Today is the first day that the US men and the US women’s soccer teams will earn the same wages for performance on the field. The US women’s team has won four World Cup gold medals and four Olympic medals. In 1930, the US men had their best result in World Cup play, finishing third.
While it’s perfectly appropriate to celebrate a moment when equity prevails, it is also fitting to pause and look at the enormous efforts that were put in place to prevent this from happening.
US Soccer made legal arguments that said men’s soccer was objectively better than the women’s version. The organization, a non-profit, also argued that because FIFA didn’t value the women’s game, that it couldn’t pay the women’s team more.
These bad-faith points were made despite the fact that the US women are the more successful product, regularly vying for a World Cup gold medal while the American men have struggled to make it to the tournament. These arguments were made when women’s games drew higher television ratings, when the athletes who play for the women’s team became household names. There are generations of them; Mia, Julie, Brandi, Briana, Kristine, Hope, Carli, Abby, Megan… the list goes on and on.
There is one group US Soccer showed it was willing to pay during this decades long disagreement: The lawyers.
US Soccer bungled so many opportunities for the women by focusing on the men’s team. A bizarrely low initial order for team jerseys caused the manufacturer to run out of the item earlier into the 2019 World Cup run. It was framed as a feel-good story about how popular the team was, rather than an economic story about leaving money on the table in the women’s sports space. Again.
In the end, men’s soccer had to agree to restructure their own deal to make this happen. And before we go all hero-dad-babysits-own-children on them, we should acknowledge how difficult it is for people who benefit from inequality to even recognize that. Whether it is due to race, gender, social class or any other reason, people are much more likely to think they earned what they got by pulling up some mythical bootstraps than to acknowledge the inequity baked into these systems.
But the women’s team and their fans made this one hard to ignore. There were the crowds at the World Cup games in France chanting for equal pay. There were the girls and boys lining Broadway to cheer for the 4th World Cup win and acknowledge that it brought glory, but not the actual wealth that a men’s win would bring. If the men’s team ever gets close to winning one.
So let’s take a day and celebrate that hard work pays off sometimes. It is possible to upend systems designed to keep a group from reaching the value that they have earned. But let’s also take some time to recognize that women in the sports space face an uphill battle across the board with broadcasters, sponsors, and traditional sports media outlets.
According to a USC/Purdue study, in 2019 ESPN’s SportsCenter devoted just 5.7 percent of its time to women’s sports news and highlights. And this number is inflated by the fact that 2019 was the Women’s World Cup year.
On Monday I attended a TedXBoston event around women’s sports and the 50th anniversary of Title IX this June. Just Women’s Sports CEO Haley Rosen cited this statistic in her talk, and my former colleague Kate Fagan discussed the sensation that pedestrianist Ada Anderson caused in 1878 when she walked 2,700 quarter miles in 2,700 quarter hours. They upped the tickets from 25 cents to 50 cents because the event was so popular.
Gertrude Ederle swam the English Channel in 1926 and got a ticker-tape parade up the Canyon of Heroes.
Women’s sports have always been compelling. It’s a choice not to cover them, or to pay them. And after World War II, a hardening of gender boundaries made it hard for women to even play sports until the passage of Title IX in 1972.
And there are plenty of people who preferred sports without women, and often those were the people negotiating the contracts and short-changing women on marketing deals. The attitude has been baked into contracts for decades. It’s a legacy that the women today have to deal with and, in rare cases, can overcome.
Like the women who play soccer. Here’s to their competitive spirit, on the field as represented by all those trophies and medals, and off of it, which will now be tangible in the paychecks they earn.