Valuation of Women in Sport
by Betsy Ellis
On 22 February 2022, the U.S. Women's Soccer Team settled their 2019 gender discrimination lawsuit against U.S. Soccer in the amount of $24 million. This settlement provides back-pay for historical inequities in pay between the male and female athletes and also included a promise to equalize future pay, including prize money for the World Cup.
This isn't big news; it is earth-shaking, future-changing news. Our perception of how much something is worth is often relative to the price tag on it. I am not saying that increasing the team's pay is artificially inflating female athletes worth; In fact I believe quite the opposite to be true. The U.S. Women's Soccer has won four World Cup Titles out of the eight times the Women's World Cup has been held since its founding in 1991, while the men have won none during that same period. Women's US World Cup Viewership in 2019 exceeded viewership for the Men's World Cup in 2018. It is the world that has been telling female athletes that they do not have the same value as male athletes. The former US Soccer Federation President Carlos Cardeiro resigned in 2020 after in reaction to the lawsuit, the USSF stated that the women's team members “do not perform equal work requiring equal skill [and] effort” and that the “overall soccer playing ability required to compete at the senior men's national team level is materially influenced by the level of certain physical attributes such as speed and strength”. It is reasonable to say that women athletes are not currently drawing the same viewership or profits, but it is another thing all together to say that they are not as skilled.
Only days before this historic settlement for US Women's Soccer, a doping scandal rocked the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) as the IOC and the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) determined whether or not to allow Kamila Valieva to continue competing in the Olympics. Her value as an athlete representing Russia was enough that her coaches were willing to risk administering performance enhancing drugs to a minor to aid her path to victory. There was an attempt to pass the Trimetazidine in her system as an accident ingestion. However, the fact that she previously disclosed the legal use of L-Carnitine and Hypoxen, both of which are believed to improve performance when muscles are oxygen deprived, make a case of accidental ingestion less likely.
The value of a a female competing for the pride of her country is enough to warrant this type of risk, but seemingly not enough to warrant equal pay. To be fair, the IOC does not pay Olympians. The athletes are truly competing for national pride. While some countries award their athletes monetarily, others do not. US Olympians receive $37,500 per gold medal as part of “Operation Gold”. Russian athletes receive approximately $61,000 per gold medal from Russia.
Viewership of the Olympics is quite different than continued viewership and patronage of a regional sports team such as women's soccer. Olympic events are held within a several week period and TV coverage summarizes the events in a few easily consumable hours each evening while the games are under way. As an Olympic spectator, you need not follow the athletes all season long and Olympic sportscasters provide enough information that non-experts can understand scoring of unfamiliar sports.
But when it comes to regional sports teams with full season play, how many can we follow at one time? I know my attention span is usually limited to just one team, although I may follow players from across different teams for fantasy play. The amount of time we have to dedicate to following sports can affect the popularity of women's teams.
Despite this, in 2020, the National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) broke league rating records by nearly 300% with help of new deals from CBS Sports and Amazon Twitch. The NWSL averaged 383,000 viewers for its fall series match aired on CBS. Conversely, U.S. Major League Soccer in the US is carried by Fox Sports, ESPN/ABC, and Univision with 1.14 million people watching the 2021 MLS championship game. Some of the increases in viewership for both teams is likely due to more people subscribing to streaming services during COVID lockdowns. We have yet to see what post-COVID sports viewership will look like.
When I discussed the U.S. Soccer settlement with a male colleague, he seemed to be under the impression that even if only earning a third of the men's team, the U.S. Women's Soccer Team players must surely be rich. A Washington Post Interview of Kristen Hamilton in August 2021 reported her salary as $30,000 per year, and the maximum salary a National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) could earn at the time to be $52,5000 per year, a modest salary indeed. FIFA awarded $400 million in prize money for the men's teams competing in the 2018 World Cup Competition. In comparison, FIFA awarded $30 million for the women's teams competing in the 2019 World Cup Competition.
Both the men's and women's soccer leagues have separate unions to represent them and separate collective bargaining agreements (CBA) with the US Soccer Federation. Neither is obligated to agree to a single pay structure. The U.S. Women's team has an extension of their current CBA that expires in March. Only time will tell if the newly negotiated agreement will put an equal pay structure into place, but the voices of women athletes demanding their value to be recognized has been heard.
In summary, I believe it is incumbent on women to support women in sport. In 2022, I am pledging my intent to increase my viewership and patronage of women's sports teams. Women's soccer is every bit as exciting as men's soccer, particularly when the US has such a skilled and successful team. But there is more to be learned here; the U.S. Women's Soccer Team is showing us that we can receive what we are worth if we keep standing up for ourselves.
AP. U.S. Soccer: No-single pay structure yet for men's, women's teams. 11 January 2022
Das, Andrew. U.S. Soccer and Women's Players Agree to Settle Equal Pay Lawsuit. New York Times. 22 February 2022.
Gao, Michelle. Women's soccer set viewership records in 2020 – now it needs to keep them watching. CNBC. 13 December 2020.
Montgomery, Hanako. Why Would a 15-Year-Old Star Figure Skater take Heart Medicine? Vice News. 17 Feb 2022