Commentary

Can U.S. Soccer find a path to equal pay from other nations and different sports?

In 2018, French star Kylian Mbappe  announced that he would give his pay for winning the World Cup -- roughly $500,000 -- to charity.

Cool, said England’s past and present players. But just so you know, we already do that.

(A story that Croatia’s team, surprise runners-up in 2018, would donate all of its prize money turned out to be concocted. But donated salaries aren’t unusual -- Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe are among those who have pledged to give 1% of their pay to a charity called Common Goal.)

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Outside the World Cup, though, England’s contributions are not a significant sum of money. By the BBC’s calculations, each player receives an average of less than 2,000 pounds ($2,500) per match. That’s less than the U.S. men make for a friendly loss ($5,000 each), let alone a win ($9,375-$17,625, depending on the opposition). And an English player would have to play 40 games to catch up with the core U.S. women’s salary of $100,000, let alone the bonuses of $5,250 to $8,500 per game -- not including World Cup bonuses or the Victory Tour bonus -- the women can make on top of that.

But before you conclude that U.S. soccer players are overpaid, consider this: England’s men’s rugby players make 25,000 pounds ($31,238.88) per game, pending budget issues. They play roughly 10 games per year, so a frequently called player like Dan Cole, who has 89 caps over 10 years heading into the upcoming World Cup, can make more than $250,000 a year. His league has a salary cap of 7 million pounds ($8.75 million), but two players per team can be exempted. (Yes, MLS has company in the “designated player” department.)

That’s nice, but it’s not quite up to the salaries India pays its national team cricket players, several of who earn well more than $500,000 a year for national team play and some of whom make nearly $1 million. England’s cricketers can pass the 1 million pound ($1.25 million) threshold. Brazil’s men’s soccer players would earn money somewhere in that neighborhood -- if they won the World Cup, and their share of the FIFA bonus would be much higher than that of their European peers.

Closer to home, USA Basketball recently announced it would pay its core women’s players, winners of six consecutive championships in Olympic and World Cup play dating back to 2008, up to $100,000 for participating in training sessions between WNBA seasons.

And getting back to soccer, the much-heralded equal pay initiative in Norway means the men’s team and women’s team will each split a pot of 6 million kroner ($672,453). Nice, but that’s not a lot of money. Also, the bonuses for the World Cup are based on 25% of FIFA prize money, which means the men would still make much more than the women.

So when we’re trying to evaluate whether U.S. men and women in soccer earn comparable pay to their overseas counterparts, the answer is that it’s complicated.

Comparisons with professional sports leagues, a major part of a current lawsuit against the UFC and something the MLS Players Association will surely hit home in its current collective bargaining talks, fall flat for national teams because U.S. Soccer’s mission -- whether it excels at it or not -- is to grow the game from the bottom up, not the top down.

And some of these deals are vestigial. The U.S. men got serious about money in the short 1995 strike, a time in which many of them weren’t making significant money elsewhere. The women’s Victory Tour grew out of a dispute over what to do with a team that had just captured the American mainstream imagination by winning the 1999 World Cup.

Getting rid of some of the vestiges can help grow the game. The U.S. women have shortened the Victory Tour. Maybe it’s no coincidence that the NWSL, not quite as overshadowed by a bunch of autograph sessions/friendlies this time around, is holding on to its post-World Cup boom in a way that makes us jaded journalists take notice.

For U.S. women’s soccer, the closest analogue is probably their own counterparts in basketball. The soccer team’s salaries mean players don’t have to jump to Australia’s W-League in the NWSL offseason to make a few extra dollars. With the new camp money, the top U.S. basketball players won’t be traveling in the WNBA offseason to make ends meet.

It’s a substantial investment for USA Basketball, whose budget is a fraction of U.S. Soccer’s. The federation claimed total revenue of $10.9 million in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2017. The preceding year, which included the Olympics, drew $22.7 million, which is still nearly the same as the Milwaukee Bucks pay Brook Lopez, who had a horrible showing as the U.S. men placed seventh in the recent World Cup. (The issue of whether to pay the U.S. men’s basketball team was a minor controversy a few years ago.)

U.S. men’s soccer has no easy analogue. The days of players making most of their money from the national team are long past. The youngest players getting called up for recent friendlies have salaries in the $100,000 range, but those will rise as they either stay in MLS or move overseas. Only a couple of the players on the roster when the USA failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup make less than $500,000 from their clubs.

Sure, that’s still not Premier League money, which makes it rather easy for English players to hand over their small FA paychecks. But any U.S. player who can count on being called in to the next big game isn’t depending on that check to make the rent.

So what’s fair? Should national team pay be based on how much their players need it? Will soccer federations, like USA Basketball, eventually struggle to lure their best players to competitions in which they risk injuries that could cost them a fortune in the long run? And what are the obligations of a federation charged with taking care not only of current national team players but any potential future players as well?

The easiest route to equal pay would be the one suggested at the end of the Rush song The Trees: “And the trees are all kept equal by hatchet, axe and saw.” Just cut the men’s pay to equal the women’s pay, and voila -- equal pay! U.S. Soccer could make this point and argue that other federations tend to pay players according to their needs and the importance of national-team play -- slim to none in basketball, not much for English players who already have a fortune, quite a bit for cricket players who are constantly on international duty.

But that hardly seems fair. Players surely have a reasonable expectation to be compensated as their predecessors have. And as the U.S. men continue to negotiate a replacement for a long-expired collective bargaining agreement, they shouldn’t be punished for progressing to the point of making a decent living in the professional game.

5 comments about "Can U.S. Soccer find a path to equal pay from other nations and different sports?".
  1. Bob Ashpole, September 19, 2019 at 6:41 p.m.

    I am more interested in seeing an end to gender discrmination in the program support than I am in the equal pay act claim. For instance USSF favored the boys program with the Bradenton program begun in 1999 and the Development Academy begun in 2007. 

    For the girls program USSF had nothing comparable even though USSF consultants such as Tony DiCicco recommended that it have a girls development academy. 

    After the players filed their administrative discrimination claim, USSF started a girls development academy, a decade after they started the boys.

     In 2016 US soccer admitted that it paid women at the bottom the pool about 10% of what they paid the men at the bottom of the pool. But now they claim they don't discriminate.

  2. Bob Ashpole replied, September 19, 2019 at 6:56 p.m.

    As a reminder, before winning the election Cordeiro said he was for equal pay and equal support and said that USSF didn't need to wait for expiration of CBA agreements to equalize pay. He didn't claim that there was no gender discrimination.

    "To ensure equal pay going forward, we need to be open to new paradigms while recognizing the specific needs and desires of the WNT and MNT. There are many ways to achieve this; the key is establishing the right process. We also need to address bonus compensation. Beyond player salaries, my platform calls for equal resources for our women's program, from the coaching staff to the training facilities to the travel accommodations. We don't need to wait for CBA negotiations to make these changes; we can start now. It's the right thing to do."

  3. Beau Dure replied, September 19, 2019 at 9:19 p.m.

    The interesting part on the DA is that a lot of elite girls are opting to remain with the ECNL.

  4. R2 Dad replied, September 20, 2019 at 12:17 a.m.

    I would argue the most important and immediate change should be getting the women to play on grass instead of plastic. I remember Abby speaking adamantly about that. Has Carlos done anything about that--now? That would seem to be the right thing to do at both club and country levels.

  5. beautiful game, September 20, 2019 at 12:02 p.m.

    USSF needs to be proactive, not in hibernation.

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