Photo: rachael.c.king / Flickr
Photo: rachael.c.king / Flickr

Approximately one month ago, five members of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team (USWNT) filed a federal complaint against their employer, U.S. Soccer, accusing the non-profit organization of wage discrimination.

The case was submitted to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency that enforces civil rights laws against workplace discrimination.

Where does this accusation find its grounding? “The numbers speak for themselves,” said USWNT goalkeeper, Hope Solo, one of the players filing the complaint. And indeed, the numbers say plenty.

A Numbers Game

Both the men’s and women’s teams are required to play 20 exhibition games per year. For each of these games, each female player receives $3,600, along with a $1,350 bonus if they win. Each male player, comparatively, makes $5,000 each game win or lose, with an average bonus per game of $8,166.

These payments amount to a staggering difference at the end of the 20 games: each player on the women’s team would receive a total of $99,000 for winning every game; each player on the men’s team would make $100,000 without winning a single game that year.

The disparity carries through to the bonuses won at the World Cup tournament. When the USWNT dominated the tournament last July, they each received $2 million, an enormous sum to any of us, but, nonetheless, significantly less than $9 million the men’s team made for losing in the round of 16 in 2014.

This Is Not Just a Soccer Issue

Similar wage disparities for men and women are present in other professional sports, including golf and basketball. In other sports, like tennis and marathon running, gender equity exists on the most important stages such as the Grand Slams in tennis and World Major Marathon in running.

But even in sports where equity is the case, questions of equal pay continue to plague major events. In March of this year, controversy started on the profession tennis circuit when the CEO of the BNP Paribas Open tournament said that female tennis players “ride on the coattails of the men.”

Many female players rebuked the director’s comments, including current World #1 Serena Williams and Grand Slam champion and gender equity activist Billie Jean King. Why do the same issues of inequality continue to undermine women’s professional sports?

Popularity of Women’s Sports

The main argument lies in that women’s sports are not as popular as men’s, thus not bringing as much money through marketing and advertising when televised. This is unfortunately true for some sports, especially basketball; however, the WNBA’s 2014 final game had the average audience increase by 150% from the year before.

This argument, though, cannot hold up before the incredible success and popularity of the USWNT 2015 season. The final game between the U.S. and Japan had an audience of 25.4 million viewers, making it not only the most watched soccer game of all time, but significantly more watched than the 2015 NBA finals (13.9 million viewers) and the Stanley Cup finals (7.6 million).

The lawyers defending U.S. Soccer in the wage discrimination lawsuit rebuke the USWNT’s popularity by saying they picked an especially successful year to draw broad conclusions. But the problem of unpopularity is part of a vicious cycle.

The less popular a women’s sport is, the fewer sponsors and media outlets will cover them. The fewer outlets will cover them, the less popular the women’s sport is. The Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation found that, in 2013, female sports received 7% of media coverage and 0.4% of the total value of commercial sponsorships.

Shedding Light for the Future

For Hope Solo, Carli Lloyd, Becky Sauerbrunn, Alex Morgan, and Megan Rapinoe, the USWNT members who have filed the complaint, it is about time that the cycle stopped repeating itself. Even if they do not win the case, civil rights lawyer Peter Romer-Friedman, representing the USWNT hopes this will inspire future cases.

“By speaking up publicly, the players are saying, ‘It’s important for the public to know that we’ve filed this suit,’ ” said Romer-Friedman. “Frankly, as a civil rights lawyer, it is important for them to speak out because it has an educational effect.”