New York Daily News: Soccer Wars
1. THE GLASS LABYRINTH
Last July, when the 24 members of the U.S. Women’s National Team rolled down New York City’s Canyon of Heroes, they had every reason to believe they were on top of the world. Days earlier the team had trounced Japan to capture its third Word Cup and now the city was honoring them with a ticker-tape parade, the first ever for a women’s sports team. Their World Cup medals around their necks, the beaming players basked in the admiration of their rapturous fans. Carli Lloyd — who would later be named 2015’s world player of the year — hoisted the World Cup trophy for all to see. Alex Morgan posted photos of herself waving an American flag to her 2 million Twitter followers. Hope Solo, the edgy superstar, snapped selfies with her beaming teammates, confetti dancing around them.
Behind this joyful facade, however, trouble has been roiling America’s Heroes. In the runup to last summer’s World Cup and, now, as the team prepares to defend its Olympic gold medal in Rio de Janeiro in August, the WNT finds itself embroiled in controversy and butting heads with some of the biggest power brokers in world sports. It has been fighting discrimination in FIFA, soccer’s international governing body; arguing against inequities in the United States Soccer Federation, the sport’s national custodian, while defending itself against a lawsuit filed by the organization; and battling to obtain leverage in a sport in which power in the U.S. is increasingly coalescing in the hands of a business-savvy former NFL marketing guru, nicknamed “The Don,” whose company declares its ambition in a trademarked slogan: One Sport. One Company.
In trying to overcome obstacles created by the very organizations that ostensibly serve to foster and develop their sport, the members of the Women’s National Team — along with players in the National Women’s Soccer League — must contend with systemic biases that devalue and obscure their contributions to the game. Many of these practices are questionable and untenable at best and, quite possibly, illegal.
As the most visible international symbol of women’s soccer, the WNT has readily accepted a leadership role in this fight for fair play. It puts them in the company of Billie Jean King and Venus Williams, pioneering athletes whose off-the-court endeavors rivaled their athletic accomplishments. In the case of the WNT, it is a bid to push for more equal — or, at least, less grossly unequal — treatment in a sport long dominated by men. And it’s a battle they’re waging on multiple fronts, from compensation and working conditions to representation in the sport’s decision-making organizations.
Women’s soccer is dealing not so much with a glass ceiling as it is a glass labyrinth, from which the WNT has been trying to kick its way out. The stakes right now are high: If the WNT doesn’t win this year — at the negotiating table as well as on the field — women’s soccer will have to wait until 2019, when the next Women’s World Cup will be played, for such a conspicuous platform from which to fight.
Time after time, the women have knocked down the pillars used to support a number of long-standing prejudices. Women are told their games don’t draw television viewers compared to the men, yet 26.7 million Americans tuned in to last summer’s World Cup final, a record number to watch a soccer game — any soccer game — in this country. (To put that figure in perspective, it exceeds the number that watched the 2015 NBA Finals championship game featuring Stephen Curry and LeBron James, the two most popular players in the league.) More than 760 million people watched the Women’s World Cup worldwide, joined by another 86 million who viewed online.
Critics say women don’t put fans in the seats, yet attendance for the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada more than tripled that of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games.
Detractors have long dismissed women’s sports as an inferior or less exciting version of the men’s games, yet during the 2015 World Cup, Kobe Bryant, Barry Bonds and Bubba Watson all tweeted their appreciation as they followed the WNT’s road to victory.
Women have been told that men won’t watch them play, and yet the head of business operations for Fox Sports says that the demographics for the post–World Cup broadcasts of NWSL games were a “healthy mix between male and female viewers.”
“There’s no question that if any squad deserves to be called America’s Team it’s the U.S. Women’s National Team,” says Hampton Dellinger, the attorney who represented international players in a battle with FIFA over the use of artificial-turf fields in last summer's World Cup. “It’s up to US Soccer and FIFA officials to show that they respect what the women on the U.S. team and other teams have done on the field. The fans are there, the viewers are there, the skills. (In the U.S.), there is substantially more financial investment in the men’s team and, by comparison, there is almost nothing to show for it.”
On March 9, the WNT continued its winning ways by capturing the SheBelieves Cup, a tournament featuring four of the top five teams in the world. The Cup final was the team’s ninth win in a row, improving its record to 25 wins, 4 draws and 1 loss in the past year. In light of such great success you can’t fault any woman on the national team for thinking what she has been led to believe is finally unacceptable.
2. FIFA: NO GIRLS ALLOWED
To understand the forces determining the future of women’s soccer in the United States, you must start at the very top, with the organization that governs international soccer: The Fédération Internationale de Football Association. The Zurich-based organization governs six regional confederations and 209 national associations, sets the game rules and sanctions international tournaments for men, women and youth, beach teams and disabled players. FIFA, which has long-trumpeted the motto Fair Play, also happens to be one of the most corrupt organizations on the planet.
