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The USWNT and US Soccer: How a historic equal pay agreement came to be

After US Soccer announced a pair of landmark collective bargaining agreements that equalise pay for its men’s and women’s national teams, SportsPro provides an overview of how a legal dispute dating back to 2016 was ultimately resolved and looks at the wider implications.

24 May 2022 Sam Carp

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Eventually, they found a way. History was made last week when US Soccer announced details of new collective bargaining agreements (CBA) that include equal pay for the country’s men’s and women’s national teams.

The national governing body confirmed its intention to equalise pay in February, but that was always contingent on finalising a new CBA, the confirmation of which finally ends a bitter dispute between the federation and some of its most decorated stars.

Cindy Parlow Cone, the recently re-elected president of US Soccer, who represented the US women’s national team (USWNT) on 158 occasions, described the agreements as a “historic moment” with the potential to “change the game around the world”.

“I am grateful for the commitment and collaboration of both the men’s and women’s national teams and I am incredibly proud of the hard work that has led to this moment,” she added. “Everyone who cares about our sport should share in this pride as we look forward to working together to grow soccer for generations to come.”

As the ink dries on the landmark agreement, SportsPro takes a look at how we got here and what broader implications it could have in both soccer and the world of sport.

Where did it start?

Most people will remember 2019 as the year when 28 members of the USWNT launched a gender discrimination lawsuit against US Soccer seeking more than US$66 million in backpay damages.

That came just months before travelling to France for the Fifa Women’s World Cup, where some fans could be heard chanting “equal pay” in support of the team. Those same words were then directed towards then-federation president Carlos Cordeiro during the team’s victory parade in New York City.

But the fallout actually dates all the way back to 2016, one year after another World Cup triumph. It was then that five of the sport’s biggest names – Hope Solo, Carli Lloyd, Becky Sauerbrunn, Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan – filed a wage discrimination complaint to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, citing the revenue and television ratings generated by the team as the foundation of their belief that they should be paid more.

Megan Rapinoe has been a prominent figure throughout the equal pay battle

“I think the timing is right,” Lloyd told NBC at the time. “I think that we’ve proven our worth over the years. Just coming off of a World Cup win, the pay disparity between the men and the women is just too large. And we want to continue to fight.”

Irrespective of when it really started, the message has always been the same: equal pay for equal work.

For all the support the USWNT received, their detractors argued that men’s soccer has historically attracted more money and eyeballs than the women’s game. But that line of thinking carried less weight in the context of the USWNT, the most successful women’s national team in terms of World Cup victories and whose global profile, it could be argued, outstrips that of their male equivalent.

It would prove to be a sometimes messy and often public dispute, not least because the players themselves were more than ready to state their case to anyone willing to listen, which kept the story in the spotlight and increased the pressure on the federation.

How did it play out?

March 2020: The fallout reached boiling point when Cordeiro resigned after the governing body filed legal documents stating that playing for the men’s national side carried ‘more responsbility’ and requires ‘a higher level of skill’. The choice of words was remarkably insulting to the women’s side and sparked widespread outrage, as well as criticism from some prominent US Soccer sponsors, who showed their support for the USWNT in various ways throughout the legal battle.

That resignation would prove to be a pivotal moment as it resulted in the appointment of Cone, initially on an interim basis. Cordeiro’s replacement described finding an out-of-court solution to the dispute as one of her “top priorities”.

May 2020: Two months later, however, the USWNT suffered a blow in their fight for equal pay as a federal judge dismissed the team’s claim, ruling that the case did not even warrant a trial.

The ruling said: ‘Merely comparing what WNT players received under their own CBA with what they would have received under the MNT CBA discounts the value that the team placed on the guaranteed benefits they received under their agreement, which they opted for at the expense of higher performance-based bonuses.’

Molly Levinson, who acted as a spokesperson for the USWNT, said that the team were ‘shocked’ by the decision and vowed to ‘appeal and press on’.

December 2020: The USWNT celebrated their first win when they reached a settlement with the federation over unequal working conditions, securing the women’s players the same benefits as their male counterparts, including chartered flights for travel, comparable hotel accommodation and specialised professional support services.

