Five days after the world champion United States women’s national team suffered its biggest loss in recent memory, when a federal judge essentially dismissed the biggest parts the USWNT’s pay discrimination lawsuit against U.S. Soccer, the furor has finally begun to calm down.
The women have vowed to appeal, even though a settlement between the sides seemed like a forgone conclusion as recently as last month, when both new U.S. Soccer president Cindy Parlow Cone — a former USWNT player who was a starter on the 1999 World Cup-winning side — told reporters as much. It still does. It has to.
U.S. Soccer, USWNT need to bury the hatchet as soon as possible
But why would the federation cut a fat check now, after the court’s decision? What leverage to the players still have?
For starters, the case could still go to trial on the remaining points, such as travel and accommodations. And U.S. Soccer could lose and suffer another black eye, one it desperately doesn’t need.
There is bound to be pushback from certain members of the USSF board, but settling is still the option that makes the most sense for a variety of reasons.
What would a settlement look like?
In their lawsuit, the women were seeking almost $67 million, the difference in FIFA prize money over the last two World Cups.
But even before last week’s court decision, the women appeared willing to settle for a fraction of it. One source indicated that USWNT lawyers opened negotiations at $18 million, only to walk away from the table when the federation countered with half of that amount. (A spokeswoman for the U.S. women didn’t respond to a request for comment.) In other words, after this drawn out and extremely ugly public dispute, the sides were probably only $9 million apart.
Would U.S. Soccer still be willing to pay the women the $9 million they offered before? And if they are, would that act of good faith be enough to repair the broken relationship with its most popular and successful team?
What about the USWNT’s next collective bargaining agreement?
The federal judge in the case noted that U.S. Soccer had offered the same structure, if not the same bonuses, to the USMNT before they green-lit the current CBA in 2017. What wasn’t mentioned — because it wasn’t relevant to the proceedings in question — was that U.S. Soccer, in a March letter to its membership, claimed that it offered to reopen the CBA and pay the women the same game bonuses as the men for wins, ties and losses in games U.S. Soccer stages. (FIFA pays out World Cup bonuses, including for qualifying for the tournament. More on that later.)
In a Monday appearance on Good Morning America, USWNT star Megan Rapinoe said that “the men’s contract was never offered to us, and certainly not the same amount of money.” It wasn’t clear if Rapinoe was counting the FIFA payments in her calculation. Either way, there is no reason equal game bonuses for friendly matches won’t still be on the table when the current CBA expires next year if the women are willing to compromise on salaries, which the men don’t get.
There’s also a possibility that the men — who have been operating under an expired CBA since 2018 — and the women could negotiate a new CBA together, an idea USWNT legend Julie Foudy has championed. The federation says it’s open to it.
Together, they can better pressure FIFA to invest more in the women’s game
However it shakes out, a quick resolution is in the interest of all parties. Then they can both get on with the business of pressuring FIFA to increase prize money for the Women’s World Cup.
As my Yahoo Sports colleague Dan Wetzel wrote earlier this week, the USWNT’s real beef is with FIFA, not U.S. Soccer. Of course global soccer’s governing body generates more revenue from the men’s World Cup than from the women’s tourney, which only began in 1991. The question is how much more.
Since FIFA bundles men’s, women’s and youth World Cups to TV broadcasters, assessing the value of each competition isn’t easy. We do know that the most recent men’s World Cup was watched by about four times as many fans on TV, and that Russia 2018 sold about three times as many tickets than France 2019. That doesn’t appear to justify the men’s winner taking home 13 times more than their female counterparts. FIFA will double the prize money for the 2023 Women’s World Cup, an increase of $30 million. But with cash reserves of $2.7 billion, that’s chump change. It could invest a lot more.
Getting sponsors and other federations on board would be a game-changer
FIFA officials aren’t going to do it out of the goodness of their hearts. That’s why it’s imperative not only that the USWNT and U.S. Soccer pressure FIFA together, but that they enlist other powerful entities who have only recently started to realize the potential of the women’s game.
That upside was on full display at France 2019. Fans in futbol-crazy countries like Argentina, Brazil, England and Spain got behind their national teams like never before, bringing women’s soccer into the mainstream in places where little girls had literally been banned from playing not too long ago.
We know what happens when money is poured into women’s soccer. The U.S. is the prime example. The Netherlands qualified for its first World Cup in 2015 after they began taking their women’s program seriously. Four years later, they reached the final. The more prize money that’s available, the more those federations will care.
Yet the gap in prize money between the men and women actually continues to increase. The men will split an additional $40 million at Qatar 2022, bringing their total to $440 million, while the women’s total is doubling in 2023 but will still only be $60 million.
“I understand that for a lot of different reasons, the men’s game financially is far advanced than the women’s game,” Rapinoe said on the eve of the 2019 finale. “[But] if you really care about each game in the same way, are you letting the gap grow?”
You could see the FIFA officials in the room cringe as Rapinoe spoke. FIFA president Gianni Infantino has since pledged even more support.
Still, only a united front of players, federations, sponsors and fans can provide enough leverage for a more profound shift. The pressure campaign can’t end now. Outside the U.S., it’s barely even begun.
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