In any mudslinging battle, we reach a point at which everyone ends up dirty.
In this case, that would be the U.S. Soccer Federation, the U.S. women’s national team, and now, the
U.S. men’s national team.
The last two of these entities are seemingly mud-proof. They can prey on public sympathy that lets them control the narrative
with little fuss and no need to answer difficult questions.
The Federation, on the other hand, rarely earns any sympathy. They’re not the ones raising a World Cup trophy or vying for spots on a men’s team anxious to erase the disaster of 2017.
They’re the ones with a history of pettiness in labor negotiations, and though they’re in the midst of a five-year plan to build up U.S. soccer from the grassroots to the national team,
they haven’t really articulated that vision beyond a bunch of buzzwords.
In this era of debating by Twitter, “Serve the Athlete” and “Grow the
fan base” don’t play as well as an “equal pay” slogan, and questioning the players’ rhetoric is a sure way to be accused of the ever-unpopular stance of favoring
management over labor, though the reality is much more complex than that.
The men’s national team’s players association (USNSTPA) plays on that sentiment in a statement released Wednesday
that expressed solidarity with the women’s national team while pointing
out that they’ve been playing without a collective bargaining agreement for 13 months.
No one can blame them for being tired of waiting. But the big stumbling block is that big
elephant in the room -- the women’s suit against the Federation. It’s difficult to imagine the men receiving a new CBA while the women are still pursuing a legal complaint.
So the USNSTPA’s statement is curiously timed. They explain what prompted the statement as follows:
“It is our view that despite the best efforts of USWNT players and their
representatives, the Federation has had some success in convincing people of the Federation’s false narrative. By coming forward to explain the situation, the USNSTPA hopes to create a better
understanding and perhaps help bring about a resolution.”
But they don’t specify who’s buying into this false narrative. Their reps did not respond to requests to
answer this question and several others.
Perhaps something has happened behind the scenes to prompt the USNSTPA to throw a ton of fuel onto this fire. Or perhaps it was timed to get
attention while everyone was flying into Nashville for this weekend’s
Annual General Meeting
, the gathering of people who have literal boots on the ground in an effort to make U.S. soccer (lowercase “s”) better.
At some point in U.S. soccer
labor history, when we look into the details of what players want, we’re no longer talking about “punching down” on behalf of a wealthy employer keeping down its oppressed employees.
We’re talking about players who make comfortable salaries looking at a nonprofit organization’s pile of assets and demanding that money for themselves.
just talking about an incremental increase here with some modicum of pay equity. Consider this from the USNSTPA statement:
“The equal pay dispute, filed by members of the
women’s National Team and set for trial in the spring, compares the women’s 2017-2021 deal with the expired men’s CBA negotiated in 2011. The correct comparison should be between
what the women got with their 2017-2021 deal and triple what the Federation agreed to pay the men in 2011 or whatever the men negotiate in their new CBA that will be retroactive to January 1,
That number is predicated on the idea that U.S. Soccer assets and certain revenues have tripled since 2011. Bear in mind, though, that the national team
revenue here is gross, not net. Unless it’s a particularly big year, the Fed tends to report a small loss on national team games.
Also, the PA doesn’t mention the Copa
Centenario, which accounts for about a third of that pile of assets.
The marketing money accounts for somewhere between one-third to one-half of
Federation revenue in any given year, and while some of that is designated to help U.S. Soccer on more of a grassroots level, it’s safe to say the national team players generated the
lion’s share of it.
The Federation has plans for much of that money in the aforementioned five-year plan. Specifics, though, are skimpy. Through the AGM books, we can see that the
Fed’s annual spending on coaching education has jumped from roughly $1.3 million in FY 2012 to well north of $7 million. Development spending has doubled to more than $30 million, with $8
million of that going to the Development Academy. Other line items, such as a new $3 million line item for “various,” offer less insight.
All told, the Federation is
projected, after accounting for about $8 million in unexpected legal fees, to spend that surplus down from $168 million to $42 million.
So that nest egg can be wiped out in a hurry. And the idea that the women’s
compensation (and, by extension, the men’s) should be seen in the light of a tripling of revenue and assets overlooks both the Copa Centenario and the Federation’s understandable interest
in building better programs.