The U.S. Justice Department began investigating FIFA in 2010 and, over the past six years, has charged more than 40 people, including top FIFA executives and officials from its associated federations, on charges including racketeering, fraud and money laundering. The Swiss authorities have launched their own criminal investigation.
“What has been revealed so far is a mafia-style crime syndicate in charge of this sport,” commented Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), speaking about FIFA during a July 2015 U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing on international football integrity. “My only hesitation in using that term is that it is almost insulting to the mafia, because the mafia would never have been so blatant, overt and arrogant in its corruption.”
That FIFA has always been a boys club is well-reflected in the recent scandals and indictments, in which not a single female FIFA employee has been charged, though that may say less about female integrity and more about the proximity of women to power. It wasn’t until three years ago — a full 109 years after FIFA’s founding — that the first woman won her seat on the federation’s 209-member executive committee. Lydia Nsekera, from Burundi, was elected at that 2013 Congress and was joined by two non-voting female members, Moya Dodd from Australia and Sonia Bien-Amie from Turks & Caicos Islands. Marking the occasion, then-FIFA president Sepp Blatter called out from the podium, “Say something, ladies. You are always speaking at home, now you can say something here.”
When the Women’s World Cup final was played last July, Blatter — the same man who once suggested that female soccer players would be more popular if they wore tighter shorts — did not attend. Five months later, he was banned from the sport for eight years (later reduced to six) for an irregular payment of 2 million Swiss francs to vice president Michel Platini, the French football great, who was also banned. (On Feb. 26, Gianni Infantino was elected FIFA’s new president, vowing to clean up the troubled organization.)
Given the lack of encouragement of women in the sport, it’s not so surprising that the inaugural Women’s World Cup wasn’t held until 1991. Andrew Jennings, the U.K. journalist who first started reporting on FIFA corruption in 2000, says the climate within the organization has been so sexist, the Women’s World Cup was an afterthought. “It’s bent,” he says. “It’s a thing they introduced because they had to. ‘Women? Are you joking?’ ”
Julie Foudy, one of the stars of the 1999 World Cup and 2004 Olympics championship teams who is now an analyst with ESPN, says it’s easy to understand why the structural biases emanated from the top. “They come from cultures where women don’t play, or it’s even a joke,” she says. “Anytime you interact with them, the reality is that it’s not on their radar.”
3. SEPARATE AND UNEQUAL
With the women of the U.S. national team — and women’s soccer in general — generating so much attention, it was inevitable that their interests would clash with FIFA’s male power structure. In 2015, for instance, FIFA allotted the winners of the Women’s World Cup $2 million in prize money, a small fraction of the $35 million the German men received after winning the men’s Cup the previous summer. That inequality roused press coverage and social-media commentary, even working its way to the halls of Congress where Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) recalls being “angry-slash-upset about the discrepancy.” As a way to provoke discussion of bias, Sanchez, along with Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) co-sponsored a nonbinding resolution asking FIFA to address this disparity. “It very clearly highlights a pay gap just based on gender for people who do the same work,” Sanchez says. “It’s a very concrete example.” The Senate refused to take the resolution to the floor, though the representatives are still working for a House vote.
The team isn’t shortchanged only on payday; it also has had to contend with inferior, sometimes dangerous, work conditions. When superstar goal scorer Abby Wambach and her teammates arrived in Honolulu’s Aloha Stadium last December to warm up for an international “friendly” that was part of the victory tour, they found a troubling playing field. Rocks protruded through the stadium’s artificial turf, and Hope Solo discovered the pitch was splitting apart at the seams, evidence of which she shared on Instagram and Twitter.
“We tried to do our pre-game practice, and the artificial turf was one of the worst I’ve ever played on,” defender and co-captain Becky Sauerbrunn recalls. “We had just lost (midfielder) Megan Rapinoe to an injury.” Days earlier, Rapinoe seemed to trip on a loose grate at the sideline of a subpar grass field, tearing her ACL and putting her on the injury list for the Olympic qualifiers. “That was fresh in our minds,” Sauerbrunn continues, so the athletes made what she called a “team decision” and boycotted the game.
Wambach, playing in her final games before retirement, urged the action. “All the national team players will play on artificial surface,” Wambach explains. “But there are some artificial surfaces in the world that are just not good enough. Male players have walked off fields when the surface wasn’t acceptable. That standard needs to be the same for the women’s teams. No one (from US Soccer) went and saw the field. No one cared enough to take the time.”
Indeed, US Soccer initially claimed it had not checked the field and apologized for the oversight. But an investigation by a local newspaper turned up a sign-in sheet that showed nine officials had been to the stadium days earlier. US Soccer sent a letter placing the blame on the stadium owners. The matter is now the subject of a consumer-affairs investigation, a probe by the Hawaii attorney general’s office and a class-action lawsuit filed by fans against US Soccer.
The boycott underscored a point the women had been trying to make for years: that top female players deserve the same working conditions as top male players.
