The U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team won their record fourth World Cup this past Sunday. This U.S. team was arguably the greatest women’s soccer team ever assembled. Few teams in history have been as dominant in international competition.
In professional sports, players are paid according to their skill level and the value they bring to the sport––an awards-based system. Earlier in the year, the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team (USWNT) filed a sex-discrimination lawsuit against U.S. Soccer. Considering the success the women have had on the world stage compared to the men, their case for equal pay certainly appears to have merit.
While their performance on the field during the World Cup tournament was exceptional, the team’s drive for equal pay was largely undercut by off-field antics. In professional sports, player salaries depend on how much revenue the franchise or league can generate with ticket sales, television ratings, sponsorships, and branding. The USWNT is no different.
If higher pay were of such importance to the team, why alienate half of the country by protesting the flag and picking Twitter fights with the president? These stunts may have produced a lot of social media likes but, as business decisions, they were less than shrewd.
Several male sports stars have been far more insulting toward law enforcement and the president than any of the female soccer players. Lebron James went as far as to call Donald Trump a “bum” during one of his frequent attacks. Fair or unfair, the male athletes are more insulated from consequences.
The advantage these male athletes have over the females is they play in leagues with well-established, wide-ranging fan bases who feed their coffers year in and year out. Although the NFL suffered quite a bit from fan backlash during the 2017-2018 season with the kneeling controversy, the league still brought in about $8 billion in revenue.
Women’s soccer is not currently a multi-billion-dollar enterprise. They are still working towards building up a national fanbase that will consistently buy tickets to their games, purchase their gear, and watch their televised games. Success depends on appealing to a much wider portion of the population than they currently do. Their strategy to accomplish this? Galvanize a small portion of America who believes protesting the anthem is patriotic, and they repel half the country.
The women’s soccer team earned an incredible opportunity to advance not only themselves but future female athletes in all sports. If Americans knew these players only for their grit on the field, they would have had the support of the entire country behind them, as national sports teams are intended to do. Rather, they chose activism over advancement. They chose notoriety over unity.
Ironically, the team’s worst offender of choosing personal agendas over team was the team’s captain, Megan Rapinoe. In 2016, Rapinoe knelt during the national anthem in what she described as “a little nod to [Colin] Kaepernick.” Her actions put the spotlight on herself and detracted from her teammates.
Although she didn’t take a knee during this past tournament, Rapinoe was no less outspoken. Despite the negative attention she brought to the team, Rapinoe has done very well for herself. She amassed a cult following among LGBTQ people and NeverTrumpers, and will likely profit substantially peddling sportswear and endorsing products for major companies, which are as oblivious to the attitudes of middle America as are pollsters.
The players on the women’s soccer team will undoubtedly be handsomely rewarded for their performance at the 2019 World Cup, and rightfully so. Their pay may or may not double, but they will see increases. Many members will also see quite lucrative endorsement deals.
However, these modest gains pale in comparison to what could have been earned. The need for some to be politically relevant and seen as more than sports stars overshadowed the magnitude of their victory. Rather than uniting a country behind them, they further contributed to an escalating divide.
The USWNT will defend their World Cup title in 2023. Between now and then, they will have a loyal following of soccer fans who will follow the teams, attend games, and contribute to the league’s revenue to help chip away at the pay gap. The question that will never be answered is how much was lost in the course of this victory.
How many loyal soccer fans dumped this team out of disgust for their political protests in front of the world? How many potential new fans were repulsed? If they truly want higher pay for their female athletes, U.S. Soccer ought to take these questions seriously.