I decided to do what I thought was best for me to have a key role on this national team.

And it’s not just Dunn who has felt this pressure. Every single WNT player on a World Cup or Olympic roster has been based in the United States since the league’s founding. And a slew of players have returned to the US in order to further or even preserve their national team careers. Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, and Morgan Brian have all appeared for Lyon at one point or another. Lindsey Horan was basically forced to choose between playing with PSG and the WNT in a “conversation” with Jill Ellis, with Ellis describing a renewal of Horan’s contract as “a bit of an issue”. And there are others who have spent time in France, England, Germany, Scandinavia, or even Australia. But all have returned home. There is an appetite to pay American players abroad. If it weren’t for the fact that USSF very clearly pushes players to play in NWSL more of these players would already be playing overseas.

This means the players are forced to sacrifice opportunities at top clubs in Europe, clubs like Olympique Lyon (the best team in the world), clubs that offer competition for salaries. And we know the salaries these American players could make in Europe are competitive with what they are paid now. The Irish Times reported that the average pay is $179,600 (€162,000) a year at Lyon. Meanwhile, FourFourTwo reported that several of the most prominent players on the team were paid at or above $400,000 (though it appears that their number includes sponsorships.) Lieke Martens, a key player for the Netherlands in this year’s run to second place, was rumored to have signed for around $110,000 (€100,000) a year at Barcelona, and it’s not hard to imagine someone like Tierna Davidson making something similar. From the Fiscal Year 2018 990 Forms, we know the total compensation of a handful of top-earning USSF employees for that year, including Christen Press, Becky Sauerbrunn, Kelly O’Hara, and Sam Mewis. They made $257,920; $256,720; $256,695; and $247,497 respectively, with these figures including the total of their WNT pay + NWSL pay, making the amount they’re paid for NWSL on its own much less than the actual figure shown.º Each of these players is among the best in the world. That places the players squarely in the range for elite salaries across the pond.

The guarantee of pay and caps is often framed as a benefit for the players. But there’s more there. A salary gives USSF power to dictate where players pay. And USSF has been aggressively using that to force players to choose between playing in Europe, where they might play with a better team and receive higher pay, or play internationally. If you want even a shot with the national team, you HAVE to play in the NWSL. You have no choice.

ºSide Note: If you took the salaries of all four listed players, combined them and then multiplied them by three (i.e. a full starting line up plus one sub), you would still get a number smaller than what Jurgen Klinsmann was paid, even though Klinsmann was not the coach at any point in that fiscal year.

5. It Looks like USSF Really Does Pay Less to Hold USWNT Games

As I mentioned at the top, salaries are not the only issue in this lawsuit. The WNT players are also suing because they allege that USSF puts fewer resources into the women's national team than the men’s. Things like travel expenses, accommodations, training facilities, and even marketing. While the USMNT almost* never plays on turf (unless an international tournament forces them to), the USWNT has on several occasions. Megan Rapinoe tore her ACL on a bad practice field before a friendly in 2015, a friendly USSF actually had to cancel because the field was so terrible, the players refused to play on it. But to get a full picture, we would need to go through USSF’s finances to see how they spent their money.

Thanks to USSF’s status as a non-profit, the organization has to release audits of their finances every year. You can find them on USSF’s website. As part of those records, there is an entry on how much money is spent on the men and women’s national teams for each year. That would not only be how much the players are paid for each game, but also the costs for marketing the match, travel expenses, and other assorted fees. They don’t give us a complete picture, but they do offer a really significant snapshot.

Annual Expenses for USMNT v. USWNT

Team 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 Total
Team 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 Total
USMNT $12,836,045 $18,725,425 $31,116,527 $19,927,614 $22,431,110 $14,629,768 $119,666,489
USWNT $9,478,322 $8,267,453 $10,307,142 $23,145,171 $13,711,236 $17,132,303 $82,041,627
Annual Expenses for the USMNT v. USWNT from 2013 -2018 Adnan Ilyas

Over those five years, a span that includes one World Cup tournament for the men (2014; they missed out on 2018) along with the Copa America Centenario (2016), and one World Cup (title) for the women (2015), USSF paid 13 less on WNT games than on MNT games. While that spending gap has closed substantially in the last 3 fiscal years of that range, the MNT were still funded more compared to the WNT by just shy of $3 million.

Given that the WNT play significantly more games each year, and thus have a lower investment per game than the MNT, it’s hard to ignore the claims that the teams as a whole are not being treated equally.

6. USSF Is the Same Employer for the USMNT & the USWNT

A lot of people have compared the situation between the MNT and the WNT to the NBA and WNBA. After all, it’s men’s league vs. women’s league. How is that different than men’s team vs. women’s team?