The feud over playing fields became a flashpoint for the players in 2014 after they learned that the Women’s World Cup in Canada was scheduled for stadiums outfitted with artificial turf, a surface that has never been proposed for the men’s Cup in its entire history. Wambach spoke publicly about her safety concerns, and her arguments attracted the notice of Hampton Dellinger, a Washington, D.C., lawyer and childhood Mia Hamm fan; and Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a former gold-medal Olympic swimmer and a longtime legal advocate for women in sports. By the time Dellinger, working pro-bono, sent a letter to FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association outlining the desire to switch to grass surfaces, Wambach had convinced her teammates to sign on, along with players from Germany, Brazil, Japan and other nations. The women even lined up companies that volunteered to install grass in the stadiums, a practice that is done for male players. The effort led nowhere.
For three months, FIFA and the CSA refused to meet with the athletes’ representatives. In October, the women moved forward and filed a civil lawsuit in the Human Rights Tribunal in Ontario, with 80 signatories. “What these women had to do to challenge the status quo while they were in the middle of training is no easy feat,” Hogshead-Makar says. “I can’t think of another instance when such disparate women were able to come together in this way.”
In response, FIFA alerted its federations to inform the players that they were risking suspension, fines and court fees by pressing on, causing a few Mexican and French players to drop out of the suit. Even US Soccer President Sunil Gulati warned his players through Dellinger that if they did not retreat, they faced the same punishments. The athletes filed a harassment lawsuit to protect against the suspensions, and proposed playing just the semifinals and final on grass, but FIFA held firm, offering no middle ground aside from sending field inspectors to assess the conditions of the artificial turf.
According to Dellinger, FIFA and CSA officials even went so far as to threaten during the pending lawsuit that the Women’s World Cup would be played on artificial turf or there would be no World Cup, saying there was “no plan B.” With the tournament kickoff drawing nearer, the athletes dropped their case so they could focus on the competition. Hogshead-Makar describes the contretemps as “one battle in the long war. They lost the battle for sure. But as I see it, equality is an inevitability. And the only question is, How painful is it going to be to get there?”
4. FOLLOW THE MONEY (GOOD LUCK WITH THAT)
Any discussion of the women’s battle to level the playing field with men quickly lands on the topic of money — and there are billions of dollars to go around. The problem is, the money trail becomes increasingly difficult to follow as it wends through soccer’s opaque power structure, from the sport’s international overseers to the regional and national federations and the organizations and leagues they, in turn, govern.
Moya Dodd, the FIFA executive-committee member who broke into the men’s club, says that women’s soccer could easily become FIFA’s “second cash cow,” but only if an adequate investment is made. Lack of resources has stunted the potential power of the women’s game to generate at its capacity. Dodd argues that this power needs to be unleashed. Of the $1 billion FIFA doles out in development money every year, only $13 million is earmarked for women’s football. “With FIFA, we have the biggest sport in the world,” Dodd says. “Which means we have the capability to turbocharge the development of the game in all its forms in every corner of the world.”
FIFA says that 90% of its revenue comes from the sale of television, marketing and hospitality rights for the World Cups. Jerome Valcke, the former FIFA secretary general, who has since been fired for financial irregularities, said at a December 2014 press conference that the men’s World Cup finances all the other World Cups (women, under-17 and -20 divisions, beach, etc.) because it “brings directly 4.5 billion U.S. (dollars) to FIFA.” That argument gave him the latitude to bat away questions about the vast differential in prize money between the men’s and women’s World Cup champions. “That’s not even a question I will answer because it is nonsense,” he said. “We are still another 23 World Cups” — the number of men’s tournaments FIFA has conducted — “before potentially women should receive the same amount as men.” In other words, in 92 years.
Given how common that argument is — that the women don’t deserve more support because they don’t bring in as much money — it would be revealing to learn just what kind of revenue the Women’s World Cup generates. Sadly, those numbers are not obtainable. FIFA will provide figures for what it spent on the 2015 Women’s World Cup ($73 million, compared to a whopping $2.2 billion that it spent on the 2014 men’s World Cup in Brazil). But for 2015 Women’s World Cup revenues — which included sponsorship from major international brands such as Adidas, Coca Cola, Hyundai/Kia, Gazprom, Wanda Group and Visa, as well as broadcast rights — the organization’s press office maintains that all earnings aside from ticket sales and national supporter donations, which go to the host country, are “not quantifiable” because they are simply packaged with the other World Cups.
FIFA’s refusal to itemize the Women’s World Cup revenue streams and assign monetary values to them — including the lucrative U.S. broadcast rights, which have been sold through 2026 — puts the women in a Catch-22 situation: They can’t be treated equally because they’re told they don’t generate as much revenue as the men, but they’ve been unable to leverage the increasing revenue their sport generates because FIFA refuses to reveal that information. In such an environment, how can the women demonstrate that they’re not merely riding on the backs of their male counterparts? And more to the point, how can they ever prove that their sport breaks even, let alone makes money for FIFA?
