Soccer, tennis and the gender pay gap

The U.S. Women's National Team celebrates after winning the Women's World Cup in Vancouver, Canada July 5.
The U.S. Women's National Team celebrates after winning the Women's World Cup in Vancouver, Canada July 5. AP

The success of the U.S. Women’s National Team in the Women’s World Cup has re-invigorated the debate over the gender pay gap in sports. The champions pulled in just $2 million in prize money compared with the $35 million Germany earned for winning the men’s tournament last year. Every one of the 32 men’s teams earned at least $8 million in 2014 just for participating in the World Cup.

Pay disparity isn’t anything new in women’s sports, and certainly not in women’s soccer. Even the most elite players earn a pittance in the National Women’s Soccer League, where salaries range from $6,800 to $37,800. Many earn less than the U.S. minimum wage and must take second jobs and live with host families during the season. During the World Cup, it was revealed that Morgan Brian and Meghan Klingenberg have been living with former Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy and his family while playing for the Houston Dash.

It’s one thing to go after pay gaps in regular-season salaries among different leagues, but the disparity in World Cup payouts is especially stark, with the prize money in both tournaments determined by a single body: FIFA. For the men’s World Cup, FIFA awarded a total of $576 million to 32 teams, while giving just $15 million to 24 squads in the women’s World Cup. Indeed, the message FIFA seems to be sending is that it values its worst men’s players at least four times more than its best women.

This is unacceptable to Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, who has introduced a resolution calling for FIFA to pay men and women equally. He also calls on other organizations at both the national and international level to do the same.

It’s an admirable goal, but you'll excuse me if I’m not particularly optimistic about its prospects for success. I’ve little faith in the power of a Congress that can’t even pass equal pay for female workers in the U.S. And it’s not like the U.S. Senate wields heavy influence among the ranks of FIFA.

That said, Leahy brings up a good point, demonstrating that there is a model for how the pay gap may be closed in sports. Since 2007, all four Grand Slam tennis tournaments have awarded equal prize money to men and women. The U.S. Open has had pay equality since 1973. And it hasn’t hurt the overall payouts; both singles champions in next month’s Open stand to make a record $3.3 million.

With tennis, as with soccer, the anti-equality crowd touts the same arguments that market forces dictate women earn less, because they’re less popular. Some also repeat the fallacy that women don’t work as hard, noting that women’s tennis is a best-of-three sets, while men’s tennis is best-of five. (For one thing, lots of female tennis players have for years been in favor of playing five sets, only to have their calls routinely ignored by officials.)

It bears repeating: The coverage, popularity, marketability and ultimately profitability of sports does not exist in a vacuum. Higher salaries and prizes make that sport more attractive to young players seeking athletics as a lucrative career. Opening your talent pool beyond those willing and able to play simply for love of the game will inevitably yield higher-quality athletes, a better product on the field and in turn increase popularity and viewership.

Of course, there’s no convincing some. But if sports organizations such as FIFA did a better job at promoting its women’s teams, there would be more money to go around to everyone. Equal prize money is a good place to start – the acknowledgment that the sport values not women or men but champions.

Kavitha Davidson writes about sports for Bloomberg View.