Refuting the “Revenue Argument” in Women’s Soccer Pay Inequality

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The US women’s soccer team has won four FIFA World Cup titles in the nearly 37 years since its first game in Italy in 1985. (US Soccer, Lenthang) Meanwhile, the US men’s team has won zero World Cups in the nearly 109 years since its conception. (US Soccer, Lenthang)

Despite the US women’s soccer team’s stellar record, they have consistently been paid less than the men’s team—an issue which made national headlines once again this year as the women’s team won a $24 million settlement in their fight for equal pay, with US Soccer agreeing to equalize pay between the teams in future tournaments. (Lenthang)

But equal pay from US Soccer doesn’t mean equal pay from FIFA—in fact, it means that US Soccer pays the difference in the pay discrepancy. (Lenthang)

For context, the winning team in the 2018 men’s World Cup was awarded $38 million by FIFA, while the US women’s soccer team received $4 million for their 2019 championship title. (Bachman) Pundits have long cried that the pay for women’s teams should be tied to revenue, and a Forbes column justified the 2018/2019 chasm in pay by arguing that it “was justified because of the 2019 Women’s World Cup’s projected $131 million in revenue.” (Bachman) This claim exploded on social media forums and news outlets justifying pay inequality on the grounds that the women’s team generated only a fraction of what the men’s team had, and it was even used in lobbyists’ slideshow to congress fighting pay equalization. (Bachman, Murray)

There’s two significant problems with this claim: First, the figure of $131 million is completely erroneous, and comes from the projected expenses, not revenues, of the women’s World Cup. (Bachman) But even more troubling? In an email to the WSJ, a FIFA spokesperson said that “specific commercial revenues for the FIFA Women’s World Cup cannot be distinguished from the overall commercial revenue from FIFA competitions.” (Bachman)

Despite this roadblock in analyzing the “revenue argument,” I believe that it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that the 2018 men’s World Cup generated significantly more revenue than the 2019 women’s World Cup. According to FIFA, the global audience for the women’s World Cup in 2019 was 28% that of the men’s World Cup in 2018, (Bachman) and that doesn’t account for the larger quantity of stations, advertisers, and merchandisers that contributed to the revenue streams of the men’s World Cup.

The argument about discrepancies in revenue streams seems to treat this chasm as an inevitability: It’s inevitable that more people watch men’s soccer, it’s inevitable that men’s soccer makes more money, and therefore, it’s inevitable that men should get paid more. From commercial news outlets to academic papers, it seems like everyone is missing the bigger picture: if we assume that women’s soccer makes less money, it will make less money.

For example, ad-tracker Kantar estimated that the 2019 US women’s world cup would generate $43 million in ad revenue, while the WSJ was able to put the actual figure at $96 million, more than double what the ad-tracker had predicted. (Pavacich) Kantar is a leading consulting company whose insights guide the practices of advertisers. Such an estimate directly undermines the ad revenue prospects of the women’s World Cup—it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Who’s to say that ad revenue wouldn’t have exceeded $96 million if not for estimates like Kantar’s, which downplay the profitability—and therefore the revenue outcomes—of women’s sports?

A study titled ‘‘‘It’s Dude Time!’’: A Quarter Century of Excluding Women’s Sports in Televised News and Highlight Shows” published in Communication & Sport provides a 5-year update to a 25-year longitudinal study of women’s sports coverage. The update shows that coverage of women’s sports has remained massively underrepresented in sports broadcasting. (Cooky, et al.) The researchers observed qualitative changes over time in the types of stories covered in women’s sports, but they were not changes that encouraged serious excitement about—or promotion of—women’s sports. (Cooky, et al.) They observed that past coverage had a tendency to view women in humorous and hyper-sexualized roles, while more recent coverage tended to lean on different but similarly tired tropes, such as the challenges of motherhood. (Cooky, et al.) Conversely, mens’ sports coverage contained a wider variety of stories, and a diversity of experiences not just limited to gender and parenthood. (Cooky, et al.)

The study also found that while the coverage of women’s sports has increased—meaning that televised women’s games have become more common and accessible across sports—increased coverage has not migrated to highlight shows or nightly news segments. (Cooky, et al.) The authors note that these segments are often vital locations for the formation of fan bases and audiences for men’s sports, so women’s exclusion here is disastrous for growing a committed audience and consumer base for women’s sports. (Cooky, et al.)

Another study in Communication & Sport, titled “An Examination of Women’s Sports Coverage on the Twitter Accounts of Local Television Sports Broadcasters” analyzed nearly 20,000 tweets from over 200 local sports broadcasters, and found that only about 5% of content contained information about women’s sports. (Hull) While TV broadcasters often claim that they cover women’s sports less due to time constraints, no such constraints exist on Twitter. (Hull)

In their paper “Relationship Marketing and Interactive Fan Festivals: The Women’s United Soccer Association’s ‘Soccer Sensation’”, authors Jowdy and McDonald explain that increasing the number of interactions a fan has with their chosen league or team increases “brand equity,” which in turn increases “media exposure, merchandise sales, corporate support, and ticket sales.” (Jowdy & McDonald)

Together, this information tells us that women’s sports suffer a significant disadvantage in gathering audiences and consumers—and it’s not innate. Consumers would know more about women’s sports if they took up a larger portion of sports coverage, and ultimately would be more likely to consume related merchandise and boost revenue. Their exclusion constitutes a broadcasting and coverage decision that strips the pockets of female athletes.

I remember the official soccer ball from the 2010 men’s World Cup vividly: It was everywhere in sports stores during and after the games, and I still see it looking beat-up amongst people’s collections of soccer balls to this day. Shakira’s “Waka Waka (This Time for Africa),” the official song of the 2010 men’s World Cup, was heard around the world. I couldn’t tell you what the 2011 women’s World Cup soccer ball looked like, or what its official song was. I can’t remember the last time a I saw a woman’s story on ESPN that wasn’t about her experiences with motherhood, or unequal pay, or gender discrimination, or general “woman-ness.” The gimmicks that sports stations are selling about women aren’t selling, and yet millions of people are still watching their games—The 2019 women’s World Cup final saw an average audience of 15 million viewers in the US, compared to 12 million in the US for the 2018 men’s final. (Pavacich)

So in response to those who say that women’s soccer salaries should be tied to revenue, I offer two suggestions:

First, figure out what that revenue is.

Second, promote equity in women’s sports coverage and marketing. If women’s games were promoted, if women were covered equally, if more merchandise was sold—we might just give you a run for your money.

Works Cited:

  1. US Soccer. “Timeline.”
  2. Lenthang, Marlene, “US Soccer and women soccer stars settle equal pay lawsuit for $24 million.”
  3. Bachman, Rachel. “What is the Women’s World Cup Worth? Not Even FIFA Knows.”
  4. Murray, Caitlin, “Soccer’s equal pay falsehoods and assumptions torpedoed.”
  5. Pavacich, McKenzie, “Reports: Viewership, ad revenue up for Women’s World Cup.”
  6. Cooky, Cheryl, Micheal Messner, and Michela Musto, ‘“It’s Dude Time!”: A Quarter Century of Excluding Women’s Sports in Televised News and Highlight Shows.”
  7. Hull, Kevin, “An Examination of Women’s Sports Coverage on the Twitter Accounts of Local Television Sports Broadcasters.”
  8. Jowdy, Elizabeth and Mark McDonald, “Relationship Marketing and Interactive Fan Festivals: The Women’s United Soccer Association’s ‘Soccer Sensation’.”
More posts by Megan K. Baloutch.
Refuting the “Revenue Argument” in Women’s Soccer Pay Inequality
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