Weeks after the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team (USWNT) made history by winning its fourth FIFA World Cup – and in the process smashing global television ratings for the sport – throngs of adoring fans continue to laud the players daily on news programs and social media.
But despite world dominance, the female athletes are still paid only a fraction of what their male counterparts earn. Why?
UNLV's Nancy Lough may have answers. Lough, a College of Education professor who has studied marketing, sponsorship, and gender equity in women’s sports since the 1990s, is a longtime Title IX consultant and author of the new “Routledge Handbook of the Business of Women's Sport.”
Here, Lough examines the nuances of the USWNT’s gender-based pay-discrimination lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF), the sports history leading up to it, and the role that media, men, and other athletes might play in the future of women’s sports.
First some background: Why aren’t male and female soccer players paid the same?
The USWNT generates more money for the USSF, attains higher television ratings, and has a much bigger and more passionate fan base than the men’s national team. However, the USWNT players earn 38% of what the U.S. men’s national team earns, despite being the best team in the world and the men’s national team not even qualifying for the FIFA World Cup in 2018.
Historically, the argument against paying women equal to the men was that they did not generate revenue, no one followed or watched them, and in essence no one was interested in women’s soccer. This has been a false narrative used repeatedly for decades – since 1999, when the USWNT broke through on the world stage with a dramatic World Cup win as the host nation.
In reality, the 2019 Women’s World Cup final generated 20% more viewers than the 2018 men’s FIFA World Cup final – a direct contradiction to the arguments made to justify the pay disparity.
Speaking of high viewership and media coverage, how does the fandom generated by the USWNT’s win help strengthen their case for equal pay and translate to sponsorship dollars?
Women receive 4% of all media coverage allocated to all sports, which translates to 96% for men’s sports. The way that sports sponsorships are sold and measured is based on media metrics like cost-per-impression and audience size/viewership. So, if media neglect women’s sports — which they have done for decades and continue to do — then the value for sponsors is diminished. In essence, media coverage builds audiences, followings, and fans. So when media members say no one is interested in women’s sports, what they truly are saying is no one among them — mostly men in sports media — is interested in covering it.
The 14.3 million viewers on Fox alone for the Women’s World Cup final should be yet another piece of evidence that there is interest in women’s sports, and that these athletes are assets who can be marketed to consumers and fans in meaningful ways to connect with a demographic that has been difficult to reach.
Could you address the misconception that only women are interested in women’s sports?
A recent study that was global in scope showed the fan base for women’s sports — this includes basketball, tennis, golf, and soccer — is comprised of 51% males and 49% females. Additionally, 84% of sports fans overall identify as fans of women’s sports. They span a wide range of ages, races, and socio-economic backgrounds. In essence, I see women’s sports and women athletes as providing a unique value proposition — one that has been ignored for decades.
Historically, even female fans haven’t been taken seriously. Women are interested in women’s sports and mainstream sports (NFL, MLB, NHL). But the sports industry is dominated by men in decision making roles, including media, marketing, management, governance, and coaching. The result is that women’s voices are not present, not represented, and not considered. It was only recently that the NFL began to realize the revenue potential available by making merchandise for women fans. In essence, men still struggle with knowing how to communicate with women and knowing what women value. So as long as men control the industry, this issue will continue to exist.
What is the difference between equal and equitable pay?
After the Women’s World Cup semi-finals, FIFA announced they will double the women’s prize money from $30 million in 2019 to $60 million in 2023, despite the fact the men will be given $440 million in their next World Cup. So, equitable (by FIFA standards) is far from equal.
Is gender-pay discrimination an issue in other women’s sports?
Pay disparities by gender are consistent across many countries. This is not unique to the United States. It is also present in other professional sports including basketball, hockey, and golf.
For example, the WNBA players earn roughly 20% of the revenue they generate while the NBA players attain more than 50% of the revenue they generate. Because of the low pay and shortened season in the WNBA, the majority of the women also play overseas, where they routinely are paid far better than in the U.S. In fact, Dianna Taurasi created controversy when she opted to skip the WNBA 2015 season while earning well over the equivalent of $1 million playing in Russia.
Golf is another sport where the pay disparity from tournament earnings is extreme, and the women’s professional hockey league suspended operations in 2019 because of low pay.
In tennis, the major tournament sponsors and organizers have addressed the issue and made it a point to pay equally. Few people know that Venus Williams was instrumental in attaining equal pay for women at Wimbledon, as recently as 2007.
What has been the public’s reaction to the USWNT’s lawsuit? And what role do other athletes, celebrities, and the media play in helping to address the wage gap?
The public is supportive of the USWNT, and increasingly vocal about it. The fans were chanting “equal pay” at the conclusion of the championship match. And many celebrities have supported the USWNT in the fight for equal pay — notably Billie Jean King, Aaron Rodgers, and Snoop Dogg. Now, several sponsors have stepped up to make up the pay differential, including Luna Bar, Secret deodorant company, and Budweiser.
Male allies are needed! Women have benefited from key male allies who channel their power and influence toward gender equity. Indiana Senator Birch Bayh was considered the father of Title IX. When NBA players attend WNBA games and voice their support for the WNBA players, many more people pay attention. High-profile male tennis player Andy Murray has been a vocal advocate for women athletes because his opinion is valued as a former No. 1 ranked tennis player in the world.
Men also have a key role as decision makers who hire women, pay women equally, and can challenge gender bias in the sports industry.
How does the Las Vegas sports scene — and specifically the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces — fit into this larger controversy?
The Aces have been active on social media drawing attention to their low pay. A’ja Wilson in particular seems skilled at drawing attention to the pay issue while keeping some humor in play, and actively confronting the trolls that inevitably attack women athletes and women’s sports. The issue is likely to surface during the upcoming WNBA All-Star game in Vegas hosted by the Aces.
What implications would a legal victory by the USWNT have on other sports?
The USWNT has agreed to mediation with the USSF, but I have no doubt that they will keep fighting for pay equality. I believe the visibility of their lawsuit has raised a consciousness among all sports governing bodies, and hopefully among all employers. Pay discrimination on the basis of sex is illegal, yet it continues. As more awareness is generated, and as more women are willing to fight for equality, we will see more progress.