US Soccer’s historic equal pay deal represents a hard-won peace | USA women’s football team

At long last, peace.

Expensive peace, certainly. But a peace without which US Soccer was never going to progress.

The slogan US Soccer has tried to push for many years is “One Nation, One Team”. That’s difficult to take to heart when women’s team advocates openly mock the men’s lack of World Cup success and men’s team advocates fire back with constant reminders that the women lose to men’s youth teams.

With the new collective bargaining agreements announced Wednesday by US Soccer and the players’ unions, everyone is finally on the same side.

Almost.

The men’s and women’s teams now have equity across the board in every apples-to-apples comparison and even a few that are closer to apples-to-pears – beating the 24th-ranked men’s team on the road is much tougher than getting a home win over the 24th-ranked team in the shallower pool of women’s soccer national teams, but they will now have identical win bonuses. That’s low-hanging fruit that could’ve and should’ve been resolved years ago.

Those comparisons are easier today because the women have finally given up guaranteed salaries that provided stability when women’s pro soccer was virtually non-existent but became a legal albatross because the women negotiated for a deal with a different structure – not just different pay amounts – than the bonus-only deal the men had.

More importantly, each team now directly benefits from each other’s success. Prize money and commercial revenue will be pooled together and split between the two teams. An MNT win in the World Cup round of 16 means more money for the WNT. A WNT World Cup triumph means more money for the MNT. Win-win in the most literal sense.

“We’ll be each other’s biggest cheerleaders, for sure,” said Walker Zimmerman, a US men’s defender and a leader within the team’s players’ association, on a media conference call.

For example – in the 2022 and 2023 World Cup, the player pool will receive 90% of any prize money their teams win.

Yes – 90%, with a nine and a zero. And that might anger some of the grassroots soccer people who already think too much money is going to players’ beach houses rather than youth, coaching and referee development programs, a belief so fervent that they almost returned Carlos Cordeiro to the presidency two months ago, a mere two years after his tenure of public embarrassment and organizational calamity ended with his resignation.

For sake of comparison, Norway’s much-hyped “equal pay” deal, which does not pool and share prize money, pays each team 25% of the prize money they win in major tournaments, which means the dollar amount paid to men for a similar result to the women is exponentially higher. Australia’s deal, which also isn’t “equal” in a sense that would’ve satisfied the US women or their battalion of lawyers, pays on a sliding scale up to 50% but also sets aside 5% of “player-generated revenue” for youth national teams.

But the US teams’ big paychecks aren’t new. Under the previous US deals, the women received roughly 100% of the prize money for winning the World Cup, some of it paid as a “Victory Tour” bonus on top of their game fees for Victory Tour games. The men’s percentage is more difficult to calculate because it includes bonuses for each group-stage point, but a deep run in the World Cup would put the men’s share somewhere in the 60-70% range or a little higher.

The prize money also drops to 80% in the next cycle, which could still be a nice payout if Fifa continues to raise, ever so slowly, prize money for the increasingly successful Women’s World Cup. And payment across the board isn’t exponentially higher than what was in past deals – for example, a friendly win over a highly ranked opponent will net each player $18,000, up just slightly from the $17,625 in the last men’s deal and the $12,750 for women who weren’t already salaried.

So if these deals aren’t budget-busters, will that be enough to mollify the grassroots organizers?

To recap: Cordeiro resigned when a legal brief came to light that was astonishingly insulting to the accomplished women’s team. But state associations and other federation members convinced him to run in an effort to overthrow Cindy Cone, the Hall of Fame player who had assumed the presidency when Cordeiro was pushed out. Despite warnings from sponsors and fans that restoring Cordeiro to the throne would cause considerable damage, the former president drew 47.1% of the weighted vote. Had the Athletes’ Council not recently had its share raised from 20% to 33.3% by federal law, Cone likely would not have been basking in the good news on Wednesday.

On the eve of the election, US Soccer announced a $24m settlement with the women’s team. The cynical take was that the announcement timing was politically motivated to help Cone, especially because the deal was still contingent on CBA negotiations that wound up taking two more months. But that deal might have actually hurt Cone because, in the minds of many members, that was $24m that would not go to other programs – youth national teams, grassroots grants, coaching education, referee development and other national teams. To give one example: US Soccer boasts strong teams in seven-a-side soccer for players with cerebral palsy and traumatic brain injury, a discipline that used to be in the Paralympics and might one day return, and the US women just won the inaugural world championship.

And the federation isn’t swimming in money, Scrooge McDuck-style, any more. US Soccer is running eight-figure deficits these days, slicing into a once-mighty pile of assets.

But the budget will look a lot better without quite so many legal bills. The federation no longer has to do damage control over PR missteps such as the one that cost Cordeiro his presidency or the “equal pay” fight in general, which was largely misunderstood by everyone from lawmakers to pundits.

Cone is optimistic that the settlement of such a long labor process – the men have been playing under an expired CBA since 2018, and the women sued the federation in 2019 – will lift the federation’s many boats, competitively and commercially.

“Yes, this is a lot of money, but I think it’s a real positive that will help us grow the pie,” Cone said on the media call.

Pay equity is never going to be exact. Under these deals, the women will surely make much more money than the men, no matter where they finish in the next World Cups. They get prize money for the Olympics; the men do not. The women’s schedule, typically focused more on crowd-pleasing home friendlies than character-building European friendlies or difficult Central American qualifying games, is easier than the men’s, which will mean they’ll rack up more win bonuses.

But it’s hard to argue that disparity merits a complaint. The men will still, by all accounts, get paid quite well in comparison with their peers. And with their club teams, many of them get seven-figure salaries while the women are still struggling to get six figures.

“We knew there was a chance of making less money,” Zimmerman said. “But we believe so much in the women’s team and the premise of equal pay, and ultimately, that was a big driving force for us.”

This isn’t the last step forward for US Soccer. But it’s a big one.

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