Over the past 30 years, the United States has been a trailblazer in women’s football and the wider women’s sport movement.
They won the first official FIFA Women’s World Cup against Norway back in 1991. They set a new world record for attendance at a women’s sports event (90,185) when they hosted and won the tournament against China in 1999, and became the outright most dominant women’s national team in football history when they won their third world title in 2015 and their fourth in 2019.
The USA has continued to set benchmarks off the field, too. The introduction of Title IX by the federal government in 1972 ensured that women athletes at college level were provided with the same opportunities as their male counterparts, creating a youth development system that is still unrivaled across world sport.
And in 2016, the US women’s national team became the first of its kind to publicly sue their governing body over “institutionalized gender discrimination”: a drawn-out legal process that was settled earlier this year and has since become representative of the structural challenges still faced by women in their fight for equality in sport, as well as by women in workplaces across the globe.
This week, the USA added yet another victory to its already-heaving CV, becoming the latest nation to implement equal pay across its men’s and women’s senior national teams, joining countries like Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, the Netherlands and Norway in creating contractual structures where by players are paid the same.
But unlike those nations, the USA has taken its newest collective bargaining agreement even further.
Although the men’s and women’s teams negotiated separate agreements with US Soccer, the two sides will now be on an equal playing field in several areas:
- Equal pay for every game played including friendlies, World Cup qualifiers and other competitions
- Equal bonuses for game outcomes and World Cup participation (while also equalizing how opponents’ FIFA rankings impact game bonuses)
- Equal pay for every day in camp and equal game-day roster sizes
- Equal split of commercial revenue, including broadcast and ticketing
- Equal split of tournament prize money, with both teams pooling their winnings into a single pot which is then equally distributed
It’s on this last point that the US Soccer deal is truly revolutionary.
World Cup prize money has been one of the biggest sticking points for achieving genuine equal pay among national teams in football, primarily due to the massive disparities between the bonuses offered by FIFA and its member confederations to men’s and women’s teams who participate in their tournaments.
At the 2018 men’s World Cup, FIFA allocated a total prize pot of $US400 million to be distributed across all competing teams, with higher bonuses being given to teams the further they progressed. The winning national team, France, were awarded $US40 million for taking out the title.
At the 2019 Women’s World Cup, the total pot allocated by FIFA was just $U30 million, while the winners — the USA — collected $US4 million.
Australia’s progress in both of these tournaments demonstrates the disparities. While the Socceroos received around $8 million ($US5.6 million) just for qualifying for Russia (before failing to win a single game in the group stage), the Matildas received just $1 million ($US700,000) for reaching the quarter- end in France.
These inequalities have appeared so insurmountable that they have shaped negotiations around closing the pay gap to the point where, until this week’s deal, no other nation — including Australia — had specific mechanisms in place to equalize World Cup prize money.
When asked why a shared prize money pool was not included in the Socceroos and Matildas’ CBA that was negotiated in 2019, PFA co-chief executive Kate Gill said the prize money problem ought to be solved at its source rather than asking players themselves to negotiate with one another.
“Ahead of the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, FIFA was obliged to undertake a comprehensive Human Rights Risk Assessment. The report identified the lack of parity in prize money as a clear failure to respect the human rights of players and recommends that FIFA address this.
“If it is not addressed, Australia risks co-hosting a tournament that celebrates women but fails to treat the best players on the planet as equals.”
Australia’s approach to the prize money problem — which they launched as part of a campaign before the 2019 Women’s World Cup — further differs from that of the USA in that it aims to assist other nations who may not have robust structures in place such as player unions or collective bargaining agreements, or whose cultures and national teams do not have the same global profile.
It does this by making the overarching governing bodies of FIFA and its confederations responsible for investing in progress and equality instead of putting the burden on players themselves.
However, given FIFA’s glacial pace at redressing historical inequities in the women’s game, it’s understandable why federations like the USA are taking these measures of their own accord.
Indeed, it’s hoped that this week’s revolutionary deal will act as a rising tide to lift the boats of other federations in the absence of genuine moves by FIFA and its confederations to pursue and embed gender equality within its structures.
As US Soccer president and former US women’s national team player Cindy Parlow-Cone said after the announcement: “This is going to have ramifications throughout not only the footballing world, but the sports world.
“I’m really proud that we were the first country [to equalise prize money]but I would certainly hope we’re not the last.
Indeed, the USA’s equal pay deal is just one piece of the larger puzzle of true gender equality in the game — the vast majority of which exists below the pointy end of the football pyramid.
For example, one of the reasons why the US men’s national team was willing to give up a portion of their prize money in order to supplement the pay of their women colleagues was because they can afford to: the vast majority of income earned by male players in football comes from the club game, while women players derive a much higher percentage of their income from national team football.
With club football taking on an increasingly important role in the lives of national team players, addressing pay inequality at this level is paramount.
In Australia’s A-Leagues, the minimum wage for a male player in the A-League Men’s competition currently sits around $45,000 for a full-time 52-week season, which includes pre-season and a four-week finals series (and increases incrementally withage).
However, while the league CBAs include a “same base hourly rate” principle for men and women players, the shorter length of the part-time A-League Women’s season (23 weeks) means the minimum salary for women sits much lower at roughly $17,000 .
In addition, male players also benefit from much more robust and supported youth development pathways, leading into full-time footballing careers in domestic leagues around the world from an earlier age.
This is further complemented by domestic and global transfer systems that incentivize clubs and leagues to prioritize the development and opportunities for male players, selling them onto bigger clubs elsewhere for profit at the expense of working with emerging women players, whose own transfer market is only just emerging.
Even beyond football, male players often sign much more lucrative sponsorship deals with brands and other organisations, in addition to having a far greater reach in terms of media coverage, marketing, and post-game opportunities in punditry and administration compared with women athletes.
So while the USA’s new equal pay deal is an unprecedented step for women’s football and the women’s sports movement more broadly, and will hopefully inspire other nations like Australia to continue updating their own agreements, it forms just one part of a much larger revolution that must take place if true equality in football is to be achieved.