None of which is to say the Federation’s five-year plan charts the best path.
None of which is to say the Federation has treated the
national teams fairly in the past, though the USNSTPA’s citation of the negotiations of the 1990s rings a little hollow. You can’t even pin that decade on Sunil Gulati
, let alone
or Jay Berhalter
. They’re all out of the picture, anyway.
None of which is to say the Federation can’t do a better job on pay equity.
the players haven’t shown that they’re underpaid compared with their counterparts in other countries. We’ve had that conversation before
, and it was inconclusive at best. It’s not surprising. In the
old days, the Federation had to assume the bulk of supporting its players, who didn’t have steady club employment at the time.
And the players haven’t given any indication
that they’re on board with the Federation’s attempts to build up everything from referee programs to beach soccer. Australia’s players, on the other hand, demonstrated a willingness
to think of the future with a deal that sends 5 percent
of player-generated revenue back to youth national teams. If the U.S. players are seeking a
similar clause, they’ve yet to say so, though neither side of the negotiation has given any details of what’s on the table.
The Federation isn’t the NBA, which has had
to hand over a high percentage of its revenue to its athletes through decades of labor talks, or the UFC, which hasn’t. The Federation is a nonprofit organization tasked not only with fielding
two national teams but with growing the game at every level.
Consider the original football association, England’s Football Association. Their annual report
has a breakdown of £127.5 million spent on county associations, competition prize funds,
facilities and other programs in 2018. That’s $166.5 million, a chunk of money U.S. Soccer doesn’t have to throw around every year..
And let’s be clear -- recent
athletes are represented in the Federation. The Athletes Council has been accused of being too deferential to the pro leagues and other powerful stakeholders, but in the 2018 elections, they stopped
Soccer United Marketing executive Kathy Carter
from taking the presidency. You may think Carlos Cordeiro
wasn’t a much better choice, but you can’t say the athletes have
squandered their federally mandated 20 percent of voting power.
The players also have the leverage of a strike threat. Or the courts, where the Federation is currently fending off six
lawyers representing the women’s national team and 14 representing the NASL. (Two of them overlap, so it’s 18 total, not counting the lawyers for Hope Solo
, Relevent Sports and the
U.S. Soccer Foundation.)
But the USNSTPA’s statement suggests a new type of leverage, and it’s terrifying:
“What can you do? Tell the
Federation’s sponsors you will not support them until the Federation starts doing the right thing and gives the women a new CBA that pays a fair share of the gate receipts and that television
and sponsorship revenue to the players. Write to your Congressional representatives and tell them it is time to reform the Federation.”
Let’s unpack this …
Sponsors make Federation programs possible. The national team games, as shown above, aren’t big profit centers except in big years when they do really well. They’re more likely to do
really well in the future if those Federation programs are made possible.
And Congress? That’s where one lawmaker, West Virginia senator Joe Manchin
, has introduced legislation
the use of funds for the 2026 World Cup unless the United States Soccer Federation provides equitable pay to the members of the United States Women's National Team and the United States Men's National
Team,” an act that is either pointless because the Federation isn’t relying on federal funds to stage the World Cup or a means to hinder the Federation’s quest to have another
money-making event akin to the Copa Centenario.
Congress frequently makes a mess of Olympic sports already. The Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act uses a definition of
“amateur” (anyone who meets a national governing body’s criteria) that no one else in the world uses. Their response to horrid sexual abuse scandals is to get behind the Center for
SafeSport and fix its funding problems not with federal funds, the lifeblood of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, but with funds taken from the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee. Hope you’re
not attached to USOPC support for smaller sports.
Again, let’s not absolve the Federation of any blame. The last women’s collective bargaining agreement could have solved a
lot of the equal pay problems, at least for now. Instead, the women’s CBA makes it impossible to justify giving the men an overdue new deal. It’s as if Sunil Gulati tossed Carlos Cordeiro
the keys to a burning car.
The Federation’s public image has suffered a lot of black eyes, and a lot of them are self-inflicted. But these “negotiations” are compounding
And all we can say now is that there will be no winners. Sure, some people -- players, lawyers and perhaps the executives who are brought in to clean up this mess -- may get
paid. But if they’re not careful, they’ll do so at the expense of expanding the game and developing future generations of U.S. soccer.