How U.S. Soccer’s Historic Equal Pay Deal Came About

The chants followed the U.S. women’s national soccer team everywhere they went that summer three years ago, from the World Cup stadium in Lyon, France, where the team won its second straight title, to the streets of New York City, where the players were feted with a ticker-tape parade.

“Equal pay! Equal pay!”

In 2019, U.S. female workers had brought a case against their employer for gender equality. They rallied millions of supporters. But they faced a federation determined to keep the status quo—and courts can be a formidable foe.

“Equal pay! Equal pay!”

Finally, Wednesday was their day.

In a momentous announcement, the United States Soccer Federation, the United States Women’s National Team Players Association and the United States National Soccer Team Players Association announced that they had agreed to first-of-their-kind collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) creating true pay equity in the sport.

Appearance fees and bonuses will be equalized across teams: for example, a player who participates in an international exhibition match, or “friendly,” against a team ranked in the FIFA Top 25 will receive an $8,000 appearance fee, and a $10,000 bonus for a victory. U.S. Soccer is going to share with players a percentage of broadcast, sponsorship, and apparel revenue. The pot will then be split equally among the different teams. The players will receive $5.06 for every ticket purchased at U.S. Soccer home games from Jan. 1-2023 to Dec 31 2026.

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Most notably, the men’s and women’s teams will split FIFA World Cup prize money equally, becoming the first national teams to do so anywhere in the world. Soccer’s world governing body has notoriously awarded disparate amounts to men and women. FIFA set aside $400 million in total prize money for the 2018 men’s World Cup, including $38 million to champion side France. For the entire 2019 women’s tournament, on the other hand, just $30 million was set aside and only $4 million went to the winning United States team.

FIFA has increased the total to $440 million for the 2022 men’s World Cup; its president, Gianni Infantino, has proposed FIFA double the women’s prize money to $60 million for the 2023 Women’s World Cup. The United States, however, will pool the total prize money won by the U.S. teams in the 2022 World Cup and the 2023 World Cups, and pass 90% of the funds onto the players, to be split evenly among the men’s and women’s players. The CBAs call for a similar structure in the 2026 and 2027 World Cups, with 80% of the money to be shared evenly among men’s and women’s players.

The agreements also require U.S. Soccer to provide an equal number of charter flights to both teams, and an equal quality of venues and field playing surfaces to the men’s and women’s teams.

New standards set by soccer for equal pay

These deals would seem to conclude six years of contention between the U.S. women’s team and U.S. Soccer.

The Equal Opportunity Employment Commission received five wage discrimination claims in 2016 from players. There were many repercussions. In March 2020, for example, a U.S. Soccer court filing seemed to demean female players, saying that “indisputable science” proved that the female players were inferior to men; U.S. Soccer president Carlos Cordeiro resigned in the fallout. In April 2020, a judge ruled against the women in the equal pay suit; but new U.S. Soccer president Cindy Parlow Cone, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and member of the 1999 World Cup winning U.S. women’s soccer team, signaled that the organization was willing to negotiate going forward.

It worked. Cone, a woman with deep ties to the U.S. team, was now in charge, and the women’s CBA was expiring at the end of 2021. The men’s side was still seeking a new agreement: it had expired at the end of 2018. All parties were motivated to meet together in the fall because of these circumstances. “For me, the turning point was when we actually got everyone in the same room together,” says Cone. “That was the first time that I really thought we could do this, because that in itself was historic.”

“We saw that there was not going to be a way forward without the equalization of World Cup prize money,” says Walker Zimmerman, a U.S. men’s national team member who also plays for Nashville SC of Major League Soccer. “There was a potential chance of making less money, no doubt about it,” says Zimmerman. “But we also believe so much in the women’s team, we believe in equal pay. And ultimately, that was a big driving force for us, to do something no other team had done before.”

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Still, Zimmerman acknowledges that the men had “difficult” talks. They really wanted to give up the chance to keep their World Cup winnings. “The hardest thing was probably the conversations about, okay, if anyone is going to do it, we have to be the group to do it,” says Zimmerman. “Because it’s so much easier in theory when you aren’t the ones on the team actually giving up something that you already expected to get.”

Sure, the higher salaries that men can earn playing for their pro club teams help offset any World Cup losses—but they could have still held out on equality. “This advancement doesn’t happen without the men championing this,” says Cone. “I don’t want that to be understated. Because they were true champions of this, and worked through this because it’s not easy to give up the money that they’re giving up.”

These deals could set the bar for international teams across all sports to negotiate equal pay. Are NBA players willing to set aside a percentage of revenue for their lower-paid counterparts at the WNBA, or will they? This idea seemed laughable until Wednesday. Now? This at the least appears plausible.

“I don’t know that we know the full ramifications of this, in soccer, other sports, and society,” says Cone. “I don’t think we’ll fully know that for 10, 15 years.”

However, there’s one thing that we do know: Female athletes are more optimistic than ever.

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