Goal! How World Cup dominance impacts the U.S. women’s soccer team’s bargaining power

When you think of the greatest sports teams of all time, who comes to mind? Perhaps the U.S. hockey team’s “miracle on ice” in the 1980 Winter Olympics. The mid-90’s Chicago Bulls? Or the Golden State Warrior’s recent dominance. The U.S. women’s national soccer team (USWNT) deserves to be in these ranks. They have now won four of eight women’s World Cups; four of six Olympic gold medals. FIFA, the international soccer governing body, has ranked them No.1 for 10 of the last 11 years. Yet the women are paid less than half that of their male counterparts — an average of $4,950 a game versus $13,166. In response, the women are battling both on the pitch and in the courts — suing the United States Soccer Federation for gender-based pay discrimination amidst this summer’s World Cup in France.

The USWNT dominated. After a blowout win against Thailand (13-0), they followed up with wins against Chile (3-0) and Sweden (2-0) in the group stage. They then beat Spain (2-1) in the round of 16, France (2-1) in the quarterfinals, and England (2-1) in the semifinals. After a scoreless first half in the final match, a penalty kick by Megan Rapinoe and a swift attack by Rose Lavelle put the USWNT permanently on top, beating the Netherlands 2-0.

W. P. Carey Professor of Management and Entrepreneurship and CEO of the Arizona State University Global Sport Institute, Kenneth Shropshire studies sports and social impact, negotiation, and dispute resolution. He provides some more context and his thoughts about the women’s push for pay equity.

Ideas Unlimited: As we look at the USA Women’s Soccer team, what role does public perception play in their quest for pay equity?

Shropshire: That’s a good question. In any negotiation, it depends on who the negotiators are and how they are influenced by public perception. In this instance, it’s the U.S. Soccer Federation and how they could be influenced by, say, fans or potential fans. There’s also been a recent, in the last year or so, change in leadership there, which could change the way things go. In terms of the team, I would guess if there were a negative performance or activity, then the public perception could turn negative — looking at the women’s overt celebrations that have caused some uproar recently, it doesn’t seem that it has negatively influenced overall public perception. The public seems to be in favor of the players right now.

Ideas Unlimited: How might those recent controversies, such as the team’s big win against Thailand or Megan Rapinoe’s Twitter feud with President Trump, play into those negotiations?

Shropshire: For the players, I think it’s “any publicity is good publicity.” If people are talking about them, no matter what you think about them, they are a more present team than the men’s team. Why hasn’t the U.S. Soccer Federation caught up and realized that? Whether people agree with Megan Rapinoe, or think the celebrations are over the top or not, in the end, it has brought more attention to the USWNT.

Ideas Unlimited: Looking at the gender component of this situation, how do you think that colors the debate in the negotiations and how people respond to them?

Shropshire: I’m sure it affects people based on their pre-existing context for those arguments. But it’s hard to get away from, for this women’s team, the value they bring, the dollars they bring in, the wins they get — it’s like a female neurosurgeon who does the same job or better than her male counterpart. What excuse do you have other than gender? There’s no argument that they should be paid less. So even the most ardent naysayers are getting on board. Even if there weren’t the fact that the USWNT makes more money than the U.S. men’s national soccer teamteam, it’s only old, stale arguments that remain.

Ideas Unlimited: Yes, the women’s team makes more money in both ticket sales and merchandise than men. Do you think that is what bolsters their argument?

Shropshire: I think so. The defenses have dwindled in terms of reasons to not pay them equally. There would have to be an argument saying that, even if it were two men’s teams, this one would be paid differently. And I cannot imagine what that argument would look like. Right now, the U.S. Soccer Federation contends that their pay agreement is collectively bargained, so that might be one barrier in the way of immediate transfer to a fairer system. But once that agreement expires in 2021, they are back to not having an argument.

Ideas Unlimited: How does this World Cup season affect the women’s ability to negotiate going forward? Would a loss have changed the outcome?

Shropshire: It shouldn’t make a difference, but a win certainly takes away the argument from whatever foolish person might say “well they lost in the final.” But I don’t think it makes a difference. The dollars, purely from the economic perspective, that will come in based on their performance do not change based on whether they win the championship. Maybe at the margins, but I don’t think there’s a reason to slice and dice that distinction.

Ideas Unlimited: Do you think the model the women have taken, by suing the U.S. Soccer Federation, could set a precedent for other teams seeking equal pay?

Shropshire: Yeah, sure. Again, this instance is unique because they don’t even have the monetary defense. But any ruling made by the entities involved, if it’s successful for the USWNT, will be helpful to other women’s teams making the same arguments. You can see that from the U.S. women’s hockey team’s quest for not just equal pay, but also equal marketing, accommodations, and equipment. The women succeeded in securing equal treatment, and the next year in 2018 brought home Olympic gold. I think those moments — in hockey, soccer, whatever — really move the needle toward being more equitable across the board.

By Emily Beach