An Easy Fix for Soccer's Gender Pay Gap

When Megan Rapinoe scored the winning goal at the FIFA Women’s Soccer World Cup final, Americans rejoiced. But the cheers were soon replaced by chants calling for “equal pay,” with many taking issue with the $370 million pay disparity between the prize money for the men’s and women’s competitions.

Earlier this year, women’s team members sued the US Soccer Federation for gender discrimination, citing the pay disparity between themselves and the US men’s team. They argue that since both teams perform the same function and bear the same physical demands (and since the women’s team has outperformed the men’s team by winning their competition), they have more than earned the same reward.

They’re not wrong, but there are still holes in their argument.

Different Standards of Competition

After all, the basis for their demands lies in the idea that performance in competitive sport isn’t relative. But it is, and it can only be judged in reference to the standards set by the competition.

For their claim to be accurate, they’d have to prove that the US men’s team couldn’t also beat every women’s team in the World Cup. It’s not enough to simply note that they are not among the best of the men’s teams. Given the biological reality that the average male athlete is taller, less injury-prone, stronger, and faster than the average female athlete, it’s a tough call to make.

It’s simply the acknowledgment of how different sporting categories and competitions have different standards.

We’ve seen this in real life. In the 1998 “Battle of the Sexes,” 203rd-ranked male tennis player Karsten Braasch took on Venus and Serena Williams in the prime of their careers. After completing a round of golf and sipping two shandies, the relatively unknown male went on to claim victory over the sisters. This isn’t an indictment of the legendary careers and prowess of the Williams sisters. It’s simply the acknowledgment of how different sporting categories and competitions have different standards.

Everyone understands this, at least on some level. It’s why the same people who complain that pay disparity in competitive sports is a gender equality issue aren’t also calling for unisex competitions that literally put both sexes on a level playing field.

But none of this is what actually matters in the pay dispute.

Supply and Demand for Sponsorships

A lot of sports today are funded by private sponsorship. In 2017-18, for example, the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) sourced over half of its revenue from sponsorship, TV licensing, and royalties. The comparison of skill and training in competitive hockey and soccer is largely irrelevant when a sport receives greater interest from viewers than another. For these sports or competitions, broadcasters are willing to pay more for broadcasting rights, and companies are willing to pay to advertise, own, or sponsor soccer teams.

This is also why Karsten Braasch was lucky if he made even a fraction of what the Williams sisters each made over the course of their tennis careers—despite proving he was a better player. People were simply more interested in watching the Williams sisters take on other highly-ranked women.

Sponsorship, then, offers the best prospects for reforming the pay scale in US men’s and women’s football.

Right now, men’s sports generally attract greater viewership than women’s, but we live in a time of social change. Right now, men’s sports generally attract greater viewership than women’s, but we live in a time of social change.While the men’s competition in the Wimbledon tennis tournament last year drew many more viewers than the women’s competition, ESPN noted that viewership had decreased for the men’s competition since 2017, while it had increased for the women’s competition. This could be due to rapidly improving performance standards in women’s sports in general or simply a shift in societal attitudes and preferences.

Similarly, the successful run of the US women’s soccer team has increased interest and possibly grown the audience for women’s soccer in the lucrative US market—maybe even the global market. Sponsors should take note: it was the crowd that chanted “equal pay” when the FIFA president awarded the cup to the winning team.

The solution lies in paying male and female athletes an equal flat fee with a bonus determined as a share of the sponsorship revenue for each match. It’s the fairest, most free-market way to resolve the pay dispute in intra-sex national and international-level competitive sports. Importantly, it means that the USSF doesn’t need to pay men less and governments don't have to force anyone to raise salaries.

This model also creates commercial incentives for more sponsorship (read: greater funding) for women’s sports since many companies are attempting to assert their commitment to social justice and gender equality under their corporate “social responsibility” policies. Heck, even big tobacco companies now proudly boast about scoring gender equality awards. With a share of sponsorship revenue going to players’ pay, companies can now demonstrate these commitments with their wallets. Everyone wins.

This article appear in The Fee on 16 July 2019.

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