Opinion: Democrats score 'own goal' in fight for equal pay in sports

Michael Graham

The same day the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team was rolling through the ticker tape in New York City’s “Canyon of Heroes,” Democrats in Washington were filing legislation to give them something perhaps even more rewarding: A mandate for equal pay.

Megan Rapinoe of the United States celebrates at the end of the Women's World Cup round of 16 soccer match between Spain and the U.S. Rapinoe scored twice in her team's 2-1 victory.

West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin proposed a bill barring any federal outlays for the U.S-hosted 2026 World Cup tournament, "unless the United States Soccer Federation provides equitable pay to the members of the United States Women’s National Team (USWNT) and the United States Men’s National Team (USMNT).”

“This would include any and all funds provided to host cities; participating local and state organizations; and Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA).”

Manchin's bill has six co-sponsors, three of whom are running for president in 2020: Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar and Bernie Sanders.

Responding in a statement to a letter he received from a college coach suggesting her players would one day make the U.S. women’s team and get paid less than men, Manchin said, "That’s just plain wrong."

Unfortunately for those lobbying for equal pay, the biggest challenge may be that women’s soccer just isn’t as popular as men’s.

In America, the women’s World Cup may have felt like an event on par with the Super Bowl, but the entire tournament generated only about $130 million in revenues. By comparison, last year’s men’s World Cup generated $6 billion — 43 times more money.

The revenue gap is so large, in fact, that the players’ 7% cut of the gross ($400 million) is more than twice as large as the entire women’s World Cup revenue. In other words, if Senate Democrats want to achieve their goal of “equal pay,” the women players would have to get all of the revenue, have someone else cover all the tournament’s expenses, and they’d still be more than $200 million short.

Women’s soccer just isn’t that popular, either in America or around the globe. Men’s soccer has such a strong fan base that it can support both massive, multi-billion-dollar World Cup events every four years and sustain a series of professional leagues across Europe. Five of the top 10 revenue-generating sports leagues in the world are men’s soccer.

None of the top 25 revenue-generating leagues feature women athletes.

Some feminists argue that this fact is, in itself, a form of sexism. Even if it’s true that women sports fans also prefer to watch men’s professional sports, they say, women should still be paid the same.

Writing for Forbes, marketing expert Blake Morgan acknowledges the fact that “the U.S. team does not bring in as much revenue as the men’s," but still contends that FIFA should make a marketing decision to pay women at the same level as men — or else.

“For FIFA a few hundred million dollars is not a lot of money,” she wrote. “These optics can crush them in a quarter or make them more money in a quarter. If they care about money, they will pay up.”

But as Megan McArdle at the Washington Post asks: “Even if we could stop people from watching the men more than the women, should we? And if not, should we expect FIFA to pay the women’s soccer players three times the total revenue of their tournament to produce an income distribution we like better?”

Manchin’s bill is an attempt to coerce FIFA into a politically correct pay scale, but nations all over the globe aggressively compete for FIFA events. If the Democrats push too hard, FIFA could take its soccer ball and go home. Or, more accurately, to Mexico or Canada, which are already hosting 2026 World Cup events.

Advocates Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and Sen. Elizabeth Warren declined repeated requests for comment regarding who should pay for the “equal pay” they demand. They’ve also declined to comment on the math that many sports journalists have begun reporting regarding the World Cup and women’s pay: the players in the men’s World Cup get only 7% of the revenues collected, while the women get about 23of overall revenue.

That’s right: The women earn more.

For Democrats, this issue is quickly turning into what soccer fans call an “own goal.”

Michael Graham is political editor at InsideSources.com.