Claudio Pasquazi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images (Williams); Julian Finney/Getty Images (Djokovic)

Equal Pay for Equal Play?

As women’s sports become more popular, female athletes are demanding to be paid like their male counterparts

The stadium was in Canada, but the crowd chanted “U-S-A! U-S-A!” The U.S. women’s soccer team had just defeated Japan to win the 2015 World Cup—the team’s third—and midfielder Carli Lloyd embraced teammates Hope Solo, Megan Rapinoe, and Abby Wambach. The four players pumped their fists in the air as confetti rained down on the field. Back home, an estimated 27 million Americans tuned in, making it the most-watched soccer match in U.S. history. 

Yet if the four women had pooled the $75,000 they each received from the U.S. Soccer Federation for winning, it still wouldn’t equal the roughly $400,000 each member of the men’s team would have made if his team had won the same tournament. Because of that pay disparity, Lloyd, Rapinoe, Solo, and two other teammates filed a complaint with the federal government last spring. It accused the U.S. Soccer Federation of wage discrimination for paying women less than men, despite equal work—and more success—from the women. 

The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images

The U.S. women’s soccer team celebrates its World Cup win in 2015.

“When we started to see the men’s contracts and saw the differences in pay it really opened our eyes,” says Lloyd, a captain of the women’s team. “When you do the comparisons, it’s alarming.” 

If the complaint is successful, it could result in the women receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in back pay, and the federation could be forced to pay both teams equally. The U.S. Soccer Federation declined to comment while the complaint is under review.

The Gender Pay Gap

Gender-based wage differences are nothing new in the United States. U.S. Census Bureau statistics show median earnings for full-time female workers nationwide are 79 percent of what their male counterparts earn. The issue came up during the presidential election, with Hillary Clinton arguing that equal pay was “long overdue.” (President-elect Donald Trump has said he supported equal pay, with some qualification: “You’re gonna make the same if you do as good a job.”)

According to experts, gender pay differences are partly a result of how America’s workforce has evolved, both on and off the playing field. 

“Historically, we’ve had a male-dominated workforce,” says Angela Lumpkin, professor of sport management at Texas Tech University. “They got there first and established their salaries.”

Lloyd and her teammates allege they have it much worse than female workers in general, earning just 40 percent of what the male soccer players are paid. 

The fight for women’s equality in sports accelerated after Congress passed the 1972 Education Amendments, including what’s known as Title IX. It prohibits gender discrimination in schools receiving federal aid and has led to explosive growth in female participation in sports. 

A year later, Billie Jean King started the Women’s Tennis Association, the first viable women’s pro sports league.

Heated Arguments 

Today, men and women are compensated more equally in tennis than in any other major sport, but the annual prize money paid to the top 100 earners on the men’s and women’s tours still roughly mirrors the pay difference in most American workplaces. In last year’s Western & Southern Open in Mason, Ohio, for example, Roger Federer earned $731,000 for winning, while Serena Williams received $495,000—68 percent of Federer’s prize—for her victory the same day.   

That has led to some heated arguments. Last spring, Raymond Moore, the director of the BNP Paribas Open tournament in California, publicly challenged the notion of equal pay. He argued that women shouldn’t get equal money because they don’t bring in as much revenue for the sport. (Revenue is the overall money generated by a business.)

“If I was a lady player, I’d go down every night on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal were born, because they have carried this sport,” said Moore. 

Serena Williams, one of the world’s most popular athletes, responded to Moore, who later resigned as tournament director. “We, as women, have come a long way,” she said. “We shouldn’t have to drop to our knees at any point.”

Other pro sports have even greater pay discrepancies—but also huge gaps in terms of how much revenue the athletes bring in. The average base salary in the NBA last year was $5.8 million, compared with $77,000 in the WNBA, the women’s pro basketball league. The NBA’s revenue last year was $5.18 billion. The WNBA, which played its 20th season this year, doesn’t release its finances, but estimates put its revenue at about $35 million.

In the case of U.S. soccer, however, it’s the women who have more fans. The federation’s financial estimates for 2017 project the women’s team will generate about $9 million more than the men’s team.  

“The facts are out there; we’re generating money,” says Lloyd. “And now we’re fighting for what’s right, and that’s equal pay and opportunity.” 

“We’ve been successful,” she adds, “and we have leverage now. It’s about helping the next generation of female athletes.”

A Tale of Two Leagues

Juan Ocampo/NBAE/Getty Images (Candace Parker); Michael J. LeBrecht II/NBAE/Getty Images (Lebron James)

WNBA star Candace Parker (left) earns the league maximum of $111,500 per year. NBA star LeBron James (right) makes $31 million annually. The NBA generates billions more per year than the WNBA.

videos (1)
Skills Sheets (1)