How U.S. Soccer and Its Players Solved the Equal Pay Puzzle

The new collective bargaining agreements approved this week by the United States Soccer Federation and its men’s and women’s national teams will, at last, bring an end to a decades-long, emotionally exhausting and wildly expensive fight over equal pay.

For the first time, the women’s team, which has won the last two Women’s World Cups and four overall, will be paid at the same rate for game appearances and tournament victories as the men’s team, which has historically (and persistently) failed to even sniff that kind of success.

The new contracts also include an unprecedented redistribution of the millions of dollars in World Cup prize money the men’s and women’s teams can earn by playing in the tournament every four years, and they introduce new revenue-sharing agreements that could see the players receive millions more from their cut of U.S. Soccer’s commercial revenues each year.

What do the changes look like, both in practice and in dollars? Read on.

What do they mean by equal pay?

Under the new contracts, men and women will for the first time be paid at the same rate for representing the United States in international soccer matches and tournaments.

This is a first for U.S. Soccer but not for women’s soccer; teams from Norway and Australia have signed and trumpeted equal pay deals for match payments, though none address their teams’ total compensation gap. It is the amounts of money involved in the U.S. Soccer deal, and the sources of it, that make this a groundbreaking moment.

How are the national teams paid?

Payments to the players — stars like Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie on the men’s side, and Rose Lavelle and Christen Press on the women’s team — come in several forms.

The bulk of the money in most years is through so-called match fees: Each player called in to play for a national team receives an appearance fee (for being called in) and a performance bonus (extra money awarded for a win or a tie; teams get nothing extra if they lose). In years with major tournaments, those payments are supplemented by prize money for appearing in major championships like the World Cup.

In the past, those match payments were different for men and women, the result of a structure in which women — who make far less from playing with their club teams — accepted smaller camp fees and bonuses in exchange for guaranteed annual salaries from U.S. Soccer. The men, meanwhile, were on a strict pay-for-play model: If you got called up to the national team, you would receive a (higher) bonus. If you didn’t, you got nothing.

World Cup money? The men received multiple times more even if, as the women regularly noted, the women won championships and the men struggled to make it out of the first round.

The problem with different pay structures, of course, was that they led to different payments. And the men almost always wound up with more.

So what has changed?

The new contracts announced this week will end the women’s guaranteed-salary system and put both senior teams on the pay-for-play model.

The decision to pursue guaranteed salaries had always been a strategic calculation by the women: While the men traditionally earn the bulk of their income from their club salaries, the nascent women’s professional game — far behind in its development — offered much lower salaries, even to its stars. Guaranteed incomes from U.S. Soccer, then, offered the security of a consistent wage, and ensured that a female player who got injured, or pregnant, wouldn’t lose her house or her car.

Switching to the pay-for-play model carries some risk for some women: A player who falls out of favor, and off the U.S. Soccer payroll, could tumble out of the sport without a consistent income beyond her club salary. But for the top players — who now earn bigger salaries from their club teams — the prospect of higher match payments, shared World Cup payouts with the men and revenue-sharing splits with U.S. Soccer was clearly worth it.

What kind of money are we talking about?

Under the terms of the new deals, which run through 2028, both men and women will receive $8,000 just for being called into a camp for most games, and a $10,000 bonus for each one they win. For the women, that means a doubling of match fees, for more than a dozen games a year.

What’s the bottom line? Projections shown to the women’s team, and shared with The New York Times, estimated annual payments from U.S. Soccer of as much as $450,000 a year, and potentially double that — or more — after a good World Cup cycle. Those figures should be similar for top men’s players.

But that’s not the biggest takeaway from the new pay packages.

Shared World Cup bonuses? Really?

Figuring out how to share World Cup bonus money was always the thorniest issue in the equal pay debate, and it may prove to be the most eyebrow-raising in this deal. But how much money are we talking about?

When France’s men won the 2018 World Cup, its federation received $38 million from FIFA, and each player received bonuses and match payments totaling about $500,000. When the United States women won a second straight World Cup a year later, U.S. Soccer received only $4 million, and each player collected about $250,000.

Because the prize pool was so small, the U.S. women’s bonuses were subsidized by U.S. Soccer. France’s $38 million winning share — from a $400 million total pot for 32 teams — was more than the total prize money, $30 million, that FIFA offered to the 24 women’s teams.

But World Cup bonuses don’t just go to the winning team. A men’s team that merely advanced out of the group stage in 2018 earned $12 million for its federation.

Beginning with the 2022 and 2023 World Cups, the prize money won by the two U.S. teams will be pooled and — after U.S. Soccer claims its 10 percent — split between them equally.

Does the bonus-sharing apply to other competitions?

The shared bonus structure, for now, applies only to comparable competitions in which both the men’s and women’s senior teams take part.

Timeline: U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team’s Fight for Equal Pay

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A six-year legal battle. A contentious equal pay dispute between the United States women’s national team and U.S. Soccer came to an end with a multimillion-dollar settlement on Feb. 22 followed by a landmark labor agreement on May 18. Here’s a timeline of how this fight evolved:

March 2016. The fight began when five prominent players filed a federal claim of wage discrimination, saying U.S. Soccer paid them far less than players on the men’s team. The federation pushed back forcefully.

