The so-called 'wage gap' doesn't apply to the women's soccer team

A handful of Democratic presidential hopefuls used the latest U.S. Women’s Soccer World Cup victory (a 2-0 win over the Netherlands on Sunday) to emphasize the issue of equal pay. The U.S. Women’s Team is far more successful on the field, now having won their fourth World Cup title, than the U.S. Men’s Team, who’ve never won. But the women are not paid as much as the men.

In a lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation, women players have alleged that they are paid only 38 percent of what their male counterparts are paid. Out of context, this sounds like outrageous unfairness that all Americans should oppose.

But just like the so-called wage gap between men and women in the broader economy, it’s not the offense that it’s made out to be. There’s a lot more to the difference in pay than the top-line facts and figures. 

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First of all, unlike opposite-sex workers in most other industries, male and female athletes are not interchangeable. If they were, Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan and other stars of the women’s team could protest their pay by going to work for the men’s team. But they can’t, because the U.S. Soccer Federation employs both teams. From an economic perspective, men’s and women’s soccer are best understood as two different sports with different labor markets. 

Even so, many Americans balk at this explanation. After all, the rules of women’s and men’s soccer are the same; players train and play with the same passion and work ethic, regardless of their sex, and in the case of the American teams, the women do a lot more winning on the world stage. 

This is in part because of the investment that the U.S. Soccer Federation has made in the women’s sport, despite the fact that women’s professional clubs (in the National Women’s Soccer League) do not bring in much revenue compared to men’s clubs. 

But revenue is a different story now between the national teams: Since 2015 (when the U.S. Women’s Team won the World Cup for the third time), the women’s team has generated more total revenue than the men’s team. Prior to 2015, it was the men’s team that brought in more money for U.S. Soccer, but now that things have changed, it’s perfectly reasonable for the women’s team to negotiate for pay that reflects their increased market value. 

But there’s another challenge in comparing the earnings of men and women players: They face different pay structures. The collective bargaining agreement for the women’s team provides for (guaranteed) salary-based pay. The men’s team earns bonus-based pay or “pay-for-play,” which is less steady and means the men don’t get paid anything if they don’t make the roster. 

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But the biggest “pay gap” in soccer is really a “prize gap” at the international level. The Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) provides $400 million in prize money for the men’s World Cup and only $30 million for the women’s. 

Sadly, some other parts of the world simply don’t smile on women athletes like we do in America, and the result, as fans witnessed in a first-round game in this year’s World Cup, is that the U.S. women can pound a team like Thailand into a pulp, defeating them 13-0

Should American women soccer players be punished for this? Does the U.S. Soccer Federation have an obligation to “correct” the inequities perpetuated by international market forces? The attorney for the U.S. Women’s Team says yes, but it’s hard to imagine how this would be done without redistributing prize money away from the men’s team, even though their World Cup is played under different circumstances, facing different competition, even in different years. 

Regardless of how the lawsuit plays out (which is now in mediation), the U.S. Women’s Team has undeniably advanced the cause of girls’ sports simply through their success on the field. The popularity of their progressive and outspoken players is evidence that, despite our faults, the U.S. is generally a tolerant and pro-woman nation. The growing following and fan support for the U.S. Women’s Team is a symptom of a culture that admires and supports women, even in non-traditional roles. 

At the end of the day, although female athletes might be frustrated at the slow pace of change, it’s ultimately most beneficial to women that we recognize the important differences between men’s and women’s sports. Men’s natural physical advantages may often help them attract a bigger fan base, but they also make it necessary to maintain sex-separated sports leagues in order for women to have fair opportunities to compete. 

While we ought to do our best to ensure equality for everyone, we should also keep in mind that pay gaps aren’t the pure result of discrimination, especially in sports.  

Hadley Heath Manning is the policy director and health-care policy analyst for Independent Women’s Forum.