Abby Wambach. Hope Solo. Alex Morgan. Megan Rapinoe. Carli Lloyd. Chances are, you're far more familiar with the names, past and present, of the U.S. women's national soccer team than those of U.S. men's team, for good reason. They're a far more successful team — the most successful women's team in international soccer, in fact: The women have won three Women's World Cup titles, four Olympic women's gold medals, and eight CONCACAF Gold Cups. They are currently ranked #1 in the world by FIFA, the international soccer federation. Despite their success, the women of U.S. soccer continue to be paid less than the men. In the new book The National Team: The Inside Story of the Women Who Changed Soccer, Caitlin Murray traces the history of the the team and tells the inside story of the team's contentious battle to be paid and treated the same as the men.
In March 2019 — just three months before the kickoff of the Women's World Cup in France — 28 players filed a lawsuit against U.S. soccer, accusing the organization of gender discrimination. The fight is far from over, and it's been going on for a long, long time. The following excerpt from The National Team details the negotiations that took place just after the U.S. women's soccer team victory at the 2015 Women's World Cup:
Though winning the 2015 World Cup finally gave the players the confidence to speak up in a way they hadn’t before, the groundwork had been laid the year before. The players were ready to start changing tactics in their contract negotiations, and that’s when they fired John Langel, the man who had led the national team through their most important previous legal battles.
It happened in September 2014. By then, some of the players had already felt the deal negotiated under Langel’s guidance a year earlier didn’t do enough.
The deal he spearheaded in 2013, which was set to expire at the end of 2016, largely rolled over many of the terms of their previous contract, which was negotiated back in 2005. Rather than put together a new collective bargaining agreement [CBA], the 2013 contract came in the form of a memorandum of understanding, or an MOU. It was a hastily put- together document so a deal could be done in time for the NWSL’s [National Women's Soccer League] launch in March 2013. In some places, final terms weren’t even set — for instance, it specified that marketing rights were “an issue that remains to be discussed.” That became the source of repeated squabbles between the team and the federation.
"...some of the players had already felt the deal negotiated under Langel’s guidance a year earlier didn’t do enough."
But still, it included what Langel saw as key wins. It increased the number of players U.S. Soccer had to put under contract — which guaranteed year-round salaries, injury protection, and pregnancy protection — to 24 players, up from 20. It raised salaries significantly, with different compensation increases built in regardless of whether there was or wasn’t a league for the players.
The players could also earn larger bonuses and, for the first time, they could earn a bonus for finishing in fourth place of a World Cup or an Olympics at $10,000 per player. A provision set a minimum of 10 dates for the team’s victory tour, which essentially served a bonus because the team would also earn $1.20 per ticket sold to every U.S.- based friendly game. That marked the first time the team had gotten a direct cut of ticket sales.
But the players weren’t sure they’d gotten everything they could have, and some players wondered if the team was outgrowing the basic structure of the contract. After all, the contract was built on what the team first bargained for in 2000, and an exhausting 10- game victory tour, when these players were more in-demand than ever, didn’t make sense anymore to some players.
That marked the first time the team had gotten a direct cut of ticket sales.
The MOU also left too many gray areas, even beyond the parts that were unfinished. The tier system for players was confusing, and the national team was constantly questioning the federation about which players were on which salary tier. With a $36,000 difference between the top tier and the bottom tier, players wanted something more concrete to guarantee their compensation.
“The way we read clauses in that MOU was different than the way U.S. Soccer read the MOU,” [professional soccer player] Becky Sauerbrunn says. “Looking back, we should’ve fought for something more comprehensive than the MOU, but as players we didn’t demand that, and that’s on us.”
It wasn’t about any one specific thing, though. Some players felt Langel had grown out of touch with the team’s needs ever since Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy had retired. Others felt that John Langel and U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati had gotten far too chummy.
“He had been in it for so long, he had a close relationship with Sunil — a very good relationship with Sunil, in fact,” Hope Solo says. “He’d go up to Sunil’s suite every game and sit with him.”
“Some say it was a working relationship,” Solo adds. “Others say it was a little too close of a relationship to really stand up and fight for us.”
That too-chummy impression hung over Langel’s final meeting with the team before he was fired. In September 2014, Langel and Gulati met with the players in Rochester, New York, where the team had a friendly match against Mexico.
The meeting wasn’t unusual — the national team’s contract called for regular meetings between the players and U.S. Soccer to discuss how things were going in the NWSL. The players would send Langel their concerns about things like coaching, travel accommodations, field conditions, medical treatment, and other issues, and then he’d compile them to get club owners’ responses. U.S. Soccer’s job was to intervene and make sure improvements happened. But the meeting reinforced for players their impression of Langel and Gulati’s relationship.
