Soccer’s Sexist Political Economy

Women's soccer players are paid poorly because of a patriarchal funding model — not because their game is inferior.

Hope Solo at the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup semi-final match between the US and France. Amin Mohammad / Gallo Images

The sobering news hit even before the confetti had finished falling on the US Women’s National Team’s (USWNT) victory parade. While millions still basked in the afterglow of the team’s thrilling 5-2 World Cup Finals win over Japan, a disturbing report started making the rounds on the Internet: the US women’s squad would take home only $2 million in prize money after winning their third Cup, compared to the $35 million awarded to the German men’s team, the victor in last year’s tournament in Brazil. The US women even earned less than some men’s teams who flamed out in the first round last year.

While international soccer — including this year’s Women’s World Cup — is no stranger to controversy (slavery, corruption, misallocation of public funds, turf sexism), the reports of soccer’s woeful economic gender gap clearly struck a nerve after an exhilarating performance that delighted the soccer world and broke US TV ratings records.

Many who follow soccer have trained themselves to compartmentalize: the beauty, spectacle, and drama of what happens on the pitch over here; the ugly, stinking, scandal-ridden administration of the game over there. But even for us — and even for Americans accustomed to a gender wage gap — this was a bit much.

While this sudden interest in the wages of women’s soccer players is certainly born out of a degree of nationalism, it offers a welcome opportunity to discuss a basic worker fairness issue and raise bigger questions about the value of female labor in our society.

And those who rooted harder for Mana Iwabuchi and Homare Sawa’s tough and determined Japanese team — or the athletes of first-time tournament participants Cameroon — than we did for Alex Morgan or Carli Lloyd should raise our voices in equal outrage. The fact is that these women have taken home even more paltry sums.

So what is the story behind the numbers? How can a sport with such obvious popular appeal — 26.7 million people watched the final match in the US — attract so little in the way of investment? How can proponents of gender equality counter the arguments being made by defenders of this massive pay gap, who cite the far smaller revenues brought in by women’s soccer? And, most importantly, how do we fix the problem?

Those who seek to justify the thirty-eight to one discrepancy in FIFA prize money (a total pot of $576 million for the men compared to $15 million for the women) fall back on a simple, uncontroversial fact: women’s soccer generates less revenue than the men’s game.

How much less? According to the Wall Street Journal, corporate sponsorships totaled $529 million for the 2014 men’s Cup versus just $40 million for the women’s Cup. Business Insider’s Shane Ferro uses these numbers to make a typically hand-wringing argument: “Women may deserve to be treated equally, but they are not . . . It’s morally outrageous . . . but in the current economic environment, it seems pretty fair.”

Proponents of this line of argument often continue with two further contentions. First, those who don’t attend women’s professional games or buy women’s soccer merchandise are causing the problem, because they’re not helping boost revenues. Ferro concludes her piece with this gem: “You, dear reader, can do only one thing and it’s not complaining about prize money on social media. If you want to fix the income disparity in women’s sports, go buy a jersey or tickets for a game.”

This argument deflects blame for the financial woes of women’s soccer’s onto ordinary fans, which is something like blaming restaurant customers for the low pay, frequent wage theft, and terrible sick leave policies in the restaurant industry.

Following Ferro’s advice goes a long way toward showing how nonsensical this argument is. I tried to buy a Marta jersey in the emblematic yellow and green of Brazil’s Seleção. The problem is, it can’t be done. Nobody produces men’s-size jerseys of the sport’s most talented female player, who holds the World Cup goal-scoring record and was a five-time Player of the Year.

In fact, prior to April of this year you would have been hard-pressed to find a men’s-size jersey even for perennially popular US players like Alex Morgan or Abby Wambach — Nike didn’t start making and selling USWNT jerseys for men until this spring. This all raises the obvious question: how much can fans boost revenue streams for women’s soccer when these products are not even available to half the world’s population?

