Can Women’s Sports Capitalize On the USWNT Momentum?

Ben BeeckenBen Beecken is a writer at Grandstand Central with a primary focus on the NBA, MLB, and NFL. He has spent nearly a decade working on the business side of sports including eight seasons in minor league baseball team front offices. Ben is also an editor and writer at Dunking With Wolves and a contributor across the FanSided network.

Gender

The U.S. Women’s National Team is finally getting its moment in the sun.

After winning their second consecutive World Cup with relative ease, the likes of Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan have quickly become household names. From emerging victorious on the field to rivaling the parade skills of Rob Gronkowski, USWNT is legitimately dominating the news cycle on the heels of taking it to the rest of the world.

The U.S. women never trailed in any game in the entire tournament and defeated all potential challengers along the way. The U.S. Men’s National Team? You may recall that they failed to qualify for the last World Cup on the men’s side and continue to struggle.

Yet the men are paid north of $263,000 in a calendar year compared to under $99,000 for their female counterparts, and it took a second consecutive win on the world stage to get folks talking about just how unequal this unequal pay really is.

But pay inequality isn’t the whole story; it’s partially a symptom of the larger problem, although it clearly remains part of a longer and more vicious cycle.

Now, the issue is becoming a political one. And before you roll your eyes, consider who is in charge of compensating athletes on the U.S. National Teams. There’s a clear case to be made, and the ball is rolling — and with significant momentum, at that.

Equal pay among the U.S. Men and Women’s National Teams is overseen directly by the U.S. government. That means that it’s the rare sports controversy that extends clearly into the political. And where Washington D.C. is part of the problem, it’s largely up to them to be a major part of the solution.

Tackling the biggest issues, from exposure to equal pay

Pay inequality is perhaps the most tangible issue facing women’s sports, as illustrated by the stark contrast in annual pay.

Looking beyond soccer, there are examples that include the U.S. Women’s National Hockey Team, as well as the WNBA. Small victories can avalanche into bigger ones, and the hope here is that it can work in the opposite direction, too: a big change brought about by the U.S. soccer women can trickle down to the other sports.

To be clear, the answer won’t always be that women receive the exact same salary as their male counterparts. Revenue matters, and women’s sports don’t generally rake in the same cash that men’s sports do — it’s a bit of a catch-22, actually, and we’ll dive deeper on that in a moment — so it’s in some ways justifiable that the players are paid less.

But what’s so heinous is the percentage of revenue that many of these women are being paid out of the overall pie. The easiest example to digest here is the WNBA, where players are paid less than 25 percent of the league’s overall revenue. The NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement, on the other hand, calls for the male players to be paid nearly 50 percent of league revenue. And there’s also the merit argument: the USWNT is substantially better than the USMNT.

The aforementioned U.S. women’s hockey program leveraged the height of their sustained success to attain a livable wage and similar investment from a marketing and promotion standpoint as the men’s team, among other things. They “won” that fight, but it was only the tip of the iceberg.

And as the hockey edition of the USWNT has identified, the overall exposure is a huge part of the battle when it comes to success in any women’s sport. If the team isn’t widely available to be seen on television, if they aren’t easily accessible via a variety of social and digital mediums, and if the major outlets aren’t covering them, then the sport will continue to tread water in the revenue department. Which in turn makes it more difficult to approve pay raises, and the increasingly vicious cycle continues. When only two percent of ESPN’s airtime and somewhere from four to eight percent of overall media outlet coverage is devoted to women’s sports, well … the cycle isn’t going to stop on its own.

So, what’s next? How can women’s sports at large leverage the success of the U.S. soccer women to keep the ball moving on these issues?

The Formula

Fair or unfair (read: unfair), the formula to equal pay and fair coverage begins with winning.

Things certainly would have been a lot easier if they were even from the beginning, but that ship has sailed, and there’s an enormous opportunity to correct course given the immense success of the USWNT at the World Cup.

Prior to the women’s World Cup final, ESPN announced an agreement to air 14 games of the National Women’s Soccer League beginning in mid-July. ESPN recognized the surge in interest in the women’s game and stepped to the plate to help grow the game, plus reap the benefits of continued growth. The league had only been broadcasting their games via streaming after an agreement with A&E Networks had been terminated; clearly the exposure on ESPN’s networks will be much greater and cater to a larger and more sports-centric audience.

The audience for women’s soccer is growing both globally and domestically, as Fox has seen with their coverage of the World Cup and as ESPN is banking on for their newest investment.

Now that the exposure is increasing and the sport — beyond the World Cup — has the monetary backing of the likes of ESPN, the next steps can be taken with the goal of seeing real, tangible progress.

Winning leads to exposure. More exposure to the sport and the athletes sheds more light on their collective plight. And the court of public opinion and outcry is a powerful thing.

Can There Be A Final Straw?

Strangely enough, it could be politicians that push this thing across the goal line — although they’re being nudged by some extremely invested citizens, per usual.

Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia is attempting to throw down some sort of gauntlet on Capitol Hill related to equal pay for women and specifically USWNT, and it apparently took a collegiate coach to compel him to act.

Nikki Izzo-Brown, the head women’s soccer coach at West Virginia University, penned a letter to Manchin that asked him for his assistance in the fight for equal pay. Her request was broad but centered on the success of the women’s team compared to the men’s squad while the wages remain flipped.

Ultimately, Senator Manchin introduced a bill on Tuesday that would block the federal government from providing funding for the 2026 World Cup — directly impacting the USMNT — until an agreement can be reached regarding equal pay between the men’s and women’s teams. The release on Manchin’s website acknowledges that the introduction of the bill came following Coach Izzo-Brown’s letter.

While drastic in some ways (threats!), it’s exactly the sort of action that is needed to keep nudging this massive boulder up the hill. We’re getting closer to the top, but there’s a real fear that other, more conventional and less … political ways to expedite the process could end up backfiring. It’s also important to acknowledge that in some ways, the U.S. National Teams are inherently political, as they receive public funding to operate and will be asking the government for more money moving forward. That should make this potential move far more palatable for the general public than, say, a private entity going to Washington D.C. to campaign for a pay raise.

We’re talking about a team that represents the nation yet is woefully underpaid by that sam nation’s government. It only makes sense to bring the heart of the issue right to the heart of those who (are supposed to be) balancing the U.S. budget. 

Here’s the thing: what women’s sports league would be able to withstand a true strike or work stoppage in order to fight for equal pay? Sure, some women’s soccer players are holding the line on this issue, but the team obviously still had enough firepower to defeat the rest of the world. A handful of WNBA players have dropped out and/or committed to playing overseas, but not enough to cause real change.

And who could blame them? If things were to go sideways, it might not just be them as an individual losing their job but the future of the league itself and in turn, the futures of other female athletes that would then hang in the balance.

The question becomes whether or not this political maneuver makes a dent in the news cycle, and can the likes of ESPN and Fox pay attention long enough to keep covering the real issue at stake? If the answer is yes, then there’s a real shot at progress.

The best-case scenario is that change comes about sooner rather than later, and legislation like this doesn’t need to be passed. But if push comes to shove — and we’re edging ever closer to the proverbial cliff — than a political movement could be necessary.

The clamoring for equality is only getting louder for women’s sports as a whole, and USWNT soccer victories both on and off the field will only serve to keep that progress moving forward.