CHICAGO — Members of the U.S. women’s national soccer team are warming up for the Olympics on two fronts.
On July 9 in Chicago, the team beat South Africa 1-0 in a friendly match that became goalkeeper Hope Solo’s 100th shutout in international play. Team members also launched a campaign meant to drum up support for players’ wage discrimination claims against their employer, the U.S. Soccer Federation.
Players are wearing T-shirts and temporary tattoos and using social media to spread a message of “equal play, equal pay” as they head to Rio de Janeiro for the games in August.
Members of the U.S. women's national soccer team, which won the gold medal in the 2012 Olympics and is the defending World Cup champion, say they should be paid the same as the members of the men’s team, but say that instead they’re paid less despite their superior performance. Attempts through a federal court case in Chicago and through contract negotiations failed to compel change. A complaint filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission hasn’t been resolved yet and remains an open avenue for players.
The players may have a strong case, David Pogrund, an adjunct professor of economics at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and an experienced litigator, told the Cook County Record. He has worked in employment law, representing corporations and businesses, and has defended employers in cases before the EEOC.
Because entertainment is a key part of professional sports, players’ wages often depend on their popularity among fans. Televised games bring in more revenue, which could translate to higher player salaries. It’s seen plainly in sports like basketball and golf, Pogrund said.
“What makes the case interesting is if you look at other sports, the employers aren’t the same,” Pogrund said.
That’s not the case in U.S. soccer, making the pay difference easier to examine. But that’s what could stop other women’s teams from making the same argument, he said.
In soccer, the women win and draw crowds, but make less than the men, even when the men’s team loses, according to the EEOC complaint. However, officials have said the men’s team draws about twice the crowd and revenue as the women. The two teams also have different pay structures. Women players who earn a salary of $72,000 get about $3,600 per game for each of the 20 or so exhibition games they play in a year. Men, whose pay is not guaranteed by a salary, earn $5,000 per exhibition game even if they lose. Both teams get bonuses for winning, but women receive only $1,350, while men can earn up to $17,625 for beating a top team.
The complaint shows that wages for performing in tournaments, such as the World Cup, and per diem rates for players are also much higher for members of the men’s team than for those on the women’s team.
Based on the women players’ argument that they put in equal effort, play the same number of games and attract big crowds but earn less money, it’s possible that they’re facing discrimination, Pogrund said. But they’ll have to prove they also draw equal revenue and attention, he added.
“The defense that’s raised is that the men bring more money in than the women,” Pogrund said. "It all comes down to the almighty dollar."
An employer may say the wage disparity between men and women is based on a legitimate business decision. That puts the burden on the players to prove that “that the legitimate reason is not the real reason,” Pogrund said. “I think that’s what this case will come down to.”
The EEOC complaint points to U.S. Soccer financial data showing the women’s team was a bigger money-maker in 2015 when it won the World Cup. U.S. Soccer officials take issue with the numbers cited in the report and say the team members based their complaint on an atypical year.
“In sports where there is equal revenue coming in there should be equal pay,” Pogrund said.