Or, take the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), the US’s professional women’s soccer league. The Washington Spirit, DC’s NWSL team, plays its games at the Maryland SoccerPlex in tiny Boyds, Maryland, on the rural northern edge of Montgomery County. The population density in Boyds is 408 people per square mile, compared to about 10,000 people per square mile in Washington, DC.

Maryland SoccerPlex is over forty miles from RFK Stadium, home of the men’s Major League Soccer team DC United, and over ten miles away from the closest Metro station (RFK has its own Metro stop). Getting to Spirit games from RFK, which is centrally located in DC, would take about two hours on public transit. In other words, for your typical DC soccer fan, it is infinitely easier to buy tickets for DC United than it is for the Spirit.

The second argument raised by defenders of the unequal pay status quo is that revenue streams are stubborn facts that can’t be controlled by entities like FIFA, because they’re just, like, natural and all that. Ferro also makes this argument, claiming that revenue streams are dictated by human socialization going back to time immemorial: “Most of us have been socialized to accept men’s sports as dominant, and somehow automatically more interesting . . . it’s a falsehood that’s millennia in the making.”

Another brave Internet warrior argued on Facebook: “Women’s soccer makes less money than men’s, just like Mexico is located south of the United States. Both are just facts.” Hey, defending sexist inequality is a tough job, but someone has to do it.

Leaving aside the history of war and genocide that brought us to our current geopolitical setup, comparing geography to economics says a lot about the logic of those who defend the status quo. This argument simply naturalizes all market relationships, ignoring the fact that economic activity is conducted by human beings, some of whom control huge pools of money and make decisions on a daily basis about how to spend that money. In other words, they boil down capitalist decision-making to something as natural as the earth spinning on its axis.

The problem is that Ferro, and others like her, get it completely backwards. What both of the above claims do is exonerate those most responsible for soccer’s gender inequality: FIFA and its corporate sponsors and TV broadcasters. If we want to know why there’s so much less money available for women, we have to look at who’s investing (and who’s best positioned to invest) in soccer.

According to the Telegraph, TV sponsorships and marketing rights account for 72 percent of FIFA’s revenues. This means almost three-fourths of FIFA’s money comes from corporations that are either broadcasting games on television or advertising their products through matches. With $5.7 billion in revenues from 2011 through 2014, FIFA controls by far the largest pot of money dedicated exclusively to soccer. ESPN and Fox Sports, the two biggest TV players in the US market, have even larger revenues (ESPN’s annual earnings top $10 billion), but not all of that is soccer-related.

The key thing to understand is that FIFA agrees on a price with the sponsors and TV broadcasters that’s based on their (i.e. their mostly male top executives’) perceptions of the value of the WWC. Those perceptions are tainted by sexist assumptions, primary among them being that 1) there is less of a market for women’s soccer and 2) that the women’s game is of a lower quality.

Therefore, all parties agree to prices for sponsorships and TV rights that are far below those for the men’s tournament. The TV broadcasters then go on to sell ad spots for the games that again, are valued much less than the equivalent ad spots would be for a men’s game.

This sexism, built directly into the economics of women’s soccer, leads to several results: the sponsors and broadcasters, having paid less for their rights, don’t market the WWC as aggressively as they do the men’s tourney. Additionally, different companies sponsor the women’s tournament, often makers of specialty products sold exclusively to women, such as Tampax.

Because of this, there is far less hype for the women’s tournament in the weeks and months leading up to it, and much of that hype is directed at a women-only audience rather than at the general public. As Drew Harwell of the Washington Post writes: “Companies that invested exhaustively in ad blitzes and social media around last year’s tournament, like Adidas, proved staggeringly quiet during the Women’s World Cup.”

Add in the absence of men’s jersey sales (jersey sales are the biggest part of sports merchandise revenue), and it’s not hard to see why the women’s tournament generates so much less money.

The key takeaway is that this economic outcome is set in motion first and foremost by the sexist assumptions undergirding the transactions responsible for the vast majority of FIFA’s revenue. The result is a negative feedback loop where the sponsors’/broadcasters’/FIFA’s sexist assumptions cause them to adopt practices which produce outcomes that end up reinforcing their own assumptions.

