All eyes are on female soccer players this week as the FIFA Women's World Cup kicks off, but little attention is being paid to the state of women's soccer itself. As the U.S. women's national team gears up for their next match Friday, they will step out before an audience of millions — an anomaly for women's soccer that belies and masks the severe pay gaps and sometimes shoddy treatment that female players face when trying to make a living out of their sport. From pittance salaries and measly prize winnings to sustained media blackouts and patronizing comments from league officials, women who choose to play soccer for a living in the U.S. and around the world must be willing to put up with significant obstacles that their male counterparts avoid.
Just as the start of another World Cup gives female soccer players a platform on which to display their skills, it should also spark more questions about how these women — who are performing at the sport's heights — are treated by national leagues, international soccer organizations like FIFA, and by the TV stations that continue to profit from their gendered coverage of professional sports.
Many Americans might not even realize that another World Cup kicked off this week. Compared to the rabid attention that dominated the months leading up to last year’s men’s World Cup, there has been barely a flutter about the premier women’s contest. The echoing silence is made all the more remarkable by the fact that a huge proportion of American girls play soccer and that the U.S. women’s national team is much better positioned entering its World Cup than the men’s national team was. (Not to mention that the U.S. women’s team has been much more successful historically on the international stage and drew 13.5 million U.S. viewers alone to their final contest against Japan in the 2011 World Cup.)
After a shaky start to in their first match, the U.S. women recovered with a nice brace of goals from Megan Rapinoe and a further goal from Christen Press to beat the Australian team 3-1 on Tuesday. Ranked second coming into the tournament, the national team is packed with all-start athletes that promise a good showing for American pride in the weeks ahead. If we are going to celebrate with our U.S. national team as they take on top talent from around the world, we need to root for them off the pitch as well. Here are four things to know about the dismal state of support for women’s professional soccer as you cheer on Abby Wambach's next header:
1. The pay gap between men’s and women’s professional soccer is absurd
The United Nations has warned that at the current pace, it will take the world 70 more years to close the pay differential between men and women for the same work. But as attention to the pay gaps in Hollywood and the business world has peaked, sports commentators and women’s advocates alike have had little to say about the egregiously low salaries and sparse corporate sponsorship opportunities women must content themselves with to stay on the pitch.
The highest earning male players rake in millions of dollars in their contracts and through corporate sponsorships, hitting bankrolls that few women athletes — even those of the highest caliber — can hope to match. In Europe, top talent like Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi can expect to make tens of millions from their team salary and benefits alone. Even in the less established and financially shakier U.S. men's league, the upper echelon of Major League Soccer players makes millions. Clint Dempsey brought in $6.7 million, and Michael Bradley earned $6.5 million.
In contrast, the top paid women soccer stars in the Americas were Brazil's Marta (who made $400,000 last year) and the U.S. icon Abby Wambach (who brought in $190,000). And the plateau drops off sharply from there: the ninth highest earning player last year was Sarah Huffman, who only made $25,000.
Even outside of the top tier of soccer stars, men have an easier time of making ends meet while on their professional team salaries. An article from The New York Times last October detailed how difficult MLS players found it to live on their league wages. Sometimes, the Times' Andrew Keh noted, a Colorado Rapids player took home leftover food from the clubhouse to keep costs down. The minimum wage for men’s players isn't much — before the players renegotiated with the league last year, the minimum wage was $36,500. Now it has jumped to $60,000, with the league’s median salary hovering at about $92,000 a year.
Without the steady revenue streams and media platform that the MLS enjoys, however, the National Women’s Soccer League struggles to pay their players even a living wage. The minimum is more of a joke than a salary at $6,842. Jazmine Reeves, the Rookie of the Year for the Boston Breakers last year, was even put up in a home stay by the team because her salary was too thin to cover rent.
“My host family was great, but at the same time, as an adult, you want to be able to pay for your own apartment,” Reeves told The Atlantic.
No wonder that Reeves retired from professional soccer after only one year.
The pay gap extends far beyond just the player rosters though. Coaches, managers and support staff for women's team also have to make do with much less. For instance, the head coach for the U.S. men’s team, Jurgen Klinsmann, made a cool $2.5 million last year; his female counterpart, Jill Ellis, earns only between $185,000 and $215,000, plus some benefits.
2. Sporting competitions give women far, far less prize money
When women’s teams win international competitions like the World Cup or clean out their opponents in national cups, they can look forward to marginal amounts of prize money. When the U.S. women’s team came in third in the 2003 World Cup, each team member received a bonus of $25,000 for their performance. Whereas the men’s team raked in an additional $200,000 apiece for making it to quarterfinal in 2002, even though they didn’t come in the top four teams.
Likewise this year, the English club Arsenal saw both its women's and men's teams win the Football Association Cup, the annual knockout tournament in English soccer. The men’s team was rewarded with £1.8 million, but their female counterparts will have to only £5,000 between them.
