Media, Entertainment and Sport

What the US soccer equal pay case means for sports

Settling a discrimination case, American soccer's governing body agreed to pay $24 million, and made a commitment to equal pay and bonuses to match the men's team.

Settling a discrimination case, American soccer's governing body agreed to pay $24 million, and made a commitment to equal pay and bonuses to match the men's team. Image: USA TODAY Sports

Alex Igual Paija
Partner Lead, Middle East & Africa, World Economic Forum
Hesham Zafar
Lead, Digital Trust, World Economic Forum
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  • In a case that has implications for the sports world, the US Women Soccer Players Association has recently won a settlement on discrimination and unequal pay.
  • There is a long way to go before equal pay in sports, a sector in which the gender pay gap has been growing year-on-year.
  • Research for the World Economic Forum shows that diversity and inclusion in sport increases its societal value.

After six years of legal action, the US Women Soccer Players Association has recently won a settlement on discrimination and unequal pay. American soccer's governing body agreed to pay $24 million, and made a commitment to equalize pay and bonuses to match the men's team. The Association congratulated not only the lawyers but also the athletes themselves “on their historic success in fighting decades of discrimination”. This is a major step forward in achieving equal pay for women in sports.

But there remains a long way to go before the sports industry closes the gender pay gap. While the general pay disparity between genders has remained relatively constant over the past couple of decades, the pay gap in sport has been increasing year-on-year. The difference in compensation between the top paid male and female athletes in major sports such as soccer, basketball, tennis, golf or baseball can be jaw-dropping. For example, Golden State Warriors player Stephen Curry was on track to make more than $40 million in salary alone during the 2019–20 season. In the same year, DeWanna Bonner, the highest-paid WNBA player, was eligible for a base salary of $127,500.

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Statistics tend to show that there is less market and public interest for female sport competitions, leading to the assumption that they generate less money. However, Dr. Laura Claus from the UCL School of Management has argued that “the market follows with the money that athletes are being paid. More salary for athletes makes them more interesting to the public, evident from professional football players. So, one could argue that we need to pay women more first and then the market will equalize.”

Research for the World Economic Forum’s Power of Media initiative, published in a report due to launch in March 2022, shows that diversity and inclusion in sport brings with it increased societal value. The report will measure how well consumers see themselves represented in film and television, gaming, news and magazines, and sport, and consider whether those industries are contributing to community and society.

In the last five years there have been more initiatives to support female athletes. Visa signed a groundbreaking deal with US Soccer Association in 2019 that allocated over 50% of the funds to the women’s team. This created media coverage and discussion about the investment into female sports. Such initiatives are important to create debate and raise questions on equality issues. They also empower athletes to use their positions to pursue greater equality.

While the general pay disparity between genders has remained relatively constant over the past couple of decades, the pay gap in sport has been increasing year-on-year.
While the general pay disparity between genders has remained relatively constant over the past couple of decades, the pay gap in sport has been increasing year-on-year. Image: Adelphi University, New York

Over the last year, several sporting bodies contributed investments that will have a positive impact on women’s sport. The Women's National Basketball Association (NBA) declared an increase of $75 million in capital from selling equity in the league. The Premier Hockey Federation committed to investing $25 million into the women's hockey league in the next few years to improve its overall positioning, competition and fan experience, with a significant emphasis on player’s salary. The US Golf Association will raise the prize money for the women’s open to $10 million this year and $12 million in the next 5 years – almost double the previous amount.

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What's the World Economic Forum doing about diversity, equity and inclusion?

The US soccer settlement has huge implications not only for soccer but for sports in general. Other sports will need to accelerate their efforts to bring about equality. As the US Women’s Soccer captain Megan Rapinoe said: “For us, this is just a huge win in ensuring that we not only right the wrongs of the past, but set the next generation up for something we only dreamed of. We are really in the midst of an incredible turning point in women’s sport".

It is time for sports organizations, sponsors, leagues and international governing bodies to collaborate and achieve the goal of an equal, diverse and inclusive environment.

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Related topics:
Media, Entertainment and SportGender InequalityDiversity and Inclusion
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