Except when the outcomes don’t. That’s the great big sexist irony of this, of course. The women’s game is actually incredibly popular — as evidenced by the average 4.3 million viewers of the three US women’s group stage matches, or the record-shattering final match, which was by far the most-watched soccer game in US history.

As Miles Johnson writes at Slant News, “You cannot even argue that women should be paid less because there is less public interest, and less opportunity for money to be made . . . If money is being lost on women’s soccer, fault lies at the feet of FIFA, not the athletes.”

In defense of FIFA, General Secretary Jerome Valcke said:

The comparison between the prize money of the men’s World Cup in Brazil to the women’s World Cup in Canada, that’s not even a question I will answer because it is nonsense. We played the thirtieth [men’s] World Cup in 2014 and we are playing the seventh women’s World Cup so things can grow step-by-step. We are still another twenty-three World Cups before potentially women should receive the same amount as men.

So according to Valcke we should all stop carping because in ninety-two years women will finally make what men made in 2014. Not Valcke’s finest moment, but the secretary general did have something to say about his efforts to market women’s soccer:

I went to various companies around the world trying to sell women’s football on its own out of the men’s events. And I failed. There was not a single company that said I am interested to just buy women’s football. Most of the partners said, “OK we are ready to support women’s football, we are ready to do more than what we are doing but what we wish to receive is the men’s football because that is where we want to put our money.”

So if the game is really as popular as the TV ratings indicate, why would FIFA and these corporations let a profit-making opportunity go to waste? This is capitalism, after all. In order to understand why, it helps to look at the relationship between the big international tournaments like the World Cup and the domestic leagues that are home to players like Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan, Sydney Leroux, Hope Solo, and others throughout the year.

These domestic leagues are really what drives interest in soccer, both for women and men. The World Cup thrives off the popularity of the players and the fan base that the leagues build up for themselves. Herein lies the crux of the economic difference between men’s and women’s soccer: nowhere in the world is there a financially viable domestic women’s soccer league.

In fact, in the US we are on our third domestic women’s league since the USWNT last won the World Cup in 1999. The first, the Women’s United Soccer Association, rode the 1999 World Cup wave of popularity, but only survived from April 2001 until September 2003, when it folded with cumulative losses of over $100 million. Next came Women’s Professional Soccer, which also closed shop after three seasons, citing lack of resources.

With this record of failure in mind, the US National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) started off with an explicit model: pay as little as possible. In the NWSL, players make as little as $6,842 per year, compared to a minimum of $60,000 under the new collective bargaining agreement in the MLS. (It should be noted that MLS also has its share of financial struggles, but in the world of men’s professional soccer MLS is an outlier.)

NWSL teams have $265,000 max to spend on player salaries, and with each team carrying a twenty-player roster, the math is not pretty. Most female soccer players in the US have second jobs. Even those who are able to survive off wages and endorsements make salaries that pale in comparison to their male counterparts. Leroux, one of the US team’s most recognizable players, admitted that she made between $60,000 and $92,500 per year, including endorsement deals from brands like Nike.

How can men’s club teams afford to pay their players so much? Men’s teams in England’s Premiere League, which include some of the most profitable sports franchises on the planet, receive roughly 40 to 50 percent of their revenues from the sale of television broadcast rights.

These huge sums don’t just allow the teams to sign massive contracts with star players — they also fund development programs that identify and support talented youngsters coming up in the game. They give the team the chance to market itself and build a fan base.

And for the networks, investing in the games creates an incentive for them to promote the games, the teams, and the league itself. In short, the huge sums of money exchanging hands is what creates the stars and the teams that millions of fans follow passionately — passion that translates into ticket and merchandise sales.