As the BBC reported last October, this gendered differential in prize earnings is not unique to soccer, but structures the playing field in a number of sports, including golf and cricket. Giving out hugely disparate amounts of prize money to men and women for the same athletic feats signals that we value male athletes and their accomplishments more. And it further entrenches the sense that women's sports are little more than recreational outlets and hobbies rather than a professional, elite sport.
British sprinter Jeanette Kwakye commented on how the pay gap impacts female athletes in a column for The Guardian last October:
I remember picking up my first winner’s cheque of €500 at a small competition in Ireland and thinking I had made it. Until I realised that men in the 100m at the same event received €2,000. It was a rude awakening.
Corporate money tends to follow the men’s sports and their competitions, but there is no reason why the biggest international tournaments would continue to reward women at such a meager level when they too can draw audiences of millions.
3. The airtime that sportscasters give women’s soccer is skimpy on a great day, but nonexistent most of the time
Added to the stark earning gaps is the media coverage’s blithe disregard for the existence of women’s soccer whatsoever. One study found that ESPN dedicated only two percent of their coverage in 2014 to all women's sports, which explains in large part why the National Women’s Soccer League is struggling to build a fan base and to draw in revenue from ticket sales and corporate sponsors that it needs to pay its players fair wages.
In turn, the media companies explain their avoidance of women’s soccer matches by repeating the same tired point: women’s soccer just isn’t as interesting as the men’s league. But that adage needs to be reexamined. The audience figures from the last women’s World Cup demonstrated that there is a significant audience out there, just waiting to be tapped into.
Cheryl Cooky, a professor of women’s studies at Purdue University, has noted that the sports coverage itself is largely responsible for creating the sense that women’s soccer is less interesting. Media companies shell out resources and personnel to make men's sports like soccer, football and basketball as exciting as possible for audiences on the big screen. Without comparable investments in women’s sports, Cooky argues, it is no wonder that American viewers think the game involves less drama.
“Men’s sports are going to seem more exciting,” Cooky told The Atlantic. “They have higher production values, higher-quality coverage, and higher-quality commentary ... When you watch women’s sports, and there are fewer camera angles, fewer cuts to shot, fewer instant replays, yeah, it’s going to seem to be a slower game…The media plays a huge role in building and sustaining audiences for sport and they do it very well for men’s sports and they do it horribly for women’s sports.”
If sports media companies actually put time and money into how they covered women’s sports, they might find that they can attract a significant portion of the women’s World Cup audience on a regular basis.
4. Soccer organizations like FIFA seem not to take women’s soccer seriously
Case in point: the biggest women’s competition internationally is being played on artificial turf instead of grass — a cost-cutting measure that leads to greater fatigue and risk for injury among the players and that would not have been contemplated for the men's World Cup. Historically, every World Cup competition has been played on grass; this will be the first tournament to use the harsh, rubber-based substance on all six pitches. The next men’s World Cup, slated for 2018 in Russia, will be on grass.
(Another case in point: former FIFA President Sepp Blatter, who resigned this week in the midst of a brewing corruption scandal, once commented that the women players should wear "tighter shorts.")
Players across the board agree: playing on artificial turf is no fun. When asked by FIFA about whether or not they preferred grass, seventy percent of the women players surveyed voted against turf. It changes the pace of the game — not to mention that the rubber tears up players' legs when they dive and retains much more heat, which in turn radiates up and tires the athletes. During Sunday’s matches in Ottawa, the temperature of the turf reached a sweltering 130 degrees.
A forward for the U.S. national team, Sydney Leroux, posted a picture to Twitter of her legs after playing on the artificial stuff:
In response to the Canadian Soccer Association's decision to settle for turf for this year’s World Cup, top female players from around the world joined together to file a lawsuit last October in a Canadian human rights court against CSA and FIFA, alleging that the associations were not treating women equally by forcing them to play on lesser fields. Included on the legal challenge were Wambach, U.S. star Alex Morgan, Brazil's Marta, Germany's Nadine Angerer, and Spain's Verónica Boquete.
Wambach explained the case to the Associated Press in September:
There's so many different debates around this. But the reality is, the men would never play [the World Cup] on field turf. So for me, it's a women's rights issue, it's an equality issue.
In turn, U.S. women's national team player Heather O'Reilly described FIFA’s decision to use fake grass as "almost laughable."
But FIFA and CSA refused to bend. Instead, the two associations began to pull every procedural tool they could to prolong the court process, hoping to run down the clock before the June tournament. And they succeeded. The players withdrew the challenge this spring because the competition loomed too close to do anything about it.
In many ways, the decision to use turf and the subsequent FIFA stonewalling of the top players' lawsuit has served as the biggest symbolic blow to women’s soccer (and literal blow to women's legs).
As the female players argued in their suit:
Notwithstanding their rhetoric decrying gender discrimination, CSA and FIFA propose that [this] summer’s World Cup – the preeminent event in women’s soccer – take place on literally unequal playing fields.
It is time to start treating and compensating women soccer players as the professional, hard-working, skilled athletes that they are.
Images: Getty Images (5)