February 2022: Just weeks before US Soccer’s presidential election, in which Cone would ultimately fend off Cordeiro’s second, perhaps optimistic tilt at the leadership role, a court filing confirmed that the federation had reached a settlement with the USWNT over equal pay.

Under the terms of the agreement, US Soccer promised to pay the USWNT members US$22 million in direct compensation, with an additional US$2 million going towards the players’ post-career goals and charitable endeavours related to the women’s game. There was also a commitment to pay the men’s and women’s national teams equally for all friendlies and tournaments, including the World Cup.

All of that, though, was just a promise until the CBA – unveiled last week – was finalised.

What’s in the new CBA?

In short, US Soccer has agreed new CBAs with the players associations for both its men’s and women’s national teams that will run until 2028. The most important detail is that the pair will be equally compensated for all competitions, including World Cups.

Perhaps the biggest difference under the previous contracts was in how the players were paid. The USWNT received guaranteed salaries from US Soccer, whereas the men agreed to a pay-for-play model, whereby they were only compensated if they were called up to the squad. However, a big part of the original dispute stemmed from the fact that the women’s team did not receive the same as the men in terms of per-game bonuses.

Now, both men’s and women’s players will earn identical appearance fees for both friendly games and competition matches, while members of the USWNT will no longer receive guaranteed salaries.

What’s more – and crucial – is that the two players associations have agreed to pool together a percentage of their World Cup prize money, which will then be equally divided between both squads. That is a significant commitment given that there remains a stark difference in the prize pot for Fifa’s flagship competition, with this year’s men’s tournament in Qatar offering US$440 million, compared to a bonus pool of US$60 million for the next women’s event in 2023.

Other highlights of the CBAs include:

  • A portion of US Soccer’s commercial revenue will be split equally between the USWNT and men’s team
  • Players will be paid a share of the revenue from ticket sales for home games, in addition to a bonus for sold out fixtures
  • US Soccer will provide childcare during training camps and matches for both teams
  • The USWNT and men’s side will be afforded the same quality of venues and playing surfaces, as well as equal quality of hotel accommodation and equal number of charter flights
  • The USWNT’s ‘benefits players’ will receive health, dental and vision insurance, and will also continue to be paid for up to six months during parental leave

What are they saying?

I don’t think you can overstate how huge this is not just for us, but hopefully, kind of setting a new tone going forward.

Megan Rapinoe, USWNT and OL Reign

Reflecting on the historic @USWNT equal pay decision tonight, it’s important to remember that @JulieFoudy, @MiaHamm, and other 99ers took a huge risk to start this journey. Without their hard work and sacrifices, equal pay would not be possible.

Billie Jean King, former tennis world number one and social activist

Why does it matter and what happens next?

US Soccer said that the CBAs will ‘set the global standard moving forward’ for international soccer but there will be hope that its force will be felt even wider than that, inspiring change in other industries where there remains a gender pay gap. The impact this could have on aspiring young female soccer players considering a career in the game also shouldn’t be underestimated.

In the first instance, though, it should start to apply some pressure within the soccer community, where female players for other national teams will rightly be able to point to this agreement and ask why they shouldn’t also receive the same financial and performance benefits as their male counterparts.

Some national governing bodies, such as the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) and the Norwegian Football Federation (NFF), are committed to paying their men’s and women’s players the same amount for representing the national team. But no others have yet committed to splitting World Cup winnings in the same way US Soccer has, which will likely lead to the biggest redistribution of money.

It’s worth pointing out at this stage that, under the new agreement, the men’s team would have received a share of the women’s side’s 2019 World Cup winnings despite themselves not qualifying for the 2018 tournament in Russia. But the new model – under which prize money and commercial revenue are bundled together – not only widens the women’s team’s earning potential, it also means the two sides will very much be invested in the success of the other.

That sense of togetherness is something that US Soccer will no doubt look to promote as it seeks to rebuild its public image after spending recent years being painted as the villain. Up until now onlookers might have only seen legal wrangling and division within soccer in America, but the sport’s governing body will now be able to display a united front as it turns its attention to hosting the men’s World Cup in four years’ time.

And that will perhaps be the most priceless thing of all.

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