By contrast, in the NWSL, FOX Sports recently signed a broadcast agreement for a grand total of ten NWSL games this season (four of which will not be shown on television, but will only be available to stream online). The six televised games matches the number televised by ESPN in 2014. The monetary value of these deals has not been disclosed, but you can bet that it is but a drop compared to the oceans of money that the networks spend on European men’s soccer. Given that ESPN uses a whopping 2 percent of air time on women’s sports, their meager investment in the NWSL is hardly surprising.

This results in direct financial hardship for the players who are now being celebrated nightly on SportsCenter. Salaries for women players have declined with each new iteration of the professional league. Rather than seek larger investments that would allow for higher wages and general financial stability, the US women’s leagues opts for a precarious, bare-bones economic model that has proven to be a failure time after time.

But we know that professional soccer is still getting off the ground in the US — what about in Europe? Unfortunately, on the other side of the Atlantic, the situation is much the same.

Division 1 Féminine in France is the strongest women’s league in Europe. But even this league, where US star Megan Rapinoe played for one season and made a much more palatable $14,000 per month, would not survive without the financial backing of the men’s teams. Prior to 2009, its players were unpaid amateurs, and average match attendance is below one thousand for all but the top four teams — despite having some of the biggest international stars like Lotta Schelin and Louisa Nécib.

FIFA’s European regional association, UEFA, also awards far less prize money to club teams playing in the women’s Champions League compared to the men’s tournament. Real Madrid got a total of €57.5 million for winning the men’s Champions League in 2014, including €10.5 million for the final match alone. FC Barcelona, this year’s men’s winner, received €15 million for the final match out of a total pot of over €1 billion. These easily sums dwarf the €250,000 awarded to this year’s winning women’s team, FFC Frankfurt.

Again, this problem — financially struggling women’s clubs playing in stillborn leagues — is a direct result of the decisions by FIFA, ESPN, and FOX Sports not to invest in women’s soccer. Clearly, there is a latent fan base out there for women’s soccer. What these leagues need is large-scale and long-term investment by the entities with the deepest pockets and the best connections to global soccer infrastructure.

Instead, what they get are meager investments and skittish financial backers, who have allotted the women three years or less to bring them profits before pulling their money. This is not a recipe for financial success or widespread, consistent interest in the women’s games.

As even Business Insider’s Ferro is forced to admit: “So many professional women’s sports initiatives are set up to fail because they don’t have enough support from the beginning. Sponsors set up shop for a year or two, then bolt when they don’t see immediate returns, which sends teams and leagues into survival mode almost from the beginning.”

Revenue, in other words, is a pillar of the patriarchy. Those best positioned to spend and make money on women’s soccer consciously choose not to invest in the women’s game. They decide that it’s not worth their time or their dollars. That they continue to do so in the face of so much evidence showing the women’s game’s popularity — hence profit-making potential — only compounds the case against them.

Looking at the question this way can still boggle the mind: capitalists leaving money on the table just because of their own sexism? But when you consider that professional women’s soccer was banned in England and Germany until the early 1970s, in France until 1975, and in Brazil until 1979, it becomes clear that female players have incredible political hurdles to overcome before they achieve economic parity with men.

Like all women’s work, women’s professional soccer is simply valued less than that of their male counterparts. The men — and again, they are predominately men — who run the football associations and the TV networks cannot see past their own bigotry. Sometimes they can’t even be bothered to correctly identify star women players. Sepp Blatter reportedly did not recognize Alex Morgan when he came face to face with her last year, and mistook Abby Wambach’s partner, Sarah Huffman, for Marta.

Sure, things have improved in some ways over the years. The quality of the game certainly has advanced over the past decade — likely due more to Title IX than to any changes in the administration of the professional game. But the bold predictions now being made about a post–World Cup women’s soccer heyday in the United States ignore the fact that wages and working conditions for women playing professionally are worse today than they were in 2001.