Simple. The WNBA and the NBA are completely separate organizations. MLS and NWSL are totally different entities. Why should one organization be expected to pay its employees similarly to a completely separate entity? The NBA and the WNBA are separate, and, thus, have separate circumstances. In contrast, the MNT and WNT have the exact same employer: USSF. They both represent the United States in international soccer under USSF.

Saying that your boss should pay Mike the same as they pay Lily is very different than saying your boss should pay Brandi more because the company across the street gives Alexi more money. Just because Brandi should make more money and Alexi should make less doesn’t mean that there’s any responsibility that your boss HAS to pay Brandi more. But if your boss pays Mike and Lily differently for basically the same work, then you’ve got discrimination. If that discrimination is based on, race, religion, or gender, then a court can force that boss to equalize the pay.

7. USSF Could Afford to Pay the USWNT the Same Deal as the Men

In 2017, it came out that USSF was sitting on reserves of $100 million, thanks in large part to a successful Copa America Centenario in 2016. How has USSF spent that money? Well, based on those financial forms, it looks like they bought down some debt and invested that money (and hired lobbyists and lawyers for their three (!!!) lawsuits). Speaking simplistically, that means that USSF could either pull that money from those investments or take similar loans out if they wanted to spend on a big project.

You know what they could spend that money on? Paying the women more. USSF could standardize pay right now so that, even accounting for different pay structures, the players get paid roughly the same per win.

I get the hesitation to doing something like this. Balancing the books over the long term is important, even at a non-profit. After all, the federation has to actually be bringing in money from somewhere in order to spend it, whether it is on their players or staff or other initiatives. But the federation has a reserve of $100 million and is spending it only on ways that preserve that money. Some of you might balk at this idea because, yes, this means transferring money from the men’s game to the women’s.

That is exactly what I am saying USSF could (and maybe even should) do. After all, there’s no rule that says that money has to sit in particular pots and can’t ever be moved around to match priorities. Are the youth programs paying for themselves? USSF CAN take their money and spend it on the WNT. After all, USSF already does this, taking money out of the women’s game through SUM and injecting it into MLS. I don’t see any reason why USSF can’t do the reverse.

It’s also not as if USSF has to do this alone. Sponsors have expressed a clear interest in chipping in for higher pay for WNT members. Indeed, some brands are already doing this. This announcement from Luna Bar came before the World Cup and is pretty explicit:

Believing in equal pay for equal work, LUNA Bar is giving each of the 23 women named to the 2019 USNWT World Cup team $31,250, comprising the difference between the women’s and men’s World Cup roster bonus.

And it’s not just random nutrition bar companies that want a bite of good press from paying the WNT more. Visa made a sponsorship deal with USSF at the end of May and, as they made it explicit that what they were really putting on their card was the WNT.

... [O]ver 50% of our investment will go to the U.S. women’s team. And why would it not? They are the best team in the world. They really stand for the values that Visa embraces and supports, which is all about driving women’s empowerment. So that’s where we’re controlling what we can control, which is our investment to support the women’s team.

It seems to me that these companies seem to think that investing more money in the WNT is good for PR. Let’s see if USSF decides the same or sticks with their lawyers and lobbyists.


Upon comment from USSF, we have made several corrections to the article.

First, we incorrectly stated that Soccer United Marketing is a broadcast company. This is incorrect as SUM does not itself broadcast anything, though they do control the broadcasting rights of several different entities. Don Garber, CEO of SUM and MLS Commissioner, has described SUM as a “marketing, media, sponsorship sales and licensing compan[y] devoted to the sport of soccer.” We have abridged this description of SUM to simply calling them a media company in the piece above.

Second, we incorrectly stated that the USMNT never play on artificial turf. This is untrue as the USMNT played on turf on February 3, 2017, against Jamaica in Finley Field in Chattanooga, Tennessee. While it is true that the WNT play more matches on turf and the MNT almost always plays on grass (even if it is grass laid on top of turf), it is thus inaccurate to say that they never play on artificial surfaces. We have amended this to more accurately show that the MNT does, in fact, sometimes play on artificial turf.

Third, we incorrectly stated that SUM controls the broadcast rights to the FIFA World Cups and implied that USSF similarly is involved with those broadcast rights. While SUM was founded in part to manage the broadcast rights for the FIFA tournaments corresponding to the 2002 and 2006 men’s World Cup (which would include the 2003 and 2007 women’s World Cups) we have been informed that SUM does not continue to control the broadcast rights of the FIFA events. Instead, Fox bid to acquire the rights to the World Cups through FIFA, not SUM nor USSF.

We apologize for these inaccuracies and thank you for your patience.

– Adnan Ilyas