Paying Women's Soccer Players Fairly Doesn't Even Begin To Rectify The Discrimination Problem

Fairness starts with investment. And that’s true across all professional sports.
Exclusive image of the author, on the internet today. (But this is actually a photo of Carli Lloyd.)
Exclusive image of the author, on the internet today. (But this is actually a photo of Carli Lloyd.)

Every once in a while as a writer you really put your foot in your mouth.

This week five of the players from the United States women's national soccer team filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging unfair wage discrimination.

Last year, at the height of the time that the team was busy raking in millions in revenue for their sport, I wrote a post titled "Here's why it's fair that female athletes make less than men." Right off the bat I'd like to say the headline is wrong and unfortunate. No question. 

But do I stand behind the post? Yes and no. 

First off, the details of the players' complaint make it fairly clear that their pay is highly discriminatory. I would never dream of arguing otherwise. It says right in the filing that the women contributed millions more in revenue to the U.S. Soccer organization than the men did. Yet they are still paid less. Pro soccer players who are women earn between 40 and 70 percent what the men do. That is not fair. 

That said, U.S. women's soccer is one of the few examples where the women's side of the sport is more popular than the men's at the professional level. Most women's sports don't work like that.

In the vast majority of sports, although not in U.S. Soccer, women athletes bring in much less revenue than men. And even in soccer, despite the women's popularity, female athletes get fewer sponsorship deals than their male counterparts. Using a certain obtuse logic, it's then fair to pay women athletes less -- although please don't mistake me writing "fair" with me meaning "correct."

But pay is only a symptom of the real problem, which is that no one has ever invested enough in women's professional sports. It's true of soccer, but also basketball, baseball and softball, and my personal favorite, cycling. 

Women are not less interesting to watch. They are not less talented (have you ever seen Serena Williams play tennis?!). The numbers that appear in the U.S. women's soccer team complaint prove that with the right exposure -- meaning marketing dollars and plenty of air time -- female professional athletes are just as successful at bringing in revenue, if not more so, than their male counterparts. 

The 2015 women's soccer World Cup got twice as many viewers in English as the men's version did just a year earlier (see tweet below). Yet, the women couldn't even find enough sponsorship to cover the cost of the New York City ticker-tape parade held in their honor after their World Cup win. (The city eventually covered the cost.)

In soccer and every other sport out there, the women playing professionally don't get the investment they need to make them popular. As I said six months ago:

So many professional women’s sports initiatives are set up to fail because they don’t have enough support from the beginning. Sponsors set up shop for a year or two, then bolt when they don’t see immediate returns, which sends teams and leagues into survival mode almost from the beginning. 

Take, for example, the case of the Velocio-SRAM women's cycling team, one of the best teams in their field. Velocio-SRAM was forced to disband at the end of 2015 due to a lack of consistent sponsorship. The previous year, the team's manager even had to launch a crowdfunding campaign in an attempt to supplement the team's budget. 

That is the heart of discrimination in sports. And fair pay doesn't even begin to fix it.