As long as deep-pocketed investors remain unwilling to commit large sums to women’s soccer for the long run, the women’s game will stay on a treadmill that is perpetually stuck in slow motion: female athletes get paid less, so there’s less incentive for individuals to pursue soccer as a career, or they have less time to focus on playing soccer exclusively because they need another job; the women’s national federations receive far less money from the tournament so they are hamstrung in terms of paying for player development and funding domestic leagues like the NWSL; and fans continue to be more engaged in the more heavily marketed men’s game, seeing it as the “default” and the women’s game as the “other.” This, in turn, helps corroborate FIFA’s (bogus) claim that women’s soccer is of inferior quality and less popular than the men’s game.

This vicious circle is especially tragic in countries like Brazil, which has produced some of the game’s best women players, but where sexist treatment of the women’s game is much more severe than in the US. Brazilian television was reportedly showing second-division men’s games in June instead of broadcasting the Brazilian women’s team.

Stephanie Nolan, writing in the Globe and Mail, notes that Brazil “is decades away from a real women’s program, on the model of the United States,” and “it is exceedingly rare to see girls playing in school yards or on the beach. There are no soccer scholarships . . . and there is no national junior program for women.”

The persistence of soccer’s sexist investment regime effectively excludes half the world’s population from access to the highest level of training and play. The result is material deprivation for the heroic women athletes who have dedicated themselves to playing the sport, and spiritual deprivation for the rest of us who, like Uruguayan writer and soccer fan Eduardo Galeano, simply want to see “a pretty move, for the love of God.” Even more damaging, tens of millions of girls around the world will continue receiving the message that FIFA’s sexist and corrupt regime is sending them: you are not as valuable as the boys.

There is hope for an alternative, however. We could demand that FIFA adhere to the equivalent of Title IX — equal funding for men’s and women’s soccer. We could look to tennis for alternative models, such as men’s and women’s tournaments that run simultaneously, and where women are paid equally at Major tournaments. In this model, sponsorships cover both events and viewers associate a competition with men and women equally.

It will take substantial protest and organizing to achieve even a fraction of this type of change — but again, here there is reason for hope. FIFA’s recent legal troubles stem at least in part from the mass protests that shook the streets of Brazil in 2013 and 2014 during preparations for the World Cup — so it’s not unreasonable to expect that a popular movement could again prompt changes in the administration of women’s soccer.

Further, the departure of Sepp Blatter should be welcomed by anyone interested in the advancement of women’s soccer. The discussion around FIFA’s succession plan will create space for supporters of gender equality in the sport to force themselves into the conversation.

Defenders of sexist inequality in soccer are fighting a losing battle. Since 1999, the Internet has blossomed and social media has become a powerful medium for breaking down barriers. More attention than ever is being devoted to this issue, and the sympathy for these athletes and their beautiful game is strong.

The women have public opinion on their side and could take what they rightfully deserve. FIFA and its corporate cronies must be forced to pony up equal money for the men’s and women’s game. As Dave Zirin has written, “Women’s soccer will only achieve greater growth when we have a FIFA not run by sexist men. It will grow by pressuring the media to acknowledge the greatness of players like Marta.”

Achieving equal pay for women in tennis took a struggle on the part of the players and their professional association. The same will be true of soccer. We are already seeing signs that this is brewing. Take the lawsuit against FIFA’s sexist turf fields led by Wambach and other players, for instance. Or the Brazilian women’s team collectively protesting their own national federation after their runner-up finish in the 2007 World Cup.

Or the bravery of Linköpings FC’s Charlotte Rohlin, who in March of this year publicly challenged UEFA President Michel Platini to justify the lower pay for women players. Or the demands made by Ivory Coast manager Clementine Toure after her team’s 10-0 loss to Germany last month. Toure had this to say: “We want to see a higher investment, so that we can prepare . . . If we could get half the resources men do, that’s what we could do . . . Women’s football has arrived. We believe in our women.”

Ultimately, this struggle will rely on the players themselves, their coaches and training staff, and their millions of adoring fans, taking the beauty, hope, and determination off of the field and into the streets. Our rallying cry could be a riff on Galeano’s quote: “When good soccer happens, I give thanks for the miracle and I don’t give a damn which team, country, or gender performs it. For the love of God, a pretty move – and equal pay for men and women!”