The U.S. Women Won, the Men Lost, and the Equal Pay Fight Tied Them Together Again

For American soccer fans, the juxtaposition was hard to ignore: the United States women’s team winning a record fourth World Cup championship in France, its men’s counterpart falling to its bitter rival Mexico hours later in a regional championship in Chicago.

The two results Sunday were not a mere collision of games: they also highlighted a contentious battle about pay equality featuring the men’s teams and women’s teams, the different media and financial ecosystems in which they compete, and the often unequal rewards for success for male and female athletes. All of it was brought to the fore again by the women’s team’s latest world championship, and by the chants of “Equal Pay!” that serenaded the players after they won.

In recent years, that fight for pay equality has been the women’s team’s calling card. The players contend they are paid less by the United States Soccer Federation than the men — sometimes tens of thousands of dollars or more for top players in a given year — and that the situation has persisted for years even as the women’s team has collected more trophies and begun to produce more revenue than the men. U.S. Soccer has welcomed the team’s success — Sunday’s title was the team’s second in a row — even as it has challenged the players’ math, arguing that the situation is complicated by a compensation structure negotiated by each team that pays the men and women differently.

But the women’s players, who include some of the most prominent female athletes in the world, have pressed their argument in interviews and on social media and, most recently, in a gender discrimination federal court. On Sunday, bathing in the crowd’s adoration and set to cash in on bonuses of more than $250,000 each, one of their captains turned the screws again.

“I think we’re done with: Are we worth it? Should we have equal pay? Is the market the same? Yada yada,” the American midfielder Megan Rapinoe said, adding: “We — all players, every player at this World Cup — put on the most incredible show that you could ever ask for. We can’t do anything more, to impress more, to be better ambassadors, to take on more, to play better, to do anything. It’s time to move that conversation forward to the next step.”

Yet the basics of the United States team’s financial arrangement with U.S. Soccer will not change immediately, decades of inequity hardly wiped clean with a flurry of goals. The team’s collective bargaining agreement, which sets the players’ salaries and working conditions, runs through the end of 2021, and the players are explicitly forbidden from engaging in a strike over its terms. Some of U.S. Soccer’s partnerships, with Nike and with television networks like ESPN and Fox, have years to run, and since they bundle all the national teams together, assigning a value to one or another is impossible.

Still, the women’s team’s activism has produced results. U.S. Soccer agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement with its women’s players two years ago that included higher salaries, richer bonuses and improved working conditions. And other countries have followed that lead: the Netherlands, the rising power that lost to the Americans in the World Cup final, has set a goal of pay equity for its men’s and women’s teams by 2023.

Last year, FIFA doubled the prize money for this summer’s Women’s World Cup, to $30 million, and last week its president, Gianni Infantino, pledged that he would seek to double it again in time for the next edition in 2023. (The women’s total bonus pool remains a fraction of the $400 million that the 32 men’s World Cup teams — which for the first time in a generation did not include the United States — split in 2018.)

For now, the American players’ best hope to close a significant compensation gap may be to exploit their soaring profile away from the field. When the team negotiated its new contracts with U.S. Soccer in 2017, it carved out some marketing rights that in previous decades were either granted to the federation or merely left unexplored. Those have proven quite valuable.

Deals for products as diverse as T-shirts and socks, bobbleheads and toys now bring in revenue in categories where it did not previously exist. Jerseys customized with a player’s name can mean thousands of dollars in extra income alone; the entire pot can produce six figures in licensing income for a star like Rapinoe or striker Alex Morgan.

At the same time, several players have created their own side businesses to promote their brands, and a new company, REP Worldwide, was formed with the players union’s counterparts from the N.F.L. and the W.N.B.A. to find new deals. REP’s president, Steve Scebelo, estimated before the World Cup that a championship would bring the potential for at least $1 million in new licensing revenue — another five-figure income boost for each player — over the next year.

“We really believe in the value of this team,” said Becca Roux, the executive director of the women’s national team players association. “This is an opportunity to take something into a whole different echelon commercially.”

Scott Langerman, the chief executive of ACE Media, which works with the women’s team on content development and other projects, said Monday that the soccer stars and other professional athletes have for years allowed others to define opportunities for them. Victory, he said, has given the women’s team all the leverage.

“The USWNT has a unique opportunity to rebalance that system,” he said, using the internet shorthand for the team, “and to have an important voice in who they are and what they do, especially where it comes to off-field opportunities.”

Until then, the players plan to continue to make their case for more — more money, more investment, more respect — directly. Rapinoe, the free-speaking, smile-flashing, goal-scoring star, may get the first chance.

Throughout the Americans’ run in France, she had pummeled soccer’s leaders for their lack of support for the women’s game. “Disappointing” was how she labeled it. “Ridiculous.” So when she stepped onto the podium to be honored after Sunday’s victory, and FIFA’s president, Gianni Infantino, extended his hand and suggested they have “a conversation,” she was ready.

“I’d love to,” Rapinoe replied.

She had heard the “Equal Pay!” chants minutes earlier. She knew that she and her teammates were winning the public debate. That was why, she said, she had no issue with the boos raining down on the man handing over the trophy.

“A little public shame,” she said with a smirk, “never hurt anybody.”

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