The chants of “Equal Pay! Equal Pay!” from the stands following the United States women’s national team’s (USWNT) Women’s World Cup championship on Sunday said it all.
This wasn’t just the USWNT’s record fourth Women’s World Cup — this was also a potential turning point for women’s sports in our country.
Granted, it feels like we say this after every major international tournament, especially the ones the U.S. wins.
So, was it?
There are two key factors that will tell if this Women’s World Cup was as big a turning point as it seemed Sunday: the aforementioned equal pay when compared with the U.S. men’s national team (USMNT) and a successful domestic league for USWNT players to play in during club play.
Equal Pay — Now!
There’s no arguing the USWNT has been more successful historically than its male counterpart, and the gap has grown wider in recent years.
Since the the USWNT’s 2015 title, the men’s team has become a circus. It’s currently on its third permanent coach and did not even qualify for the 2018 World Cup — something it hadn’t failed to do in over 30 years. With the exception of Christian Pulisic, there aren’t any household names playing on the men’s side these days.
Meanwhile, USWNT coach Jill Ellis just became the first coach to successfully defend a Women’s World Cup title and did it with a team filled with household names like Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Carli Lloyd.
However, the compensation the women receive doesn’t hold a candle to what the men make, which led 28 USWNT players to file a lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) for wage discrimination earlier this year.
If the USWNT and USMNT each played 20 exhibition games in a year and both teams won all 20, a USWNT player would earn a maximum of $99,000 while a comparable USMNT player would earn an average of $263,320, according to the complaint. That’s about 38 cents for every dollar a USMNT player makes, which is astonishing even for a world where women are consistently underpaid all the time.
But revenue matters, right? That’s what critics of the lawsuit have said, at least.
In the three years spanning 2016 to 2018, USWNT games generated $50.8 million in revenue compared with $49.9 million from men’s games, according to audited financial statements from the USSF obtained by The Wall Street Journal.
Enough is enough.
Pay the women their fair share already.
A little help would be nice, too.
Now that the Women’s World Cup is over, all 23 USWNT players will return home to play for their club teams in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), a league that has struggled to gain sponsors and fans in the stands since its inception in 2013.
The league is averaging around 5,000 fans through 12 weeks of play this season. Only the Portland Thorns and Utah Royals are averaging at least 10,000.
The NWSL did not have a linear television deal in place until last week, roughly halfway through its season, when it announced ESPN networks will air 14 games as the season reaches its end.
How can fans be expected to gain interest in a league they couldn’t even watch on television?
Hours before the Women’s World Cup final, Budweiser announced a multi-year sponsorship deal to become the first official beer of the league, stating it “won’t stop watching” women’s soccer even though the Women’s World Cup is over.
The ESPN and Budweiser announcements are great news, but it’s fair to wonder if they’ll actually stick around once the World Cup hangover fades.
If the NWSL is ever to truly thrive, it needs the same backing other top women’s leagues get, such as the FA Women’s Super League in England, which is run by the Football Association, the organization that runs the entire men’s soccer pyramid below the Premier League.
The European investments are paying off as well. Of the 16 teams that advanced to the knockout round of the Women’s World Cup, eight of them were European. The USWNT only played European teams from its third group stage game onward.
It is critical for the U.S. to keep pace with Europe, both with its national team and domestic league. It is not a matter of if, but rather when, many European teams will be serious challengers to the U.S.
It’s time Major League Soccer lends a hand to the NWSL. Some MLS teams, like Orlando City and the Portland Timbers, already operate NWSL clubs, so a partnership — or perhaps even more than that — is not without precedent.
Twelve MLS clubs already operate reserve clubs in the second and third divisions of the men’s professional pyramid, so MLS and its teams have already set the of investing in what are apparent loss leaders for the greater good of growing the game in the U.S.
How will history truly remember this moment?
Once the ticker-tape parade in New York has been cleaned up and the “I only care about soccer every four years” crowd retreats, what will be left?
Will Morgan go back to playing in front of fewer than 5,000 people every week in a league with no true television deal?
Just as importantly, will she be paid what she truly deserves going forward?
That’s how we’ll know if this was truly a turning point in women’s sports.