On Wednesday, five of the biggest names in women’s soccer issued a yellow card to the United States Soccer Federation. Carli Lloyd, who scored a hat trick in Team USA’s 5-2 Women’s World Cup final defeat of Japan last summer, was joined by teammates Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Becky Sauerbrunn and Hope Solo in a complaint filed against their employer, U.S. Soccer, demanding equal pay for equal work.
What is fair? On the surface, the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) is both far more competitive on the pitch and far less compensated than its male counterpart, the U.S. Men’s National Team (USMNT). The women have won three World Cups since the event was launched in 1992, while the men have never advanced beyond the quarterfinals.
The disparity in pay is alarming: Each player on the USWNT earns $99,000 per year provided the team wins 20 “friendlies” (exhibition matches), the minimum number of matches they would play. By contrast, each men’s player would earn $263,320 for the same feat and would still earn $100,000 if the team lost all 20 games. The women receive no extra pay for playing additional matches above 20, while the men earn anywhere between $5,000 and $17,625 for each match beyond 20.
Compounding that disparity, last July’s Women’s World Cup final was the most watched soccer match—men’s or women’s—ever in the U.S., with some 25.4 million viewers. Also, the USWNT created $16 million more in revenue last year (but that was a non–World Cup year for the men). “The numbers speak for themselves,” Solo said. “We are the best in the world, have three World Cup championships, four Olympic championships, and the [men] get paid more to just show up than we get paid to win major championships.”
On the basis of all of the above, the women have an outstanding argument. The problem is that the USMNT is tethered to the World Cup, the largest global sporting event outside the Olympics, which brought in $4.8 billion in revenue in 2014. The 2015 Women’s World Cup’s numbers are not available, but it likely brought in a small fraction of that sum. Germany earned $35 million for winning the 2014 World Cup in Brazil; the U.S. earned $2 million for winning the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada.
Of course, the U.S. Soccer Federation is technically a nonprofit organization. This is not a matter of the ATP versus the WTA or the NBA versus the WNBA. For that reason, this complaint, which was filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, is intriguing. The question that Solo and her co-plaintiffs are posing is valid: Why is a nonprofit organization basing its payroll decisions not on performance but on potential revenue? And why, in a post–Title IX country, is a nonprofit discriminating between men and women at all?
At the professional level, there is no basis of comparison. Outside of the NFL, which has no distaff analogue, men’s professional soccer clubs in Europe are the world’s wealthiest sports entities. At least 10 European soccer players earn more than $14 million per year; the National Women’s Soccer League, a domestic league that was founded in 2012, permits a maximum salary for one player of $37,800.
How does this compare to the opportunities for women versus men in other sports? Let’s evaluate.
Tennis is by far the most lucrative sport for female athletes, and also the most gender-equitable. Seven of the 10 highest-earning female athletes in 2015 were members of the WTA Tour, according to Forbes magazine. Prize money is equal for men and women at all four grand-slam events—the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open—with the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club being the last to join its brethren in 2007 (contrarians will note that men play best-of-five set matches while women play best-of-three at these four events).
Tennis is also the only sport to place women on Forbes’s “World’s 100 Highest-Paid Athletes” list for 2015: Maria Sharapova placed 26th ($29.7 million) and Serena Williams 47th ($24.6 million). But Williams, the No. 1–ranked player in the world for all of 2015, actually earned 42 percent more in prize money ($11.6 million to $6.7 million) than her Russian counterpart.
Comparing Williams’s prize money to that of the top player on the ATP Tour, Novak Djokovic ($21 million), warrants a closer look than the bottom line. Both players won three grand slams, but Williams finished 53-3 on the year while Djokovic was 82-6. Dividing their prize money by their respective tour wins, Djokovic earned approximately $256,000 per victory and Williams $219,000.
Also, to a far greater degree than in any other sport, the world’s top female tennis players are rock stars. Sharapova earned $23 million in endorsements (a figure that will shrink in 2016 after a number of sponsors dropped her following her suspension for using meldonium) in 2015, according to Forbes. Only 11 male athletes earned more beyond their salaries or prize money.
In 2015, the LPGA offered a total of $61.6 million in prize money. The PGA, by contrast, awarded more than five times that ($320 million). The top purse for an LPGA major was $4.5 million, at the U.S. Women’s Open, where the winner, Chun In-gee, took home $810,000. At each of the four PGA majors, the purse was $10 million and the winner garnered a check for $1.8 million.
Last year’s leader in prize money on the LPGA Tour, Lydia Ko of New Zealand, pocketed $2.8 million. Ko’s male counterpart, Jordan Spieth, led the PGA Tour money list with $12 million. The 25th-ranked player on the PGA Tour, Daniel Berger, earned more than Ko in 2015. The 25th-ranked player on the LPGA Tour, Brittany Lang, earned $616,000 in winnings, or about one-fifth of Berger’s haul.
Here’s all you need to know about the pay disparity between the NBA and the WNBA: Last summer, Diana Taurasi, the reigning WNBA Finals MVP and a seven-time first-team All-WNBA player, took the season off. Taurasi, who earned just below the league maximum of $107,000 per season as a member of the Phoenix Mercury, was paid more than that by her Russian team, UMMC Ekaterinburg, to rest her body. Taurasi already draws a $1.5 million per season paycheck from UMMC Ekaterinburg.
Stateside, however, WNBA players are paupers next to their NBA counterparts. The league minimum in the NBA this season is $525,000. The WNBA league minimum last summer was $38,000. Yes, the WNBA regular season is 34 games, compared with the NBA’s 82-game slog, but the highest-paid player in the WNBA makes roughly one-fifth that of the lowest-paid player in the NBA. Two years ago, 52 NBA players each earned more than all of the players in the WNBA combined.
Of course, the NBA is a global entity that earned more than $5 billion last season. The WNBA, by comparison, barely breaks even. ESPN and Turner Sports pay the NBA a combined $2.6 billion annually to televise the NBA, whereas ESPN pays the WNBA $12 million annually for rights fees. That’s less than half of 1 percent of the NBA’s deal.
According to Forbes, golfer Stacy Lewis was one of the world’s 10 highest-paid female athletes in 2015, due in large part to a bounty of endorsements. Lewis, an American, finished 10th on the LPGA money list but secured $4 million in endorsement opportunities.
Then there are two female athletes who carved out their own niches in male-dominated sports. Danica Patrick has never won an IndyCar or NASCAR event run on U.S. soil in more than 200 starts (Patrick won the Indy Japan 300 in 2009), but the 34-year-old driver earned more than $13 million last year, half of which came through endorsements.
In 2015, MMA fighter Ronda Rousey made the cover of Sports Illustrated, and already this year she has hosted Saturday Night Live and appeared on the cover of a version of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. Despite losing one of her three bouts in 2015, the UFC’s female pioneer and poster girl still earned more than $6 million—also half of that in endorsements—in 2015.