For the 2015 Women’s World Cup, FIFA sold the aforementioned sponsorships plus marketing, hospitality and licensing rights, along with broadcast and digital rights to hundreds of licensees around the world. The executives who purchased those rights don’t tend to buy such properties unless they know the value of what they are buying, so it is telling to look at the most recent case.
David Nathanson, head of business operations for Fox Sports, who helped win the English-language portion of the estimated $1.2 billion U.S. broadcast rights that included both the men’s and women’s World Cups from 2015 to 2022, had no trouble assessing the worth of the women’s tournament in determining the network’s bid. “I can tell you that when we were bidding on the rights, we valued the Women’s World Cup almost as high as the men’s World Cup,” he says. “We recognized at an early stage that the U.S. had the number-one ranked team in the world and there was a big opportunity to capture the interest of this country with that event. In fact, the Women’s World Cup final (in 1999) was the (second)-highest-rated soccer event. We knew there was tremendous value in it from an early stage, and we certainly considered that when we were bidding on the rights.”
Fox was rewarded with the highest viewership of any soccer match ever broadcast in the United States. The net revenue, which was projected at $17 million, turned out to be $40 million. “Women players are an inspiration,” Nathanson says. “You don’t have to explain that to advertisers.”
While marketers have established that value on the balance sheet, the athletes providing the inspiration — and profits — are prevented from enjoying the increasingly lucrative fruits of all that popularity and success.
“We know that there is money there,” Wambach says. “It just feels so unfair on so many levels. With the numbers from the Women’s World Cup last summer on Fox, you can’t argue whether we add value anymore.”
5. THE SUM CONUNDRUM
The U.S. women might expect to encounter more transparency from their own national federation, but even that accounting proves to be elusive.
If you continue to follow the money trail from FIFA, financial support for soccer pours down to the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football, which oversees those regions and supervises tournaments, including the Olympic qualifying matches, among other duties. Chuck Blazer, the former CONCACAF general secretary who was the U.S. representative to the FIFA executive committee (and who received a lifetime ban from soccer in July 2015 for, as FIFA’s ethics committee put it, “many acts of misconduct”), famously kept two apartments in Trump Tower, one largely for the use of his cats.
Beneath CONCACAF in this organizational tree is the United States Soccer Federation. The primary responsibility of US Soccer (as the federation is known) is to support the men’s and women’s national and junior teams as they compete in international play. In addition, the organization sanctions youth clubs and trains and licenses coaches and referees. It also collects $1 annually from every child who plays non-scholastic organized soccer in the country. US Soccer is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization, meaning it can’t work — directly or indirectly — for “private benefit” and must comply with tax laws governing such bodies, including those requiring transparency in its financial dealings.
For years, US Soccer, like FIFA, could argue that the women’s game didn’t generate revenue, but that is an increasingly specious claim as the fortunes being paid for commercial rights escalate. In the mega-bucks world of contemporary sports, commercial rights — primarily those for endorsements, sponsorships, official licenses and television — are natural resources akin to oil or gold; the lucre these profit centers can generate is what got FIFA officials into so much trouble in the first place. But with US Soccer, it’s hard to discern the true value of these rights. This stems from the complex, intertwined management of America’s national teams and domestic professional leagues by a not-for-profit corporation that works in concert with a limited-liability company, an arrangement that makes it difficult — if not outright impossible — to track the dollars that flow in and out.
Since 2004, the commercial rights for US Soccer — including those for the men’s and women’s national teams — have been controlled by Soccer United Marketing, an LLC overseen by Don Garber, who is the commissioner of Major League Soccer, the top men’s professional league in the U.S. and Canada. Garber also sits on US Soccer’s board of directors. SUM was created in 2001 by Garber and MLS owners as part of an ambitious plan to make MLS one of the top soccer leagues in the world by 2022; to achieve that goal, additional revenue streams from commercial soccer properties of all kinds would be needed. According to Gary Hopkins’ book “Star-Spangled Soccer: the Selling, Marketing, and Management of Soccer in the USA,” one of Garber’s key organizing principles was that every soccer dollar that does not go into MLS is a lost dollar. Enter, SUM. Known as “the commercial arm of MLS,” SUM now also controls the commercial rights of other soccer teams, such as the Mexican national team when it plays in the U.S.; international tournaments, such as the Copa America Centenario; and manages soccer-related advertising and promotional opportunities for major corporations. The profit from those ventures goes back to the MLS owners. The checks don’t travel very far: SUM is located in the MLS office.
To give a sense of how this works, let’s look at how SUM came into being. In the early 2000s, Garber and the owners wanted to get the fledgling MLS on television to build a fanbase and sponsor interest, but broadcasters weren’t interested — a lure would be required to entice them. When Garber noticed the U.S. broadcast rights to the 2002 and 2006 World Cups had not yet been picked up, he found his bait. The league acquired the potentially lucrative property and created SUM to serve as its business arm. SUM shopped the World Cup rights to television networks but with one condition: they also pick up MLS games, terms that ABC and ESPN ultimately accepted.
