The Fight of Fair Play in Women Soccer

The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) begins its fourth season this coming weekend. With a new team, the Orlando Pride, starting this season, the expanded league will open play with ten clubs. Seattle Reign FC enters the season defending the NWSL Shield, having finished last year at the top of the league standings, while Kansas City FC looks to win the league playoffs for the third year in a row.

Though still a fledgling association, the NWSL will hit a longevity benchmark not enjoyed by either of its two predecessor leagues in women’s professional soccer. Both the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA, 2001-2003) and Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS, 2009-2012) each folded after three seasons. What has distinguished the NWSL’s operations is the involvement of soccer federations in the US, Canada, and Mexico, as well as Major League Soccer (MLS).

The season kicks off amid conflict between U.S. Soccer and the league’s star players who are members of the national team. National team players brought attention last year to unequal, unsafe field conditions, calling for elimination of the “grass ceiling.” More recently, players have turned to the issue of compensation. Within an ongoing legal dispute between U.S. Soccer and the player’s union, five well-known members of the national team filed a complaint of wage discrimination on March 31 with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The hashtag #FairPlayFairPay summarizes their argument: women’s players on the national team are required to perform the same job, but for far less than their counterparts on the men’s side. The debate currently unfolding is whether U.S. Soccer, as a nonprofit organization, can take revenue into account in determining compensation for players on the men’s and women’s teams, and if so, how it does this. The likely outcome is a substantially improved compensation package for the women.

These challenges to U.S. Soccer are laudable for the attention they bring to longstanding patterns of inequality. It is also a welcome development to see the stars of the women’s game speaking up, using the platform their success has generated to push for equality. However, little attention has been devoted to the implications of the unfolding conflict for the future of women’s professional soccer.

In explaining the recent EEOC filing, several women’s soccer stars have referenced the example their action sets for younger generations of players. For instance, Alex Morgan wrote, “We decided to do this for all of the little girls across the country and around the world who deserve to have a voice.” Certainly, asserting the value and worth of women in soccer is an important message. Yet the voice that Alex Morgan has gained as a prominent member of the national team is not shared by many of her teammates on the Orlando Pride.

The demand for greater pay equity between the US national teams fails to address the poverty-level wages of many NWSL players or the gap between national team players and other NWSL players. In fact, one potential outcome of last week’s EEOC filing by the national team players is that the wage gap between them and their NWSL teammates will be exacerbated, if they continue to play in the league. The women’s national team members are undoubtedly the most skilled and, in many cases, the most experienced players in the country. They should be paid more. But the size of the NWSL pay gap may be (or become) far greater than is justified by differences in skill and experience. While a rising ceiling may be one sign of equality in soccer, another would be a higher floor.

The challenges that the NWSL faces extend beyond player compensation. The league is fighting to increase attendance, sign corporate sponsors, and attract mainstream media attention. To do so it must break a vicious cycle in which its small size is cited as reason to deny the resources that would help it most to grow. A sports league simply cannot attract fans if it is not seen consistently on the platform that gives it the widest possible audience: television. But, in true Catch-22 fashion, a television contract is unlikely without more fans. This challenge exists for many young sports leagues, but it is particularly acute for women’s sports, given persistent rhetoric of the inferiority of women’s sports compared to men’s sports.

The national team players are enormously valuable in selling the league, especially after their success in last summer’s World Cup. But they can’t do it all. Even when the women’s national team players are elevated to celebrity status with major tournament successes this attention does not always pay off in greater financial investment, as was evident in low sponsorship levels during and after the Women’s World Cup. And World Cup success has yet to translate into lasting attention to or investment in a national professional league. For instance, while the US team’s second-place finish in the 2011 World Cup did increase attendance at Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) games, the spike didn’t last. And it didn’t prevent the failure of this league in 2012.

To understand this disconnect between the current status of the national team and the comparative obscurity of the national league, look to nationalism. When women play as representatives of the nation, the barriers to fandom that lie with stereotypes of women’s sports are greatly reduced. It is easy to rally ‘round the flag, especially when international women’s contests are made visible and the stakes communicated clearly in high-quality media coverage. Patriotism trumps gender. Once the awards ceremony is over, however, gender re-enters the picture.

Andrei Markovits and Adam Green describe the women’s soccer cycle as “a big event followed by millions every four years with much less interest for the sport’s regular seasons.” Of course, last year’s World Cup was a huge event, and audiences will again see the women’s national team on television in this summer’s Rio Olympics. But then we will enter the dead zone between the Olympics and the next Women’s World Cup in 2019. If history is any indication, this will be a challenging time for the NWSL and its players.

A thriving women’s professional league is valuable to soccer in the US for several reasons. A strong national league will keep the national team competitive. A top-level, professional league gives talented players the chance to continue honing their game after college, in the hope of breaking into the national team. With the league’s long-term success, younger generations of players will see the NWSL itself as an equally valuable place of opportunity. And for the fans, including myself, it is really exciting to watch.

The five members of the women’s national team have shown real courage in confronting U.S. Soccer. Equally admirable are the rank and file players in the NWSL. Right now, these women earn between $7,200 and $39,700 (the league’s minimum and maximum salaries), well below the $126,000 in total base salary that veterans of the national team receive each year. Many NWSL players work second jobs. Some retire in their early to mid-20’s, finding that the insecurity already inherent in a professional sports career is not mitigated by the rewards typically enjoyed by male athletes. As the struggle at the top continues over the inequality between the women’s and men’s national teams, we shouldn’t lose sight of this struggle at the bottom. Both are equally important for the future of women’s soccer.