Early 2017. Receiving a high-speed education in topics like labor law and public relations, the players threw themselves into the task of negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement with U.S. Soccer. Within a few years, they had a deal.

March 2019. Labor peace did little to move the sides closer to an equal pay agreement, so the players withdrew their original complaint and raised the stakes by suing U.S. Soccer for gender discrimination in federal court.

July 2019. During the Women’s World Cup in France, the team lifted the trophy after winning the tournament to chants of “Equal pay!” echoing through the stadium. Days later, fans repeated the chant at the team’s victory parade in New York.

February 2020. Ahead of the trial, both sides proposed resolutions that showed just how far apart they remained. U.S. Soccer asked for a declaration that the players’ claims were without merit, while the players put a price tag on what they considered a fair outcome: $67 million.

March 2020. U.S. Soccer’s lawyers argued that “indisputable science” proved the players on the women’s team were inferior to men, sparking a backlash that included on-field protests and criticism from ​​sponsors. The federation fired its lawyers and its president resigned.

April 2020. The judge in the lawsuit dismissed the case and rejected most of the players’ claims, a devastating blow to their yearslong campaign. Even though U.S. Soccer’s victory in court was complete, the federation appeared to leave open the door to negotiating a settlement.

November 2021. U.S. Soccer and the players reached an agreement that resolved claims about unequal working conditions. The deal — a rare moment of détente — was a necessary step for the players before they could appeal their larger defeat in court.

February 2022. The six-year legal battle came to an end with a settlement that included $24 million in payments from U.S. Soccer to the players and, perhaps more notably, a promise by the federation to equalize pay between the men’s and women’s national teams going forward.

May 2022. U.S. Soccer and its women’s and men’s national teams agreed to landmark labor deals that guarantee equal pay. Under the agreements, the players will for the first time receive the same pay and prize money, including at World Cups.

So while the women can still win an Olympic gold medal — the Games are a senior competition for women but an under-23 event for men — and the men will continue to pursue regional championships like the Nations League and the Gold Cup, the teams will not share their prize money and bonuses from those tournaments.

Is the pay really equal for everyone?

Equal pay was always a bit of an imprecise term, since equal is in the eye of the beholder. The women’s team has frequently played more games and spent more time in camp each year than the men’s team — meaning the women often had to work harder and longer just to keep pace. And not every player gets called for every camp, or picked to play in every match.

And injuries, coaching decisions, players’ form and the number of games for each team all factor into who plays and how often.

But for the first time, U.S. Soccer and all of its senior national team players can agree that the rate of pay will be the same until 2028.

What about things like meal money, charter flights and hotels?

Those inequalities related to working conditions, some of which had existed for decades but were patently indefensible when exposed to sunlight by the women’s team, were resolved amicably in 2020. (A few things had been sorted out earlier, either by U.S. Soccer directly or in the last C.B.A. the women’s team negotiated in 2017.)

Is there any extra money available?

Yes. National team players will be paid extra for promotional appearances, and the teams also get a cut of each ticket sold (soon to be more than $5 per ticket per game) as well as benefits like child care (now for men and women) and 401(k) matching payments.

And the new revenue-sharing agreements could deliver several million dollars extra to each team every year. U.S. Soccer might be most excited about those, since it will incentivize players to help with new deals and new content because they will share in the financial upside of doing so.

Is there a downside?

One could argue that paying a player $18,000 for winning an exhibition soccer game is a bit much — a point that has been put to U.S. Soccer’s leadership before — when the federation’s mission is to support all levels and all facets of the game. Or that playing for the United States should be an honor, not a significant source of income for the few dozen players on the senior national teams.

But the increased money going to the national teams in their new deals boils down to single-digit millions in the end, even if it will mean that the U.S. men and the U.S. women most likely will remain the world’s two highest-compensated national teams.

The good news for U.S. Soccer’s bottom line is that the extra money the players get may soon be replaced multiple times over: If the teams win games and bring in sponsors, their incomes and payouts — and U.S. Soccer’s cash flow — will continue to rise over the life of the deals.

“There’s no denying that money that we have to pay our national teams is money that’s not reinvested in the game,” Cindy Cone, the president of U.S. Soccer, said when asked about the effects of the new contracts on the federation’s broader mission. “And people can take that perspective. But the way I look at it is that our job is to try to figure out how all three groups can work together to grow the pie so that everyone is benefiting.”

So, who won?

Everyone, it seems.

The women will see significant increases in their compensation, thanks to higher rates of pay and pooled performance bonuses. The men will also see more money, and avoid the stigma of being tagged as the obstacles to equal pay. And U.S. Soccer can stop paying trial lawyers and absorbing public relations headaches, and market itself to new partners as a forward-thinking leader on equal pay.

But most important, all sides can agree, for the first time, that the men’s and women’s teams will get equal pay for their work. After decades of grievances and six years of legal wrangling, that is priceless.

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