When England’s women’s international soccer team beat Germany on penalties in the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada, the men’s side had equal cause to be both envious and pitying. After a very respectful semi-final exit at the hands of a well-oiled Japanese side, the Lionesses faced off with Germany for the third-place spot, slaying the age-old adage that Germans don’t lose on penalties. It was no more than they deserved, but the tournament now represents something far greater than trophies and rankings.
Summer 2015 saw the women’s game explode in England. Fans greeted the side at Heathrow airport when they returned, average attendances at Women’s Super League (WSL) fixtures more than doubled, and Lucy Bronze was nominated for Sports Personality of the Year. The English FA has taken steps to ensure that this enthusiasm doesn’t quickly dissipate and money is now flooding into an area of sport otherwise inhabited by semi-professionals and modest match day revenues. In late 2014, after the exposure at the Olympics but before the all-important World Cup run, a record 55,000 fans bought tickets to see an England women’s friendly against Germany at Wembley. It was the first time the Lionesses outsold their male counterparts and proved that the women’s game can draw the crowds.
The appeal of the women’s game is clear enough. On top of affordability - a match day ticket will cost you no more than £7, with season tickets in the top tier between £30 and £48 - it is a novelty to watch a top-level sport made up of down to earth stars. Mark Sampson’s England side were refreshingly open throughout their World Cup campaign. Claire Rafferty shared her experience of juggling life as an analyst at Deutsche Bank, Casey Stoney spoke about being an openly lesbian parent, Karen Carney shared her struggles with depression and Fara Williams recounted her experience of homelessness. The narrative of humble stars outperforming their lavishly paid male counterparts was an affecting one and, finally, money is being piled into a sport in need of funding to match its appeal.
The gender pay gap is prevalent in almost every industry where figures are available, but in soccer its starkness is deeply uncomfortable. The FA have invested over £3.5 million in a 2014-2018 project to revamp the game and improve grassroots infrastructure. But pay is still chasmic in its disparity. There is a basic explanation for the difference in pay: the men’s game brings in more money. Sponsorship and TV rights deals are worth far more, match day revenue is far higher and men’s soccer is far further down the line of inflated value.
The difference is staggering, though. Steph Houghton - England captain and Manchester City defender - earns around £65,000 a year when England salary, club contract and endorsements are taken into account. But Houghton is an anomaly. According to Matthew Buck, Professional Footballers’ Association agent, ‘the majority of centrally contracted players earn about £20,000 from their clubs, but there are players in the WSL who are on as little as £50 a week. Some younger players get their university costs paid for by teams but many older players need to work second jobs or are also employed in other areas of their clubs.’ According to the Telegraph, the women’s England soccer team were on a £26,000-a-year contract in 2015, compared to an average of over £73,000 a week in the Premier League (£3,800,000 a year). To put that in perspective, the women’s contracts were only marginally higher than those at Torquay United, the team currently 18th in the fifth tier of English men’s football. Women’s soccer in the UK is essentially playing catch up; the men’s game has been professional for over a hundred years, and the last 20 have seen the value of both contracts and transfers balloon. The pay gap in women’s soccer is battling with not just prevailing cross-industry gaps, but a lack of perceived history.
In the US, though, the disparity is as indefensible as it is baffling. Without the decades of ubiquity of professional male soccer, some believe misogynistic attitudes toward women in the game are either far less pronounced or non-existent, and the women’s team has flourished as a result. The US women’s side won the aforementioned Canadian World Cup, and are generally accepted to be the world’s finest women’s team. They are ranked 1st in the FIFA world rankings - compared to the men’s team, who rank 29th - and have played more games, generating $20 million more in revenue than the US men’s team in 2015. The three-time world champions are paid 60% less than their male counterparts in the US, despite being, to all intents and purposes, better.
Earlier this month, five members of the US women’s national team filed a federal complaint against the USSF in response to the unfair pay, and have hired attorney Jeffrey Kessler - who has beaten the NFL on many occasions - to go after the US soccer leadership. Record television ratings, dominance on the pitch and growing public interest in players is in stark opposition to the state of the men’s team, who have stumbled through 2016. Earlier this year, US Soccer filed a lawsuit against the union representing its women’s national team as a culmination of a long-standing labor fight over the team’s collective bargaining agreement. In an unsavory legal battle, the US governing body for the sport isn’t seeking penalties, but ‘asked for ‘declaratory’ relief stating that the players’ union must abide by a slightly modified version of the agreement that is set to expire in December,’ according to the New York Times. The collective bargaining agreements in place are incredibly complex, and the debate rages on, but direct opposition from the sport’s governing body does nothing for its already problematic image.
The state of pay in women’s soccer is dire, particularly in the US. The revenue disparity may partly explain why astronomical wages are not being paid to WSL players. But it is difficult not to see discrimination as at least part of the US national team’s pay gap. The USWNT will continue to win trophies, Steph Houghton will continue to act as a role model for English girls attempting a career in soccer and WSL attendance numbers will continue to grow. What is uncertain, though, is whether proper remuneration will follow suit.