U.S. Women's Soccer Salaries: The Economic Justification For Paying The Men More
by Bill Conerly
April 06, 2016
The women on the U.S. national soccer team don’t get paid as much as the men, so they have filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The numbers in the complaint are stark, showing that the women earned less than the men’s national team despite far better performance. Team member Becky Sauerbrunn said, “U.S. Soccer has no justification for paying us as little as they do.” There actually is an economic justification for the women’s soccer pay disparity.
Imagine a different situation. You’re planning on two parties and you want an entertainer at each of them. You’re thinking of Katy Perry for one, and opera singer Jonas Kaufmann for another. Perry makes about $135 million a year, according to the Forbes Celebrity 100 list. What about Kaufmann, who may well be a better musician than Perry? Kaufmann failed to make the Forbes list, though $29 million in earnings would have put him on it. I don’t know how much Kaufmann makes, but a knowledgeable source thinks three to five million a year is a good estimate for a top opera star.
How much would you have to pay Perry to get her to perform? A person earning $135 million wouldn’t spend time at your party for a hundred grand, but that might well motivate the guy just getting by on $5 million.
The key point is that people with higher base earnings will demand more money for their time than people with lower base earnings. How about that guy who plays the trumpet downtown for tips? He may be a great musician, but he can probably be hired pretty cheap.
Back to soccer. Top athletes play for “club and country.” Club refers to their regular jobs, for teams in Major League Soccer, the English Premier League or the other leagues around the world. The most talented also play for country, their national team. Most earnings come from club salaries, with national teams paying less money, for fewer games.
The Forbes Celebrity list has a number of male soccer players, but no women. The U.S. men’s team has a player who earns $6 million from his club (Michael Bradley of Toronto FC). The maximum salary for the women in the National Women’s Soccer League is $126,000 (but the details are complicated).
The bottom line is that the men on the national soccer team make a lot of money from their clubs, but the women don’t. Some of the men might not bother to show up for paltry pay, but the women are likely to be less particular—because their regular jobs pay so little.
Is this discrimination? The pay disparity derives not from U.S. Soccer but from the money paid to players by their teams. Men’s teams pay more because they have hugely higher attendance and hugely higher television audiences. MLS average attendance last year was 21,574 per game. The NWSL averaged 5,046 per game. Men’s soccer salaries are pulled up by competition with international teams, where pay runs as high as $79 million a year (Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid). The top woman player, Marta (FC Rosengard), gets $400,000. With endorsements, Alex Morgan (Orlando Price) is thought to earn $1 million a year.
The discrimination in soccer comes from the fans. They attend the MLS games, they watch MLS on television, and they buy jerseys from MLS teams. Fewer of them attend NWSL games. Hardly any of those games are televised, but who thinks a league with small attendance would produce many viewers?
I’m personally sympathetic to the women’s claim. I have front-row season tickets for the women’s team Portland Thorns (as well as the MLS Portland Timbers). I see the women sweat, strain, take body blows, get up and hustle down the field again. It’s fun to watch, but a hard way to make a buck. If fans supported women soccer players as much as they support men’s professional teams, then women athletes would earn as much as the men. Until then, not likely at all.