Through that kind of packaging and “one-stop shopping” for sponsors, SUM is able to pool revenues fairly quickly. By 2011, when SUM sold a 25% stake in the company to Providence Equity Partners, a private-equity investment firm, Major League Soccer’s “commercial arm” was estimated to be worth $600 million.
According to US Soccer president Sunil Gulati, SUM pays an annual guarantee to US Soccer — in 2004 it was $3.5 million; by 2014 it had grown to $8.25 million — in exchange for most sponsorship, television, licensing and royalty revenues. Not only does SUM benefit through financial remuneration, it allows it to package the gold-plated national team brand with other SUM properties — such as MLS — when selling rights to sponsors and broadcasters.
Once SUM reaches an undisclosed amount of profit on these commercial rights, it splits the rest with US Soccer, with 30% going to SUM. Financial statements ending in March 2015, the most recent available, show that SUM paid a total of $18.3 million to US Soccer. What is not indicated is how much of US Soccer’s potential revenue SUM retains. For example, of the eight-year, $720 million broadcast deal SUM recently inked for MLS and national team games, neither SUM nor US Soccer publicly discloses how much makes its way back to the federation. (Dan Courtemanche, senior spokesman for SUM and MLS, would not comment on business arrangements, citing SUM’s status as a private company. SUM president Kathy Carter declined to be interviewed, and Garber did not respond to interview requests.)
According to US Soccer, Garber recused himself from voting on its financial arrangement with SUM, standard protocol for someone who has interests with both parties. Yet Garber’s current relationship to one of those parties is unclear. On US Soccer’s most recent financial statements, Garber is listed as president of SUM; elsewhere, his title is CEO. Garber himself said in 2014, while recovering from prostate cancer, that he “will continue managing (MLS) and Soccer United Marketing.” US Soccer spokesman Neil Buethe was evasive when discussing Garber’s position with SUM, while Courtemanche did not respond to requests to confirm his role in the company.
When asked what precautions it has in place to avoid potential conflicts of interest, US Soccer says the federation consults on contracts and signs off on all commercial arrangements. (According to Buethe, the board recently renewed its relationship with SUM after considering other options.) But the board sees only the contract between US Soccer and SUM, not SUM’s underlying contracts.
Why US Soccer’s relationship with SUM would matter to the WNT is threefold: First, because US Soccer doesn’t break out how much money it makes from the WNT’s sponsorships and endorsement deals — money that flows initially into SUM — it’s impossible for the women to demonstrate how much revenue they generate for the organization and, therefore, argue that they deserve the same compensation and support that the men’s national team receives.
Second, since SUM licenses the rights of multiple soccer properties, including its very own MLS teams, some question how motivated the company is to aggressively market the women’s game. For instance, US Soccer and SUM did not secure corporate sponsorship or sell broadcast rights to the recent star-studded SheBelieves Cup. (SUM and US Soccer both say that they pitched the match to multiple corporate partners but the tight timetable precluded any from buying in. Both expect sponsorship next year.)
Third, while no one denies that SUM’s marketing acumen could add value to the WNT brand, the fact remains that the company takes a percentage of the revenues that could go to the team straight off the top. Using SUM as an outside agent to handle the federation’s sponsorships is rare. The NFL, MLB, NHL and NBA all control their own commercial rights and disburse revenues directly back to the teams; USA Swimming, USA Gymnastics, USA Track & Field and USA Hockey keep these rights in-house as well. What this means, essentially, is that the men’s league earns money off the labor of the women’s team, courtesy of SUM’s cut.
“The players are not asking to be overpaid. They are asking to be paid their market value. Let’s open the books. What is the market value of the women’s team?”
If US Soccer’s cozy relationship with SUM raises any questions, they won’t likely come from the top. In 2006, two years after SUM obtained the commercial rights to US Soccer, Garber — in his role as a US Soccer board member — nominated then–US Soccer vice president Sunil Gulati to be the president of the soccer federation. Gulati was also a founder, board member and deputy commissioner of MLS, and a member of SUM’s board of directors. Gulati ran without opposition.
All of this wouldn’t amount to anything if the women’s team was worthless to SUM, in its de facto role as US Soccer’s marketing agency. But as Fox Sports’ Nathanson pointed out, the WNT’s commercial appeal is a no-brainer. “There are certain sports, events and opportunities that don’t require a lot of selling to an advertiser,” he says. “You don’t have to explain to an advertiser the value of the NFL; they get it. It’s going to deliver audiences. There are extremely few opportunities for any advertiser to be associated with and wrap themselves around the American flag. The U.S. national team for both men’s and women’s soccer allows them to do that with an audience that is extremely young and desirable.”
