US Soccer and the Women’s Team: Treat Them Like the Champions They Are

I don’t want to use the word ‘deserve’ in any of this.”–Sunil Gulati, President of the US Soccer Federation

Yeah, dude, and I can see why.”–Marion Deeds

Sunil Gulati, President of the US Soccer League, also told Sports Illustrated that US Soccer was “disappointed” in the EEOC complaint filed by five women’s soccer players. I guess the League’s feelings were hurt, perhaps in the way the players’ feeling might have been hurt when the League filed a suit against them, the first week of February.

The US Soccer Federation sued the US Women’s National Team (USWNT) first, trying to forestall any possible strike or boycott of the Olympics.

In its own fiscal documents, the US Soccer Federation projects $17.6 million in profits from women’s soccer in FY 2016/17. They project that the men’s team will bring in $9 million. The USWNT  is subsidizing the men’s team.

Gulati points out that the World Cup was in 2015 and the Olympics are in 2016. The women’s team qualified for the Olympics while the men’s team did not. After 2016, the women don’t have a big marquee event coming up for a while. US Soccer also thinks that any projection of income beyond FY 2016/17 have to consider the possibility of a men’s World Cup win.

Okay, let’s consider that for a moment. In 1930, the men’s US soccer team placed third in the World Cup finals. In 2002, they reached the quarter finals. In the most recent World Cup, they placed sixth.

The US Women’s soccer team has won the World Cup three times in a row, most recently in 2015.

Okay, I think we’re done with considering the possibility of the men’s team winning a World Cup.

Gulati argues that in the past four years, the men’s program out-earned the women’s, without providing figures. (The Federation’s budgets are available.) Television revenues, conveniently, aren’t broken out by program but are lumped together. It’s possible that over the past four-year period, men’s soccer earned more (because US Soccer charges more for advertising time on men’s televised matches), but it is well known that last year the women’s World Cup match was the most highly watched soccer match ever in the US, and also on Telemundo.

The US Soccer Federation states that more people go to stadium games to watch men than women; on average, 29,000 go to watch men’s games live versus 16,000 for women’s games. They glide over the fact that professional sports in the US don’t make their money from buttocks in seats, but from television viewers.

Gulati also really wants to avoid the use of words like “deserve” when discussing compensation, as he said outright in his interview with Sports Illustrated. He has a bit of a problem, then, because both the men’s contracts and women’s contracts use the word “bonus.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines “bonus” as an additional payment of money “for good work,” similar in some ways to a reward… something you get because you deserve it.

The US Women’s Soccer Team, who won three straight World Cups, and who were the most highly watched soccer event in 2015, get some bonus payments (on average, $1350 per player per game) for games they win.

The US Men’s Soccer Team, who haven’t placed better than the quarter-finals since 1930, get additional payments for certain games just for playing them.

You show up, you play, you lose, you get a bonus. This is not a good way to “incentivize” winning. Apparently, using the OED definition, for men’s soccer, losing a game is considered good work.

The best site I’ve found for comparing apples-to-apples, not surprisingly, is fivethirtyeight.comThe New York Times has a nice open graphic connected to its story, but these figures were provided by the women players’ lawyer, so people might be a tad suspicious of them. You can also look at the US Soccer Federation’s own budget documents if you want.

Fivethirtyeight does a good job of explaining why the pay structures between the two program look different (women negotiated a salary and a severance package, men are paid by game) and also showing that even with that taken into account, men are paid more.

Sure, each program has its own contract and each was negotiated at different times, and probably that is part of the problem. The issue of revenues and bonuses is thorny, playing out against an inconvenient truth; Americans still don’t watch a lot of soccer, men’s or women’s. We usually watch the finals, if there is an American team in it. Certainly the whole “bonus” thing is complicated by an international organization, FIFA, that has become to the new poster-child for graft and corruption – and seems quite comfortable with its own sexism.

I’ve never understood the whole labyrinth of professional sports; how they claim to lose money while raking in billions, and soccer is nowhere in the same league as professional basketball, baseball or football. I’m coming at this as a lay person who does have some experience both with the negotiation process and with discrimination. And this looks exactly like sexism.

Are there a few simple things that the Federation could do, though? I think yes. Here are two, right off the bat:

Travel and Per Diem:

On airline flights, the men’s team usually (not always) flies business class, per Fivethirtyeight. The women’s team flies economy class.

For domestic venues, women get $50/day. Men get $62.50. For international venues, women get $60/day; men get $75. This shouldn’t even need to be negotiated; the Federation should side-letter both unions and bring these into alignment. And raise them all to the higher rate rather than trying to lower the men’s? Damn straight.


Why do you pay a team a bonus for losing? I just don’t get it. Review the whole bonus structure for the women’s team and come up with a scheme that acknowledges their achievements.


Those two things would help, but what is really happening here is sexism.

Sunil Gulati is, to put it politely, tone-deaf when he struggles to diminish everything the women’s team has accomplished and when he blatantly fantasizes about that glorious future when the men’s team will win the World Cup. (Why should they bother? They get bonuses for losing.) When he neglects to mention that the Federation filed a lawsuit against the women’s players’ association first, in a pre-emptive move to keep them from possibly striking, he looks a lot – a lot – like a negotiator who  is trying to screw over his players. It’s not an accident that he looks that way. This is not a municipality or other jurisdiction trying to cover essential emergency services. This is soccer.

The message here, from FIFA on down, is that women’s soccer doesn’t matter; it only exists to bankroll men’s soccer. Instead of negotiating honestly, US Soccer dismisses the consistent achievements of the women’s team and indulges in what-ifs about the men’s team – because the men’s team is inherently more important, because they’re men.

Basically, US Soccer’s message is, “A losing men’s team is more important than a world champion women’s team.” If you think we can’t see that, Mr. Gulati, think again.

The US Women’s National Team has won three World Cups. That isn’t a fluke. They, not the men’s team, are champions. They personify what the Federation claims to revere; the best of the sport; the world’s best.

Treat them like the champions they are. And Mr. Gulati, please look up the meaning of the word “bonus,” and “deserve.” I do not think they mean what you think they mean.




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