What if women’s team argued ‘fair,’ rather than ‘equal’?

Alex Morgan (right). (Tony Gutierrez/AP)

Recently, members of the World Cup–winning United States women’s soccer team filed a wage discrimination claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Their argument in a nutshell is that the U.S. Soccer Federation pays the male team substantially more than it pays the female team for the same amount of work, even though the women are more successful.

Five of the team’s most visible and accomplished players—Carli Lloyd, Megan Rapinoe, Hope Solo, Alex Morgan and Becky Sauerbrunn—put their names on the filing.

“We continue to be told we should be grateful just to have the opportunity to play professional soccer and to get paid for doing it,” Solo said. “In this day and age, it’s about equality. It’s about equal rights. It’s about equal pay.”

Equality is a divisive issue. I’ve found myself on both sides of it in the past. During the last Women’s World Cup, while disputing Abby Wambach’s claim that the field turf was playing a part in the U.S.’s lack of goals early in the tournament (they went on to win the gold medal final 5–2 over Japan), I made the point that having the women play on an artificial surface isn’t inherently sexist as men do it professionally in North America all the time.

The stance received some criticism in the name of equal rights.

More recently I suggested that Serena Williams doesn’t need to thank the likes of Novak Djokevic for her lot in life, as former BNP Paribas Open Tournament Director and CEO Raymond Moore suggested, but rather that Williams might be more popular than her male counterpart and thus deserves the equal pay the WTA has fought for.

The stance was widely met with the rebuttal that Serena’s dominance on the female tour is not equivalent to Novak’s.

I welcome the debate. These issues are nuanced and it’s only by talking through them that we decide what course of action is best. But what often happens is that people talk at each other instead of to each other. The tone becomes so divisive that common ground—which does exist—is almost impossible to find. You’re a sexist pig if you don’t champion equal rights or a feminist apologist if you make the case that women’s athletics should share the same stage as men’s.

What if we reframed the conversation from “equal” to “fair”? Make it less of an arbitrary decision, remove any altruistic reasoning for why women’s pay should increase and make this solely a business conversation. We could look at the amount of revenue that both the men’s and women’s sides bring in for the federation—whether through gate revenue or jersey sales or TV ratings—versus the amount of investment made by the federation in the respective teams and then agree on a set percentage of soccer-related revenue after expenses that the teas should be entitled to. That might be a start.

Perhaps the most convincing argument as to why the women’s pay scale needs to be reworked is not because the men make more but because the deal made between the federation and female players is outdated. The CBA has essentially been the same since 2006. Only six active players were on the team at that time. That deal expired in 2012 but its terms have lived on in a memorandum of understanding signed between the team and federation in 2013.

The final match of the FIFA Women’s World Cup drew a record U.S. television audience for soccer, with an average of 25.4 million viewers on Fox, more than each game of the NBA Finals, Sunday Night Football and the daily coverage of the Sochi Olympics. Over 43 million Americans watched part of the match even though it wasn’t close from the outset. This alone does not mean the women are necessarily more profitable than the men but it shows they are more valuable than they once were.

Jeffrey Kessler, Tom Brady’s agent in the deflate-gate trial, is representing the women and claims that they made $16 million for U.S. Soccer last year, and that the men lost $2 million. According to Kessler’s findings, over the last four-year period the men have made $60 million for U.S. Soccer and the women have made $51 million. Given that U.S. Soccer paraded the women on a victory tour after winning the World Cup and that the women will be competing in the upcoming Olympics, the team will surely make more money in 2015–16.

However, the comparison between what the men and women make isn’t apples to apples because of the financial structure of both relationships. U.S. Soccer funds the salaries of the National Women’s Soccer League players on the national team. The NWSL is in fact a loss leader, only really put in place to give American women the chance to compete between international competitions without having to go overseas. Meanwhile, the same investment isn’t necessary on the men’s side, as those players all play for clubs overseas or in Major League Soccer. And because the men’s principal salaries come from their home clubs and endorsements, U.S. Soccer has to pay the top players handsomely as incentive for missing time away from their day jobs.

Don’t get me wrong—there are equality issues at play. The American women make nothing for a loss or tie during an international friendly yet the men make $5,000 no matter the outcome. The men’s per diem for an international contest is $75 while the women get $60. In domestic play, the men get a $62.50 per diem, while the women get $50. Why would the women and their support staff need less to eat than the men? Is the expectation that the men’s goalie Tim Howard will dine on a 12-ounce steak while Hope Solo will settle for a kale salad? Lack of equality here perpetuates gender stereotypes. Some federations still don’t pay for the hotel rooms of their women’s players, so the U.S. is by far not the most egregious in this regard, but the bar with FIFA is rather low.

But I don’t think it is wise to look at things solely as a question of equality. I don’t think anyone would argue that the best player in the WNBA, Elena Delle Donne, should make
what LeBron James does—paying her $24 million would cripple the league.
I would argue that WNBA players deserve a similar percentage of the basketball-related revenue their franchise makes as the NBA players receive.

There is little room for error if we pay people commensurate with their value on the free market. Equal pay for equal play sounds good but rarely in life are you rewarded for equal effort. More often you are rewarded for superior results and or value. That should be the crux of the women’s claim. This calculation isn’t about virtue, it’s about business. Equal pay for women might not do them justice. It’s possible that the women’s team currently generate more value in the commercial space than the men do. If that’s the case, they should make more money than the men. Carli Lloyd and Alex Morgan could hold significant value to companies as spokeswomen—in a way that Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore might not—as they are the best in their field. Let’s open up the books and see what the women’s true value is.

It’s a real possibility that the U.S. women will win gold at the Olympics this summer, while the U.S. men won’t even be there, and could miss out on the next World Cup. In that case, no matter who’s doing the accounting, I find it hard to fathom that the women wouldn’t become more valuable than the men to U.S. Soccer and Nike over the next 12–18 months.

This sets up an interesting precedent for other women’s national teams in the U.S. as well as the Canadian women’s soccer team. The dynamics in Canada are the same if not more drastic where John Herdman’s players not only perform better than the men but sell out stadiums and drive interest in a way the men never have.

The U.S. women’s suit is a great development. They are exercising their leverage at the optimum time. The last thing U.S. Soccer or the United States Olympic federation wants is even the hint that the women’s soccer team would strike before the Rio games. A guaranteed medal and massive ratings would then be twisting in the wind.

This should force an examination of what the women’s team should really be making. Opening the books would help ascertain their true value and how deep the investment from U.S. Soccer has been on their behalf.

To that end, I would urge them: Don’t emphasize equal. Fight for fair. You might be selling yourself short trying to make as much as the men. Either way, it will be hard for anybody to argue against the fact that you deserve more.

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