Hopkins, who in addition to authoring “Star-Spangled Soccer” is the president and CEO of CSM Soccer, a sports-marketing company, recalls how valuable the women’s team was as a property even as far back as the 1990s, when he worked for a company involved with selling the national team’s rights. “The women’s team was always, always a big part of why people would sponsor the U.S. national teams,” he says. “The team was sometimes a driving force of the sponsorship.”
So what then is the value of the Women’s National Team in monetary terms? Rich Nichols, the executive director of the WNT players’ association, has asked US Soccer many times to receive a breakdown of the numbers, but says he has been stonewalled.
“The players are not asking to be overpaid,” Wambach says. “They are asking to be paid their market value. Let’s open the books. What is the market value of the women’s team? How much advertising space are you selling for those specific women’s games? And is that consistent with what you are paying those players? Those are questions that I would like to get answered.”
6. STEVENS ACT: IT’S THE LAW
It could very well be that the WNT’s dissatisfaction with pay discrepancies, their working conditions and lack of financial transparency within US Soccer is more than a just nagging sense of unfair treatment. Rather, it might be a symptom of an organization, US Soccer, that may have strayed outside its responsibility as a national governing body under the 1998 Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act. In fact, their situation may very well be a violation of that U.S. law.
The law, a revision of the Amateur Sports Act of 1978, protects athletes competing in international competitions as representatives of the United States. It regulates and guides the behavior of the national sports organizations that train competitors to bring home those cups, medals and trophies. To claim the right to serve as a national governing body, and raise funds using the Olympic rings, designated U.S. sports organizations, according to the law, must abide by specific rules of governance and equity. In the case of soccer, that group is US Soccer.
According to Stevens Act stipulations, any such organization must be “financially and operationally transparent and accountable to its members.” US Soccer posts its past three years of tax information on its website, as required, but its financial arrangement with SUM, as described above, makes transparency somewhat murky, to say the least.
Most significantly, US Soccer must “provide equitable support and encouragement for participation by women where separate programs for male and female athletes are conducted on a national basis.” The Women’s National Team is by name equal to the Men’s National Team and the language of the act refers to participation in “world championships.” That should mean it is entitled to equitable support and encouragement in every aspect, aside from those supports its members have bargained away in their employment contracts (what is known as their collective bargaining agreements). That would include coaching budgets, working conditions and development.
“The whole concept that a governing body, which is supposed to be supportive of its athletes, would spend money and hire lawyers to sue its athletes is just outlandish.”
When asked if the issue of equitability under the Ted Stevens Act has ever been raised, US Soccer’s Buethe says the matter has never come up, adding, “We consider ourselves a leader in women’s sport globally. We have really shown what a women’s national team can accomplish when you provide them with the resources and put them in an environment to succeed.”
The question, however, is not whether US Soccer supports the WNT but supports them equitably. As long as the women haven’t signed away their Ted Stevens rights under a separate legal agreement, they should be able to make the case that the issues that strike them as unfair really are unfair. And perhaps even illegal. This is one of the reasons why the results of a lawsuit filed by US Soccer against the Women’s National Team in February could soon get very interesting.
7. TELL IT TO THE JUDGE
Much of the unequal treatment the women on the national team face in terms of income was written into their most recent collective bargaining agreement (CBA), which expired in 2012.
Since that time, the players have been working under the terms of a memorandum of understanding (MOU), an update of a few key points from the expired CBA to bridge the gap while details of a new agreement are being ironed out; in US Soccer’s financial statements, the organization characterizes it as such. To the players’ association, that means the MOU is a stop-gap measure, not an iron-clad agreement. But the MOU specifically lists salary — US Soccer pays its WNT players between $36,000 and $72,000 annually to represent the U.S. in international play — as well as bonuses through 2016. Therefore, US Soccer is making the case that the entire agreement extends through the end of this year. (Neither the players nor Gulati would comment specifically on the lawsuit.)
In the negotiating sessions, the players have presented a long list of concerns including retirement plans, the length of the professional league season, and the need for equitable marketing and bonuses, which are wildly out of whack compared to the Men’s National Team.
According to the MOU, in 2015, the women each earned a $15,000 bonus for making the World Cup roster; as laid out in the men’s CBA, they will receive $76,000 each for making the 2018 team. The men’s team would receive a $2.5 million team bonus for qualifying; the female players got only $15,000 each in 2015, which totals approximately $345,000. US Soccer says the rewards favor the men because they have more players and their qualifying season stretches over two-and-a-half years, compared to the WNT’s 15-day qualifying period. Also, unlike the women, the male players are not retained on salary but are “paid to play.”
The discrepancies become extreme when team performance in the World Cup comes into play. In 2014, the men received $3.6 million for reaching the round of 16. (The figure for 2018 could not be confirmed.) But they will also earn an additional $5 million if they advance to the quarterfinals. The women received nothing for reaching the round of 16 nor the quarterfinals in 2015; bonus money didn’t kick in for them until they reached fourth place or higher (see “Embarrassment of Riches” table).
