Issues + Advocacy

Score! An Exhaustive History of Pay Gap Wins Brought to You by the US Women’s National Soccer Team

With four World Cup victories, the U.S. women’s national soccer team has had a lot of wins on the field. But this year, in addition to bringing home the trophy, they’ve scored huge wins in the fight for equal pay. Since the World Cup began, the news over the team’s pay gap difference in comparison to the men’s team has gained more prominence. As the team took its victory lap in Stade de Lyon in Lyon, France, the chants in the crowd went beyond the usual, “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” This time, audience members chanted, “Equal pay! Equal pay!”

The public awareness alone is a huge win for pay gap visibility. They made the news for their fight for equal pay, suing U.S. Soccer to make salaries and other compensation match their far less successful male counterparts. Though the team has never won a World Cup (or come close), the U.S. men’s national soccer team is paid more. Here’s a look at the struggles and pay gap wins scored by the U.S. women’s national soccer team.

Gender Pay Gap Facts

According to the American Association of University Women (AAUW), women make 80 cents to the male dollar for equal work, turning a $52,146 salary earned by men into $41,997 for women. Measuring equal work and equal time, women still make less than their male counterparts. 

To understand just how meaningful it is that the U.S. women’s national soccer team doesn’t get paid equally is to understand how dominant they are when compared to the men’s team. 

How did the U.S. women’s soccer team become so dominant? It took almost 50 years, but now the team is the apex of excellence.

The Passage of Title IX in 1972

The statute was passed in 1972 by Richard Nixon’s administration. “Title IX protects people from discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive Federal financial assistance.” Title IX states that: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

In plain English: after the passage, sports programs for girls and women in all levels of schooling, from kindergarten through college, began to flourish. Schools had to give monies that were proportional to participation in the sport. Girls and women’s teams were required to have resources similar to the boys’ and men’s teams: equipment and supplies, travel per diems, tutoring and coaching, medical and training services, as well as housing and dining facilities. It was a groundbreaking statute that forced schools to do more than pay lip service to women’s sports. The benefits of the statute weren’t immediately apparent, but now decades later, there are legions of female athletes who were able to train in a sport because of the passage of Title IX.

In 1971, there were only 700 high school female soccer players; by 2014, there were nearly 376,000.

USWNT: “A quadrennial” phenomenon”

From 1986 to 2019, the USWNT has won four World Cups and four Olympic gold medals (1996, 2004, 2008, 2012). Their dominance as a team is unparalleled in not just women’s soccer, but perhaps any sport.

  • 1991 World Cup Victory: For men, the World Cup began in 1930. But women didn’t get on the world stage until 1991. The USWNT won the inaugural women’s World Cup, and never looked back. Since then, wrote the New York Times, “The women’s team has provided the type of repeated success that has remained elusive for the American men.”
  • 1999 World Cup Victory: If you saw it, you remember it: Brandi Chastain scoring the last goal during penalty kicks against China, and running into the field ripping her jersey off in victory. It made her—and women’s soccer—a household name. It included the so called “Fab Five”— Mia Hamm, Joy Fawcett, Kristine Lilly, Julie Foudy and Chastain.

The 2015 World Cup victory and the “turf” wars

After a couple of cycles spent on the outside looking in (finishing in second and third place), the team was back on top, defeating Japan in Vancouver. But it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. This was the first year the murmurs of inequality with the U.S. women’s national soccer team and the pay gap and other disparities began to surface publicly. 

Ahead of the World Cup, the USWNT registered complaints about the playing surface with Canadian Soccer Association, and FIFA, the international governing body for soccer. Led by Abby Wambach, several players from other teams sued the entities via the Canadian court system.  While the men’s teams play on grass, which is considered superior because it is safer and less rough on bodies, the women played on artificial turf, which can lead to a higher number of injuries. 

It wasn’t only the U.S. women who complained about the turf, which is a combination of rubber and plastic and often has artificial pellets, made of soft plastic, crumb rubber (culled from tires) or silica sand. At the 2015 Cup, Norwegian midfielder Lene Mykjåland also pointed out that the turf was terrible. It was short and dry and insufficiently watered—using fire hoses vs. sprinklers. Because it is plastic and rubber, artificial turf can get much hotter than natural grass. During the 2015 tournament, the turf reached 120 degrees during a 75 degree day. And artificial turf can often have uneven surfaces, as Hope Solo showed in a photo she tweeted:

It was an issue that Sydney Leroux Dwyer had raised as early as 2013 when she tweeted a photo of her bruised and bloodied legs after practice:

“This why soccer should be played on grass!”

