The United States women’s national soccer team was honored Wednesday with a ticker-tape parade through New York City, down the same Canyon of Heroes that has witnessed similar ceremonies for returning astronauts and other explorers who conquered the great unknown.
Previous iterations of the U.S. team were also celebrated for their success at the World Cup. Twenty years ago, the groundbreaking 1999 team was on the cover of seemingly every magazine in the nation. Just four years ago, the 2015 team was the first to ride through the paper rain on the streets of Manhattan.
The great unknown for the 2019 team, however, is whether the players’ accomplishment will lead to lasting change for their sport, themselves, and for the larger goal of real gender equality. In many ways, the other three championships represented a wonderful tide of emotion, but one that fell as quickly as it rose. Will it be different this time?
“Any time you can elevate the public’s consciousness, it helps,” says John Langel. “This is an evolution, not a revolution, and it feels as if it has reached another tipping point. I think we’ll see another jump up, and not just for women’s soccer. Hopefully, we’ll see the impact elsewhere.”
Langel, a retired partner with the Philadelphia law firm of Ballard Spahr, was the general counsel for the U.S. Women’s National Team Players Association from 1998 to 2016. In partnership with Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, and the leaders of the 1999 champions, Langel and the WNTPA fought the first major battles with the U.S. Soccer Federation over equal treatment from the sport’s national governing body, and helped launch the Women’s United Soccer Association, the first major women’s league in this country.
Both the battle to gain equal treatment for the national team, and the battle for building a sustainable club-league model, are still ongoing. There have been gains, and there has been advancement, but after Wednesday’s parade passed, and the last bit of paper was swept, the fight continues.
“Everyone is kind of asking what's next and what we want to come of all of this," outspoken star Megan Rapinoe said after the team captured the World Cup trophy. "It's to stop having the conversation about equal pay and are we worth it. What are we going to do about it?”
The two fights are really different conversations. The obligation of U.S. Soccer is not the same as the obligation of the marketplace. The women unquestionably deserve equal treatment from their federation, and they filed suit in March seeking it. The case is in mediation.
Less clear-cut is whether a viable domestic league is a birthright or a goal that must pencil-out logically on corporate America’s bottom line.
“This is a significant time, and the public’s response is significant,” Langel said. “I always thought it was incumbent on corporate America to pursue this not as a moral buy, but because it does make business sense. We’re seeing more of that, of corporate America recognizing the value of women’s viewership. And it’s easier to have these conversations after Olympic gold or after World Cup wins.”
After Sunday’s championship, the National Women’s Soccer League, now in its seventh season but still challenged financially, announced that Budweiser had signed to become a multi-year sponsor. Additionally, ESPN has agreed to televise 14 games through the remainder of the current season. That replaces league-wide visibility lost when the A&E Networks dropped the league earlier this year.
Salaries are capped at approximately $46,000 in the NWSL, and some top U.S. players – including Rapinoe and Alex Morgan – have opted during their careers for stints in more lucrative European leagues.
Growth of the NWSL is a chicken-and-egg proposition. Will more sponsorship and exposure increase attendance, or will a league that averages about 6,000 per game lose its luster as a corporate buy before that happens? It is a race that two previous leagues lost.
More narrowly, for the pool of elite players in the national team program, the easier question to answer is what the federation should do.
According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, from 2016 to 2018 the women’s team generated $50.8 million in revenue for U.S. Soccer while the men’s team – which did not qualify for the 2018 World Cup – generated $49.9 million. Meanwhile, men making the national team were given a roster bonus of $55,000, and the women were given $15,000.
Answering the players’ association lawsuit, U.S. Soccer claimed “legitimate business reasons” for that and other disparities. It will be interesting to hear those.
“Their obligation is to grow the game, and a wealthy [national governing body] like U.S. Soccer should be supporting men and women the same way,” Langel said. “The NGB is in a different position, and has obligations that aren’t necessarily based on economics.”
It’s about doing what is right rather than what you can get away with. The current team is intent on shining a light on those decisions, just as it continued to shine a light on the excellence of U.S. women’s soccer during the World Cup in France.