US Soccer says these payments are based on the structure of FIFA awards prize money. While US Soccer could dole out the money in any way it wishes, Neil Buethe says it disburses the rewards according to expectations: The men are not expected to win the World Cup, so they are rewarded at an earlier stage, while it’s common for the women to place near the top, if not win the Cup outright. (The WNT has won three of the seven World Cups, never finishing below third.) To an outside observer that model seems, in theory (and, in fact, practice), to better reward the men for losing than the women for winning.
On Feb. 3, Nichols, the players association executive director, met with US Soccer to discuss the players’ concerns. After what he termed a “productive meeting,” Nichols concluded by saying that the women would retain their negotiating rights until a final agreement was reached. US Soccer interpreted that to mean that the women would retain the right to strike, an action prohibited by the CBA but left unmentioned in the MOU; US Soccer says it repeatedly sought reassurance during the meeting that the players would not strike, but Nichols refused to reject the option.
With the Olympics right around the corner, US Soccer had reason to be spooked by a potential strike. The recent boycott over turf conditions in Hawaii might have been fresh in their minds. But remember, too, one of US Soccer’s big revenue streams comes from WNT commercial rights, including the granting of official licenses to use WNT players’ images in uniform. According to Matt Hill, a senior vice president at GMR, a global sports-marketing firm, and a former employee of SUM, the period beginning with the recently concluded SheBelieves Cup through the Olympics is when corporate sponsors determine where they want to put their marketing dollars. So one might wonder: Could these lucrative sponsorships and endorsements actually depend on the presence of superstars such as Solo, Lloyd, Morgan and others? And, if those players were to sit out the Games (current concerns over Zika notwithstanding), might the packages sold by Don Garber’s SUM leave a number of sponsors very unhappy? Should a strike occur, US Soccer’s Buethe says, “a lot of dominoes would fall,” including disrupting sponsorship relationships, disappointing fans and potentially losing money invested in friendlies — all issues that would “jeopardize the growth of the women’s game.” (SUM declined to comment.)
As the meeting ended, US Soccer dropped a bombshell: It said it would file suit against the players’ association, and, in fact, did so in federal court that very day, citing “anticipatory breach of contract” and asking for confirmation that the MOU would remain valid until the end of 2016. Later that day, Solo tweeted a pledge: “We players stand together, united in our fight for what is right and fair. #Equality.”
Edward Williams, who served as chair of the United States Olympic Committee’s Legislation Committee and helped draft the Amateur Sports Act, finds the US Soccer suit highly unusual. “The whole concept that a governing body, which is supposed to be supportive of its athletes, would spend money and hire lawyers to sue its athletes is just outlandish,” he says.
The suit was filed on National Girls and Women’s Sports Day.
8. A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN
The expired CBA and the MOU not only address the women’s participation for the national team; they also outline the terms under which the athletes play in the National Women’s Soccer League. Here, too, potential revenue is obscured by the symbiotic relationship between SUM and MLS.
The NWSL is about to experience a historic first in April: its fourth season as an American professional women’s league. Two previous efforts failed, never lasting longer than three years. When the last one, Women’s Professional Soccer, collapsed in 2012, US Soccer’s Gulati committed to starting a new league immediately.
The women credit Gulati for getting US Soccer to ante up funds to support the league. (US Soccer says it provided more than $3.5 million, though its 2015 fiscal year financial statements indicate it was only $1.4 million.) The federation pays annual salaries of $46,000 to $56,000 to the approximately 24 WNT members who play on NWSL teams (in addition to their national team salaries). Wages for the league’s other 170 or so players, paid by the team owners, are capped at $265,000 per team with annual salaries ranging between $37,800, on the high end, to as little as $6,800. (To give a sense of scale, an NFL practice squad player, who never even dresses for a game, earns $6,600 per week. The MLS average salary is approximately $345,000 and its players have gone to court in an effort to increase that.)
“Players are barely able to survive. I know some players in this league who have had to quit because they can’t afford to live on a thousand bucks a month or less. It’s really sad to see.”
“If you were literally to do an hourly payment scale — and I did that one year — it’s like 50 cents an hour,” says Wambach, referring to the NWSL players who compete at the $6,800 low end. (Wambach’s math is off; it actually works out to $3.27 per hour. But her point is taken.) Those may be the lucky ones. NWSL teams also rely on unpaid amateur players to fill slots when the league’s national team players have international matches. Players must scramble to make ends meet during the off-season.
“I am witnessing players who are barely able to survive,” Lloyd saya. “I know some players in this league who have had to quit because they can’t afford to live on a thousand bucks a month or less. It’s really sad to see. Obviously, we want the league to survive, and players can’t be getting paid a ton of money, but at the same time, we don’t want to see players retiring because they just can’t do it anymore.”
The players could make more money playing abroad, but staying Stateside allows national coach Jill Ellis to observe them as she selects her roster. It also facilitates scheduling because US Soccer coordinates the league’s calendar to conflict as little as possible with the national team’s. “It’s also a point of pride having a domestic league and wanting it to grow, knowing everyone is going to benefit from it,” Sauerbrunn says.
