“U.S.A.! Equal Pay! Equal Pay!” These chants from the crowd after the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team (USWNT) won the World Cup became the rallying cry behind its ongoing efforts to obtain pay equity for female athletes. Following the team’s second straight international championship, and fourth overall, the players returned home to increased national recognition of both their sport and their struggle. Now that the women’s team and the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) failed to resolve their pay dispute in mediation, they are now preparing their cases for the courtroom while making their respective cases in the court of public opinion.
History-Making Wins and History-Making Litigation
Before its Cup-clinching victory over Holland, the USWNT stepped into a different arena when the 28 active USWNT players filed a federal lawsuit against the USSF, which oversees both the men’s and women’s national soccer teams and employs the athletes.
The class action complaint alleges USSF violated the Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The plaintiffs charge that USSF engaged in gender discrimination by paying its female soccer player employees less than the male players, despite both groups performing the same job responsibilities for their single common employer. This disparity persists “even though [the USWNT’s] performance has been superior to that of the male players – with the female players, in contrast to male players, becoming world champions.” The complaint outlines numerous examples of how USSF compensates female players at a lower scale than their male counterparts.
The successes of the women’s team translate to revenue production. Viewership of the final match of the Women’s World Cup on television totaled roughly 20 million. By contrast, only 11.4 million U.S. viewers tuned in to the most recent Men’s World Cup final in 2018, a tournament for which the U.S. men’s team failed to qualify.
And with ever-increasing revenue from ticket sales, the USWNT athletes are demonstrating that they have hugely marketable commercial appeal. Nike’s CEO revealed that the USWNT’s home jersey sold more units than any other soccer jersey in a single season on Nike.com – before they even appeared in the World Cup final. Budweiser is expanding its longstanding sponsorship of the USWNT to become a year-round sponsor of the National Women’s Soccer League and announcing its partnership with U.S. Soccer and Soccer United Marketing, promised “to advance women’s soccer in the United States… as we look to bring the passion for World Cup play back home to league games.”
From the Podium to Mediation to Trial
While in France pursuing the World Cup title, the USWNT tentatively agreed to mediate their dispute with USSF. Both parties appeared interested in finding an out-of-court solution, and the team’s highly-visible success on the world stage seemed to cause the USSF to move more quickly.
According to a Washington Post report, USSF officials wanted to “defer public discussion of potential mediation talks until after the World Cup” in a veiled suggestion that such discussions would become a “possible distraction from the team’s focus on the tournament and success on the field.”
But on July 29, 2019, USSF President Carlos Cordeiro issued a statement claiming that the USWNT had actually been paid more than the men’s team over the last decade. As CNBC reported, the women’s team responded that the numbers in Cordeiro’s statement were “utterly false,” which the U.S. men’s team backed up while also accusing the USSF of refusing to pay national team players a fair share of the organization’s revenue.
It was announced on August 14, 2019, that the USWNT and the USSF hit an impasse in their efforts to mediate the team’s equal pay claims, and according to a post on ESPN, the players say they “eagerly look forward to a jury trial.”
If the parties reach an out-of-court agreement, any settlement of this high profile dispute should be made public, as the outcome will significantly impact the efforts of women athletes to be fairly compensated for their work.