At a hotel in Rochester, Gulati sat in the front of the conference room and all the players sat facing him while Langel sat off to the side. It was Gulati who ran the meeting. He didn’t have a copy of the player memos in front of him—he conducted the meeting without any notes— while Langel, notes in hand, would interject at times. It was a meeting for the players’ benefit, but Gulati was the dominant figure in the room.
After the meeting, the players got ready to head to training, and Langel and Gulati broke off to have lunch together at the hotel. As far as some players were concerned, that was something Langel and Gulati had done too often — getting a meal or a cup of coffee together like old friends. Some players said goodbye to Langel on their way out of the hotel.
Rich Nichols, another attorney, was there in Rochester, too. He had already been in contact with the players as far back as late 2012 through Hope Solo, who was frustrated with the team’s hesitance to take a stronger stance against U.S. Soccer. Solo didn’t know Nichols when she called him for the first time. She believed the national team needed a stronger voice in negotiations, and after asking around, she eventually got Nichols’s name.
His highest-profile experience in sports came from representing Olympic track star Marion Jones in doping allegations and serving as general counsel for the American Basketball League, a women’s league that preceded the WNBA. Nichols’s expertise isn’t quite as a trial lawyer, but he speaks with the cadence and tempo of one, knowing which words to emphasize and where to pause for effect.
As the players of the national team were debating how to move forward in contract negotiations, Solo called Nichols on her own to see if he could help. Their first conversation centered largely around the idea that the women should demand the same pay as the men’s national team. Nichols and Solo felt a philosophical connection right away. Both outspoken and unafraid to ruffle feathers, they had the same ideas about the tack the national team needed to take.
Their first conversation centered largely around the idea that the women should demand the same pay as the men’s national team.
“She was a tiger,” Nichols says of that first conversation. “It was clear she was going to do whatever was required to get some equality with regard to compensation.”
It wasn’t until September 2014 — after that meeting with Langel and Gulati — that enough players were ready to hire Nichols. They had decided John Langel was no longer able to stand up to U.S. Soccer and Sunil Gulati in the way that they needed. The players held a vote in Rochester by show of hands on whether to hire Rich Nichols. It wasn’t unanimous, but it was enough.
Christie Pearce, the captain of the team, was tasked with breaking the news to Langel. She told him the players needed to be sure their lawyer would not have allegiance to the federation. The firing didn’t entirely surprise Langel. Before then, he had a growing sense the players didn’t trust Gulati, and he didn’t share that view, which the players knew. It still hurt, Langel admits, but he would’ve never wanted to continue without unanimous support from the national team.
“As far as I’m concerned, I would not want to represent the players on an 11- to- 10 majority vote or 12- to- 9 or whatever it was,” Langel says. “That’s not a recipe for success.”
Rich Nichols became the attorney for the players and the new head of their players association. With that, the tone of the relationship between the national team and the federation was about to take a sharp turn.
Nichols’s first major action in his new role was to tell U.S. Soccer that as far as the players association was concerned, there was no collective bargaining agreement in place and the players could strike if they wanted. U.S. Soccer got the letter on Christmas Eve of 2015.
His argument went back to Langel’s memorandum of understanding. An MOU isn’t a CBA, his argument went, and therefore it could be canceled at any time. If that was true and the MOU was canceled, the no-strike provision of the previous CBA would not be in effect, and the players could threaten to boycott the 2016 Olympics.
The national team was trying to get back the leverage of a potential strike.
It was a bold strategy devised, in part, by Jeffrey Kessler and his colleagues at Winston & Strawn, who were hired as outside counsel for the national team. Kessler had been involved in a number of high- profile cases in the world of sports, such as overturning Tom Brady’s infamous “Deflategate” suspension from the NFL and successfully appealing Ray Rice’s indefinite suspension from the NFL for a disturbing domestic-violence incident. Kessler had also won the case that paved the way for free agency in the NFL in the 1990s.
Weeks later, as negotiations for a new national team contract began, the issue came to a head. In a February 3, 2016 meeting, federation lawyers asked Nichols to reassure them that the players wouldn’t strike. Nichols refused — he said the players wouldn’t forfeit their legal right to strike. That, as far as U.S. Soccer was concerned, was tantamount to a threat, and the federation immediately went to federal court asking a Judge to rule the players couldn’t strike.
...federation lawyers asked Nichols to reassure them that the players wouldn’t strike. Nichols refused — he said the players wouldn’t forfeit their legal right to strike.
