June 07, 2019

The 24 teams competing in this year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup in France will vie for a total purse of $30 million, $8 million less than the French men’s team alone took home for winning the men’s tournament last summer, prompting a renewed push by women athletes to close the soccer pay gap.

The union for the Australia women's team, nicknamed the Matildas, is looking to use the platform of the World Cup to put the pressure on FIFA to reexamine its rules for paying male and female athletes. The #OurGoalIsNow campaign argues that FIFA has maintained this disparity despite generating 12 times its overall expected profit over its last four-year cycle and even after adopting rules banning gender discrimination.

The campaign follows an effort launched earlier this year by players on the defending World Cup champion U.S. Women's National Team, who filed a proposed pay equality class action in federal court against its own federation.

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U.S. Soccer did not respond to Law360's request for comment.

The organization has argued that the MNT and WNT are separate organizations with separate pay structures and separate collective bargaining agreements. U.S. Soccer has also said direct comparisons between the two can be misleading, because the women's team players actually have a higher base pay and better benefits, whereas most of the men's compensation comes from bonuses.

As such, pay for the men's and women's teams cannot be compared under the Equal Pay Act, the federation has argued, and any disparities are "attributable to a factor other than sex: the revenue generated by the team's games."

But U.S. Soccer is going to have a difficult time making such a legal argument if it does so based on the disparities in FIFA prize money, according to attorney Christine E. Webber, a partner in Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC's Civil Rights and Employment practice group.

"It is sort of like using discrimination by FIFA to justify discrimination by the U.S. Soccer Federation," Webber said. "It is analogous to the idea that you can't justify discrimination by saying the customer that I am selling to discriminates and therefore that is going to drive me to discriminate. That is not something the Equal Pay Act or Title VII permits you to do."

World Cup prize money goes to national federations like U.S. Soccer, but players are generally entitled to a smaller cut of the winnings based on agreements with their federation. The Matildas say their collective bargaining agreement only entitles them to 30% of the relatively smaller winnings for the Women's World Cup.

According to the U.S. WNT's lawsuit, the team only received a bonus pool of $1.725 million for winning the 2015 World Cup, while the men received bonuses totaling $5.375 million in 2014 for losing in the round of 16.

Further, the WNT players' case is not about players in a women's soccer league not being paid as much as the players in a commensurate men's league. They allege they get paid substantially less by the same employer for essentially doing the same job, or working even more.

The Equal Pay Act does allow for disparities in pay if there is a difference in "quality or quantity of production," something Webber argued does not exist in this case.

"If we look at the output here, it is winning World Cups, which the women are doing and the men are not, and it is putting fans in the seats or getting them to buy merchandise, and the women are doing that equal to or greater than the men," Webber said.

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The WNT's latest suit follows a separate pay discrimination suit by former national team goaltender Hope Solo and comes after years of contentious labor negotiations between the female players and U.S. Soccer.

While both Solo's and the latest suits are in early stages of litigation, attorneys say just the fact that they are filed is already sending a message.

"I think it is shining a spotlight on the ongoing existence of very real pay disparities in our economy that adversely affect women," Webber said. "Because of their stature in the community, that draws a lot of attention in the way that other women suing other employers is not."

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