Equal pay and what it means to women’s soccer

“I know that if I’d played in the [German men’s] Bundesliga for six years, I wouldn’t have any financial worries,” Nilla Fischer, former captain of VfL Wolfsburg and one of the most capped players for Sweden (with over 180 national team appearances), told Reuters. “In terms of percentages, you can’t really compare. What they maybe make in an hour, I make in a year.”

Fischer’s comments do not stray far from reality. The Netherlands’ Lieke Martens, 2017 Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) Player of the Year, plays for FC Barcelona in the Primera Iberdrola and earned a reported 2017-2018 salary of $236,000. In comparison, FC Barcelona pays Lionel Messi more than $236,000 every two and a half days.

These comments come after the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) filed a class action lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) for violating the pay discrimination provisions of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, now at the forefront of women’s soccer because of the USWNT’s triumph at the 2019 International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) Women’s World Cup. The USWNT accuses the federation of “not compensating or treating them in a manner equivalent to what the men’s team received.”

The USSF argues that the pay gap stems from the differences in revenue generated by the two different teams, as well as factors other than sex. The federation went so far as to hire two lobbyists to argue that the USWNT is not underpaid.

In fact, from 2016 to 2018, the women’s team generated $900,000 more in revenue than the men’s team. Moreover, compensation models show that, given both teams won 20 games in a row, the women’s team would be paid 89% of what the men’s team would be paid. The women’s team is also more accomplished, losing only seven games since 2016 and securing its fourth World Cup title this year. The men’s team, on the other hand, has lost five games in this year alone and failed to qualify for the last World Cup.

So far, Norway, Finland and the Netherlands have reached equal pay agreements between their men’s and women’s national teams. With the aforementioned federations already setting precedent, the USSF has no excuse to continue withholding fair compensation from the women’s team.

However, this lawsuit only scratches the surface of a much more complex and ongoing fight for equality in women’s soccer.

Inequality, by the numbers

60,739. That was the number of fans that attended the Primera Iberdrola rivalry match between Atletico Madrid and FC Barcelona in March 2019. It broke the world record for attendance at a club match in women’s soccer.

In the coming weeks, those same players, including more than 100 other players from the league, are going on an indefinite strike against the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF). The players are not asking for extortionate wage increases. They are fighting for basic employment standards: a minimum yearly salary of €16,000 ($17,862) for a 40-hour work week, maternity policies, vacation time and a regulatory framework for injury, among other things.

Mariasun Quiñones, goalkeeper for Real Sociedad and the Spanish women’s national team, explained, “I’m not a part-time player, I’m a full-time player. We can’t live on €8,000 a year. People need to know we’re not asking for crazy things, just the minimum working conditions.”

According to estimates, the agreement would cost the RFEF an additional expense of €1.6 million ($1.78 million). To put that figure into perspective, the RFEF accrued €136 million ($150 million) of revenue in the 2016-2017 season. To grant the women’s clubs the better working conditions they are asking for, it would cost the RFEF just over one percent of their estimated earnings.

This is not to say that women soccer players deserve to be paid as much as the men at club level. That is simply unrealistic. On the national level, male and female players are employed under nonprofit federations and put in the same amount of work and time, and they should be compensated by equivalent pay structures. However, club teams are businesses, and the men’s leagues attract more fans and generate more revenue, as critics of equal pay have been quick to point out.

However, the fight for equality is not solely about money. It is actually very far from the point.

In December 2017, the Norway women’s national team achieved a historic equal pay agreement, with the men’s team agreeing to take a pay cut of 550,000 kroner ($60,000). Months prior, Ada Hegerberg, Norway’s star striker and recipient of the first women’s Ballon D’Or (a prestigious award for best soccer player in the world), quit the national team. Despite the federation attaining equal pay, Hegerberg refused to return, saying more needed to be done to address and fix the unequal treatment and lack of respect at the core of her dissatisfaction while playing for her country.

That same year, the Denmark women’s national team went on strike against the Danish Football Association during World Cup qualifiers over a wage dispute following its stunning run in the 2017 UEFA European Championship. Pernille Harder, captain of the Denmark WNT and one of the best players in the world, conveyed a similar sentiment in a released statement explaining the team’s position.

“What we are demanding is only some prerequisites so we can become better football players. It’s not about becoming rich, it’s not about huge amounts of money. It’s about us not being forced to have a job, full time or part-time, or a study,” Harder said.

The 2017 Global Employment Report by the International Federation of Professional Footballers (FIFPro) found that female players earn an average of $600 per month. Combined club salaries from the top seven women’s leagues, comprised of 81 teams and 1,693 players, totaled to $43.6 million a year. To compare, Paris Saint-German forward Neymar earned $41 million in 2017. Furthermore, 64 percent of players also worked another job, and 45.7 percent of players were studying for a degree on top of playing professionally.

Most female players are not asking to be paid the same as their male counterparts. Rather, they are asking for a fair wage, as well as proper training and playing conditions — the fundamental necessities of being a professional athlete.

The importance of investment

Whenever issues of wage arise, skeptics are quick to judge the quality of the women’s game, criticizing the slowness and lack of skill as compared to the men’s game. Yes, men’s soccer is played at a faster pace and often with a higher level of skill. Nevertheless, those are not valid reasons for denying players a basic foundation to perform in their profession. Furthermore, it is unfair to directly compare women’s soccer with men’s soccer when the former has lacked sustainable investment and been historically discouraged.

A lack of money from federations, clubs and corporate sponsorships means many teams do not have sufficient training conditions including equipment, access to facilities and rehabilitation options. A lack of funding also leaves little money for marketing, meaning less revenue generated from games. Years of failure to invest in the foundation of the women’s game creates a vicious cycle that holds back the sport from reaching its potential.

The market is certainly there. A combined 1.12 billion viewers watched the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, a record audience for the competition. There, the value of investment was apparent. Seven out of the eight teams in the quarterfinals were European, evident of increasing European investment within domestic leagues and national teams.

Continued financial support, such as larger corporate sponsorships and media distribution deals, will not only further professionalization and increase awareness of women’s soccer but also provide a solid foundation for players to focus on their job at hand: the inevitable increase of the quality of the game.

Despite the steady growth of women’s soccer across the world, it has not been enough.

When the highest paid female footballer in the world (Hegerberg) earns what a male football player earns in two weeks, there is a problem. Ultimately, at the heart of the equal pay debate lies a lack of respect. If the USSF respected the USWNT, then they would compensate the players fairly. Given the statistics and proven value of long-term investment, wage disputes and fights for basic rights by female players would be given more support if people rightfully respected women’s soccer. Without financial equality, there will never be social equality.

The whole world will be watching when the USWNT lawsuit heads to trial on May 5, 2020, which will mark the end of a long, entrenched dispute against the USSF. But it is only the beginning of a worldwide movement for women’s soccer and women’s sports, as players continue fighting for the equal treatment and respect they deserve.

By Sarah Aie, Online editor-in-chief
Editorial cartoon by Justine Constantino and Joy Wang