By Susan Carroll and Fauzeya Rahman
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) The National Women’s Soccer League has a $265,000 salary cap per team, which means a top salary of about $37,000 a year and as little as about $6,000 for some — far below minimum wage. By comparison, the two lowest-paid members of the Houston Dynamo Men’s team in the 2015 season made $50,000. When it comes to women and money in soccer, the playing field is desperately uneven.
Like most of the players on the Houston Dash, Melissa Henderson juggles a professional soccer schedule and a second job.
Henderson, a 26-year-old forward, did some broadcasting for the Dynamo last season. She also offers private group lessons for youths on the side — $60 per child for an hour.
And, like most of her teammates, she lives in Houston with a “host family” — an empty-nester couple she describes as “such great human beings.”
She feels blessed, she said, though her lifestyle is “definitely not all the luxury you picture with a professional athlete.”
The National Women’s Soccer League has a $265,000 salary cap per team, which means a top salary of about $37,000 a year and as little as about $6,000 for some — far below minimum wage.
By comparison, the two lowest-paid members of the Houston Dynamo in the 2015 season made $50,000.
The highest-paid, with contract bonuses, made more than $813,000, according to figures released by Major League Soccer.
The issue of gender pay disparity in professional sports resurfaced on Thursday when five of the most prominent players on the elite U.S. Women’s National soccer team filed a federal complaint alleging wage discrimination. The players accused the U.S. Soccer Federation of paying them a fraction of what male players typically earn. One of the players on the national team who filed the complaint — co-captain Carli Lloyd — also plays for the Dash.
“We have been quite patient over the years with the belief that the Federation would do the right thing and compensate us fairly,” Lloyd, the 2015 FIFA Women’s Player of the Year, said in a statement distributed by the New York-based lawyers representing the women.
The filing with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charges that U.S. Soccer systematically underpays the women’s team despite its profitability and winning record, which includes three World Cups and four Olympic championships.
It was filed by some of the most prominent players in the game: co-captains Lloyd and Rebecca Sauerbrunn, veteran goalkeeper Hope Solo, forward Alex Morgan and midfielder Megan Rapinoe.
Solo, who has played on the U.S. soccer team for 15 years, said in the statement that “the numbers speak for themselves.”
The men’s players “get paid more to just show up than we get paid to win major championships,” she said.
According to the filing, top female players are paid about $72,000 per year for 20 games that also carry a potential bonus of up to $1,350 per winning game. That gives them the chance to make $99,000 per year by winning all 20 games. But a male player is paid $5,000 per game regardless of whether he wins or loses. According to the filing, a top male player could lose all 20 games and earn $100,000. If he won all his games, the complaint charges, he could earn $263,000 in a year.
The pay disparity also extends to World Cup compensation and per diems, according to the complaint.
Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a lawyer and Olympic gold medalist in swimming, thinks the team’s action could have far-reaching significance, particularly in an election year when equal pay is a common topic of debate.
“I think of these pivotal moments, when sports are used as this platform to broadcast these broader issues,” said Hogshead-Makar, founder of the Jacksonville, Fla.-based sports advocacy group Champion Women. She was part of the legal team that argued for women’s games to be played on real grass, as men’s matches are, instead of artificial turf. They lost.
“The best athletes from around the world were unable to get a different playing surface,” she said.
This formal complaint has been a long time coming, in Hogshead-Makar’s opinion. For years, female soccer players have had issues with formal governing bodies, both at the national and international levels. Athletes worried a formal complaint would make them seem greedy, or not as relatable, she said.
“They were willing to take a hit in the pocketbooks in exchange for growing the women’s game,” she said. “They’ve been doing that now for 17 years.”
Who brings more revenue?
Thursday, members of the women’s team took to social media to share their message. Morgan’s Facebook post discussed the complaint as well as the team’s demands for grass-only facilities and decent travel accommodations. “We think it’s high time for employers to truly address the inequality and do not only what is fair, but what is right,” she wrote. “We decided to do this for all of the little girls across the country.”
Comments spanned the gamut of Facebook discourse, some showing support for women’s soccer (“I always favor purchasing tickets to support our women’s team”) while others made the argument that professional female athletes often don’t generate the same revenue as their male counterparts, and thus players do not deserve equal pay.
That may be true in most sports, but not for soccer.
According to the complaint, the federation’s annual report projected a combined loss for both teams of $429,929 for fiscal year 2016. But thanks to the women’s team’s success in the World Cup, the federation estimated a combined $17.7 million in profit. Women’s soccer brought in more revenue, while the women’s World Cup victory was the most-watched soccer game in American TV history.
The women’s national team is projected to bring in $17.6 million in revenue in fiscal year 2017, compared with the men’s projected revenue of $9 million. Women’s soccer is expected to see a surplus of $5.2 million, compared with a $963,523 deficit for the men’s team.
The battle over equal pay for female athletes extends to other sports, including professional tennis. Wimbledon, in 2007, became the last tournament to offer equal prize money for male and female winners.
“I think the saddest part is that we’re in 2016 right now and this is still a conversation that we’re having,” said Bianca Henninger, who plays for the Houston Dash and is on Mexico’s national team. “The fact that because of your gender, that there would be a disparity in your pay … that’s pretty shocking.”
Jeffrey Kessler, the attorney representing the U.S. soccer players, said the tenor of recent collective bargaining negotiations between the women’s players association and the foundation “created the need for the players to pursue this legal action.”
‘Sends a bad message’
In a statement, U.S. Soccer officials said they are committed to negotiating a new compensation agreement. It would take effect when the current agreement expires at the end of this year, according to the statement.
“U.S. Soccer will continue to be an advocate on the global soccer stage to influence and develop the women’s game and evolve FIFA’s compensation model,” the statement said.
Hogshead-Makar sees differences in men and women’s sports starting decades earlier, at the youth level. Softball fields are notoriously inadequate compared to more equipped baseball fields. Her 10-year-old twin daughters came to play and immediately noticed the lack of a scoreboard, among other things.
“That sends a bad message to girls, when they see blatant inequality,” she said. “To boys, it says that what they’re doing is more important.”
Henderson, who plays with the Dash, said she’s thankful that the players on the national team are taking a stand.
“We are so thankful for the league being here,” Henderson said. “I know it’s a process. I pray one day that we can get to equal pay.”
Corey Roepken and Jose de Jesus Ortiz contributed to this report.