This past summer, the U.S. women’s national soccer team (USWNT) won the 2019 Women’s World Cup, its second consecutive World Cup title. After shredding Japan 5-2 in the 2015 Women’s World Cup final, USWNT comfortably defeated the Netherlands 2-0 in 2019. In comparison, the U.S. men’s national team has had nowhere near as much success. In recent years, its greatest achievements were a Gold Cup victory back in 2017 and a fourth-place finish in Copa America the previous year. And in regards to the 2018 Men’s World Cup, the men’s team didn’t even qualify. The glaring success of the women’s team over the men’s has had many progressives, including USWNT stars Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan, demanding that the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) and the Fédération Internationale de Football (FIFA) Association pay them as much, if not more than, the players on the men’s team.
I can definitely understand the argument of the women’s team in regards to equal pay from USSF. In terms of U.S. viewership for the 2018 Men’s World Cup final and the 2019 Women’s World Cup final, the former drew in 11.4 million viewers compared to the latter’s 14.3 million. However, these numbers are a bit deceptive. As I stated before, the men’s team did not qualify for the tournament, nevermind reach the final. While soccer is certainly not unpopular in the U.S., it still falls behind football, baseball, basketball and hockey. Considering the men’s team did not even participate in the 2018 World Cup, it is tough to imagine that many U.S. viewers would have tuned in to watch unless they were true fans of the sport. Conversely, U.S. viewers who were hardly soccer fans likely still watched the 2019 Women’s World Cup final just to be “patriotic.” To push a little further, what if the women’s team did not advance to the final? How many U.S. viewers still would have tuned into the Women’s World Cup final?
Granted, the women’s team still did demonstrate just how significant they are to American culture commercially by pulling in 14.3 million views, so for that reason alone, they should be earning just as much—if not more—than the men’s team from USSF. Yet when it comes to pay from FIFA, that is a much murkier argument that ultimately reveals the underlying truths behind the pay gap between men’s and women’s soccer.
In regards to the 2019 Women’s World Cup, the prize money the women’s team pocketed for winning the final was $4 million, which is quite meager compared to the $38 million awarded to the French men’s team for winning the 2018 Men’s World Cup final. Yet, this disparity in prize money is hardly surprising when you think about the global viewership of each as well as the level of play.
Looking back at the 2015 Women’s World Cup, the tournament brought in a total of 764 million viewers, whereas the 2018 Men’s World Cup garnered 3.6 billion viewers. Again, this is hardly surprising given that men’s soccer is the most popular sport in the world and women’s soccer is still growing and developing globally. Nevertheless, viewership for the 2018 Men’s World Cup netted FIFA over $6 billion in profit, so for that reason alone, I think the disparity in prize money is understandable.
In terms of the level of play itself, as someone who grew up watching and playing soccer, the differences between men’s and women’s soccer are quite glaring. And if you watched both the 2018 World Cup and the 2019 Women’s World Cup, then it is likely that you also saw those differences. From a skills standpoint, I would argue that the women’s team is just as skilled as a top Major League Soccer (MLS) team. Yet from a physicality standpoint, a top MLS team is bigger, faster and stronger, because that’s simply the way humans were built. And in regards to the World Cup itself, there are really only a few teams that match the skill and physical prowess of the women’s team, whereas the men’s World Cup has eight or nine teams that are equal in skill, all of which are European or South American. This is a big part of why the men’s World Cup is much more popular. It is simply much more competitive. There were a handful of women’s World Cup games that I watched that did not include the U.S., and most of them were tough to watch for someone who is accustomed to watching European soccer. Not only were the games less entertaining because the play was much slower, but the players themselves simply lacked the skill and flair that make the sport so exciting to watch. The harsh reality is that until women’s soccer is more developed across the world, male players are going to be paid much more. Viewership is everything, and until the women’s World Cup is as popular as the men’s, the pay will reflect that.
Jared Cole is a member of the Class of 2020.