Though the owners believe profits will come eventually, they persevere out of a sense of mission. “You have to have something that draws you forward when the financials are not forthcoming,” says Arnim Whisler, owner of the Chicago Red Stars. “And for me, that is the really horrible gap of professional role models for young women. It is very hard for an adolescent girl to find healthy choices to look up to. And for the millions of girls and women playing sports at a very high level — in many cases, higher than the men relative to the rest of the world — to have no opportunities to look forward to after college was really inappropriate.”
Whisler worries about how to get his players’ wages up. Presumably, the league can increase its revenues through sponsorships and, eventually, the sale of broadcast rights; at press time, Fox Sports was finalizing a TV deal. But the women’s league does not fully benefit from the sale of its own sponsorships or endorsements. “SUM makes a guarantee,” Gulati says. “If that guarantee is recouped, then there is a normal relationship where the majority of our sponsorship revenues goes to NWSL. Rarely have we exceeded that guarantee.” He declined to specify the amount of the guarantee or the terms under which the guarantee is repaid.
“I would like to leave a lasting impression on women in sports and women in general. I would like to leave a legacy where we have left the generations below us, whether they want to be soccer players or doctors, to follow that path and believe in it, because all things are possible.”
For better or worse, NWSL players are finding their future increasingly tied to SUM and MLS — even their commissioner, Jeff Plush, the former managing director of Denver’s MLS franchise, was a member of the Board of Governors of both SUM and MLS. SUM controls the NWSL’s commercial rights, and MLS owners already run three NWSL teams. Garber now says he could envision every MLS franchise having a women’s team attached to it. Even the players see the advantages that would provide in terms of stadiums, promotion and staffing.
This, however, would make the terms that the players negotiate in their CBA even more crucial. The Women’s National Team accepted the fact that they would be paid a maximum of $54,000 to play in the league (compared to, say, Michael Bradley, who receives $6.5 million to play for Toronto FC in the MLS) because they were building a league from scratch and it was worth the sacrifices to do so. However, if more MLS owners take over NWSL teams, would they still expect the WNT players who compete in the NWSL to work under the stringent terms they agreed to in order to make their league solvent? “Absolutely. Yes,” Gulati says. The same would apply to the approximately 170 other NWSL players who currently make as little as $6,800 a year. “The resources of all NFL owners aren’t the same, and yet they still have ways to create parity within the league, and we’ve got the same setup,” Gulati adds.
That makes sense, in terms of parity within the league, but it’s also a way to lock players into an unusually non-competitive arrangement.
9. SISTERS DOING IT FOR THEMSELVES
The hope for women’s soccer is that women will change it from the inside. FIFA executive-committee member Moya Dodd pushed through a series of reforms in February that, among other items, calls for 16.2% of posts on the new FIFA council — the governing body that will replace the executive committee — to be filled by women. Her persistent campaigning in advance of the organization’s February vote to elect a new leader inspired the media to push the presidential hopefuls to demonstrate how they would better support the women’s game. The new president, Infantino, the father of four daughters, declared soon after his victory that “the future of soccer belongs to women.” He also said that FIFA needed to push for more women on decision-making bodies throughout the sport.
GIRL POWER Amid criticism of unfair treatment, US Soccer announced it will launch a girls’ development program in 2017 to match the training and education it has offered boys since 2007.
On March 24, CONCACAF announced the formation of a new women’s leadership group to further develop the sport in the region. But the United States Soccer Federation needs to get its house in order as well; despite Sunil Gulati’s public statements of support for women in governance roles, of the 16 members on US Soccer’s board of directors, only two are women. Buethe says the federation controls only the appointment of the independent directors to the board; the rest of the members are elected, but it is trying to come up with ways to foster more inclusion. US Soccer has also announced it will launch a girls development program in the fall of 2017 to match the training and education it has offered boys since 2007, but that means it has 10 years of catching up to do.
As Becky Sauerbrunn puts it, when the Women’s National Team heads to Rio this summer to compete for its fifth gold medal, the players will be representing more than their country — the very aspirations of their gender ride on their shoulders. “I would like to leave a lasting impression on women in sports and women in general,” Sauerbrunn says. “I would like to leave a legacy where we have left the generations below us, whether they want to be soccer players or doctors, to follow that path and believe in it, and fight any obstacles that get in your way because all things are possible.”
Carli Lloyd feels the same. She acknowledges the luxury of being able to play soccer for a living, and is grateful to US Soccer for what it has done for her. “But it’s about making strides and leaving the game better than when we first came into it,” she says. “For this team to keep getting better, we have to raise the bar. For us, in negotiating our next CBA, we just want to get some respect and the support that we deserve, because it wasn’t easy becoming World Cup champions and Olympic champions.” As for equality, Lloyd adds, “We will definitely get there. We just have to keep fighting.”