The 2016 Olympics in Rio were six months away, and both sides were digging in their heels.
“We didn’t expect them to jump to court,” Kessler says. “But the federation obviously decided that they were going to come in like tough guys and with lots of resources and spend a lot of money, which they did, and require the players union to spend money to fight it. And it was all part of their strategy to head off any possibility that there would ever be a strike.”
Meanwhile, there were still contract negotiations to do — contract negotiations that had to take place no matter what the federal judge decided.
At the start of substantive negotiations in February 2016, Nichols presented an 18-page financial proposal. It essentially demanded that the women’s team be paid the same as the men’s team.
“What we got back is what all professional players associations get when they ask for more money from management—you get what I call the Poverty Presentation,” Nichols says. “In our first negotiation, the financial officer gets up and they walk us through their last few years of their financial history and, as always, they arrive at: Well, we don’t have any money. That’s what we got in the first negotiation session.”
Negotiations continued on March 5, and they remained at a standstill: Nichols said the national team wanted to be paid what the men’s team was making and the federation, again, said that wasn’t possible.
“The tone of those negotiations was very contentious,” says Becky Sauerbrunn, who served on the national team’s CBA committee and participated in most of the negotiation sessions. “They didn’t go anywhere. We would go into those meetings and say we want equal pay and they would say you’re not really generating the revenue to deserve equal pay to the men. And it just went around and around like that.”
Nichols said the national team wanted to be paid what the men’s team was making and the federation, again, said that wasn’t possible.
But then on March 7, Rich Nichols saw something that caught him by surprise. It was an article by Jonathan Tannenwald of the Philadelphia Inquirer that broke down financial numbers contained in U.S. Soccer’s General Annual Meeting report. The report itself was released quietly on U.S. Soccer’s website without fanfare — Tannenwald was the only journalist for a major newspaper who picked up on it.
What the U.S. Soccer report showed — and what in turn the Philadelphia Inquirer explained — was that U.S. Soccer initially budgeted a $420,000 loss for 2016 but changed their numbers to expect a profit of almost $18 million, based largely on the gate receipts and merchandise sales of the women’s national team during the 2015 Women’s World Cup victory tour.
That’s not all the report showed, though. The women’s team was projected in 2017 to earn more than $5 million in revenue for the federation. The men’s team, meanwhile, was projected to lose about $1 million. That was even as U.S. Soccer planned to spend about $1.5 million more on the men’s team.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes,” Nichols says. “I said: This is what we need. This is what we thought was the real story, and here it is. They basically provided us the financial data we needed to prove our premise that the women are the economic engine of U.S. Soccer. We knew that but we didn’t have the numbers to prove it. And the men are a losing proposition despite the fact that U.S. Soccer tries to sell the story that the men drive the revenue. The women drive the revenue, period.”
The women’s team was projected in 2017 to earn more than $5 million in revenue for the federation. The men’s team, meanwhile, was projected to lose about $1 million.
U.S. Soccer was largely under no obligation to open its financial books to the players association, according to Kessler—the players association could have requested more specific information, but once they saw the financials U.S. Soccer had released publicly, they knew that wouldn’t be necessary. The numbers the federation put out supported the premise the players association had all along. They had everything they needed.
When the next negotiation session came around on March 15, Nichols confidently pulled out a printed copy of the report and confronted U.S. Soccer’s representatives with it. U.S. Soccer responded that the jump in profitability for the women’s team was an aberration — not part of the larger pattern in the federation’s finances.
“An aberration?” Nichols responded. “Aberrations don’t occur multiple years in a row. Aberrations aren’t projected. You guys have projected profitability. You projected the women to bring in more than the men.”
What U.S. Soccer’s executives told him, and have maintained in the federation’s defense ever since, is that over the previous four-year cycle — which includes World Cups for both teams — the men brought in more revenue than the women. Both sides agree that is true.
The gap in revenue between the national teams had historically been large—but the long-term trend showed the gap was shrinking. Since the 2015 World Cup, the gap had flipped and the women had been bringing in more money.
No one knew it at the time, but in a little over a year, the men would fail even to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, dealing a massive blow to their ability to generate revenue. But no one needed to know that yet. For two straight years in 2016 and 2017, the women were going to be more profitable than the men, and yet — as far as Nichols and Kessler were concerned — U.S. Soccer was acting in negotiations as if the men would always be more profitable.
“We did not believe their claim that there was a financial justification for discriminating against the women this way,” Kessler says. The negotiations reached their trigger point. The national team had a Plan B — a bombshell strategy — and now they were going to use it.