Wambach and the other players dropped the suit before the games, in part because some of the players felt political repercussions, their roles on their respective teams threatened. But it did achieve a small victory on the field, and some publicity off the field.

“The players’ united, international effort to protest discrimination has had a positive impact,” noted the group’s lawyer, Hampton Dellinger. “The deplorable artificial surface at BC Place, the site of the final, will be replaced. Goal-line technology will be used for the first time in a women’s World Cup and we know that the 2019 World Cup will be held on grass.”

Score one for the US women’s national soccer team: It was another win in the equality battle.

2016: The USWNT battle for equal pay 

Building on the turf wars, in 2016, star soccer players Carli Lloyd, Hope Solo, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Becky Sauerbrunn filed a complaint against United States Soccer Federation with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Their “Equal Play, Equal Pay” campaign was meant to highlight the wage gap.

”I think that we’ve proven our worth over the years. Just coming off of a World Cup win, the pay disparity between the men and women is just too large,” Carli Lloyd told NBC’s Today Show.

Their attorney Jeffrey Kessler told NPR: “We believe we have a very strong case of blatant gender discrimination and that the EEOC will agree.”

Among the main highlights in the complaint: 

  • The team’s viewership numbers were on par with the World Series in 2016.
  • Despite the mediocre performance of the men’s team (after finishing 3rd in the first World Cup in 1930, they haven’t finished higher than quarterfinals in modern times —in 2002), the men were still paid more than the women, with the women’s team earning as little as 40 percent of the men’s pay.
  • Perks and amenities were not the same: men flew first class; women flew coach.

“The numbers speak for themselves,” goalkeeper Hope Solo told the New York Times. “We are the best in the world, have three World Cup championships, four Olympic championships.”She said that the men “get paid more to just show up than we get paid to win major championships.”

The pay disparity was alarming, but also, in part, a problem of their own making. In 2005 and 2013, the women’s team had negotiated a salary instead of a per-game-payment structure like the men had. The salary was $72,000 annually with $1350 paid per win. So for women to make more money, they had to win more. 

Men were already paid more per game; winning was just the icing on the cake. As a 60 Minutes report explained, star goalie Hope Solo took home $355K by playing in 23 games, and Tim Howard—the goalie who became famous for his stand against the Belgium team during the 2014 World Cup with 16 saves—was paid $398,000 for only eight games.

Insult kept being added to injury. 60 Minutes reported that FIFA paid the women less than their male World Cup champ counterparts: $2 million for their win, to the German men’s team’s $35 million.

Becky Sauerbrunn told 60 Minutes about equal pay: “It’s the fight, you know? I mean, we have been in some—some major—some major battles on the field but this is—this could be the fight that we are a part of.”

There was still a long way to go but just raising public awareness was a huge win for the U.S. women’s soccer team in the equal pay gap fight.

2016: U.S. women’s soccer team threatens to strike for equal pay

Prior to the Rio Olympics, the USWNT were threatening to strike over the pay gap. U.S. Soccer brought a lawsuit to prevent a strike from happening. But a Chicago court ruled that it would go against the contract which included a no-strike clause.

“The court’s ruling today does not negate the fact that U.S. Soccer does not fairly compensate the women’s national team, or in any way impact the players’ demands for equal pay for equal work,” said Rich Nichols, attorney for the players’ union.

2017: A win in the pay gap fight: More money, better treatment

In 2017, the team reached a new deal with U.S. Soccer that would last through 2021, covering the 2019 World Cup and the 2020 Olympics. The agreement included increases in base pay and match bonuses, as well as fairer travel allotments and per diems. Salaries shot up more than double—some players stood to makes $200,000 to $300,000. Additionally, they’d have some say about the fields they’d be playing on, and they’d have maternal and pregnancy support.

Megan Rapinoe stated: “I am incredibly proud of this team and the commitment we have shown through this entire process. While I think there is still much progress to be made for us and for women more broadly, I think the team should be very proud of this deal and feel empowered moving forward.”

It was a big win for the USWNT in the equal pay gap fight. But they still weren’t equal to the men’s team in all aspects of equal pay. There was still, the New York Times noted, “an eight-figure gap in FIFA bonus payouts.”

2018: U.S. women’s soccer’s win in pay gap fight inspires the U.S. women’s hockey team

The U.S. women’s hockey team launched its own equality battle before they won the Olympic gold medal at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. The team negotiated for  more than 12 months, saying they would hold out of the 2017 International Ice Hockey Federation World Championship. They too, were looking for equal treatment (such as travel and per diems) comparable to their male counterparts. Though they weren’t asking for equal pay—an impossible goal given most of their male counterparts were paid by pro NHL teams—they did receive a salary boost, in part because the NHL paid to cover them for the four-year contract.

U.S. hockey player and Olympic gold medalist Kendall Coyne Schofield told Sports Illustrated that the U.S. women’s soccer team “continuously set the market for women all over the world. They are the epitome of trailblazers in a team-sport setting.”

2019: USWNT sue for equal pay and make international headlines

On March 8, International Women’s Day, the U.S. women’s soccer team announced it was suing the U.S. Soccer Federation in federal court. The EEOC failed to resolve the dispute, which meant they could sue. The coalition of players had expanded over the years to 28 team members, and the suit now had class-action status. 

They said in a statement: “Despite gains achieved by the 2017 collective bargaining agreement between the USWNT players association and the USSF, the USSF’s ongoing policies and practices of systemic gender discrimination also extend beyond pay and into nearly every aspect of players’ work conditions. This includes playing, training, and travel conditions; promotion of games; staffing including coaching, medical personnel and training, and operations; support and development for games and other terms and conditions of employment that are less favorable for female players than their male counterparts.”

2019: The U.S. women’s national soccer team score in pay gap fight with LUNA Bar’s six-figure donation

Among the disparities that still existed in the US Women’s Soccer Team pay gap: a $31,250 per player bonus for making the World Cup. The team at Luna Bar decided to close it by donating $718,000 to the team, to their shock and awe. They made the announcement on Equal Pay Day.

2019: New Equal Pay legislation introduced by Chuck Schumer

Before the tournament kicked off, U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer called on Mitch McConnell to pass Pay Equity Legislation during his floor remarks. Though unlikely, the senator hailed the victory of team. “This is an issue of basic fairness. Performances aside—and the women have been excellent and often dominant over the past two decades—we shouldn’t reward women less for doing the same work as men,” he said. “And right now, the Senate could take a meaningful step to support the women’s international team by passing legislation that aims to end gender-based wage discrimination. The House passed a paycheck fairness bill months ago—it’s languished here in the Senate, in Leader McConnell’s legislative graveyard. Bill after bill after bill comes from the House, has the support of a large percentage of Americans, gets Republican support in the House—Leader McConnell just lets them lay there. Another tombstone in the graveyard.”

2019: The U.S. women’s national soccer team win the World Cup

After years of training, they win the big game, with the all the world a stage. The USWNT defeated the Netherlands 2-1. But equally amazing were the chants that came from the crowd of “Equal Pay! Equal Pay!”

2019: A media blitz begins: the pay gap disparity makes headlines

Now that they have the world’s attention, members of the team make the press rounds: On CNN, a segment highlights the “true fight for equality,” and talks about the lawsuit for equal pay. And Rapinoe appears on Anderson Cooper’s show to discuss the win and the pay gap. 

“I think we knew that this win … was going to be bigger than soccer. But that moment, I think, just solidified everything,” she told Cooper. “It was like this World Cup win is so much more than what was on the field.”

2019: Snoop Dogg calls for equal pay for U.S. women’s soccer

Perhaps, most importantly, the rapper and cannabis connoisseur Snoop Dogg called for equal pay. “Man, pay them ladies, man! Pay them girls what they worth! The women should be getting $500,000 per athlete. Snoop Dogg says so!” he said in a video.

2019: U.S. women’s soccer scores an invite from Chuck Schumer to visit Washington

A day after their victory, Senator Chuck Schumer invited the team to visit the nation’s capital and introduced legislation on the floor. “I’m looking forward to scheduling a time when these inspiring women can come to the nation’s capital,” he said.

2019: A victory celebration in New York City for the world champions

New York City held a ticker tape parade for the team, with speeches from Mayor Bill DeBlasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo. Carlos Corderio, head of U.S. Soccer was there, too, and in recent days there seems to have been more a conciliatory relationship.

“We believe at U.S. Soccer that all female athletes deserve fair and equitable play,” Carlos Cordeiro said. “And together, I believe we can get this done. Because as this team has taught us, being the greatest isn’t just about how you play on the field, it’s about what you stand for off the field. It’s about who we are as a sport and as a country.”

At the end of the parade, the incomparable Megan Rapinoe gave a speech. She said: “We have to be better. We have to love more, hate less. We got to listen more and talk less. We got to know that this is everybody’s responsibility.

Every single person here, every single person who’s not here, every single person who doesn’t want to be here. Every single person who agrees and doesn’t agree.

It’s our responsibility to make this world a better place.”

Still more wins to score for equal pay

With the lawsuit against U.S. Soccer still pending, the U.S. women’s national soccer team still has more wins to score in the wage gap fight. But their actions so far have raised visibility for the wage gap fight and brought the problem to world attention, and that’s a huge win!