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Leveling the playing field

BY JACOB RUDE - sports@wabashplaindealer.com

It’s not often that you realize in the moment that you are witnessing something historical. It’s the basis of the old “Can’t see the forest for the trees” metaphor. But while watching the United States Women’s National Team (USWNT) in the last month, it’s been clear we are all witnessing something truly special and potentially ground-breaking.

The USWNT has long been fighting for something bigger than trophies and recognition. Their fight for equal pay and gender equality within the United States Soccer Federation has been ongoing and has taken center stage along with the team itself. Their work off the field to level the playing field has been matched by their work on the field to decimate it.

The team shattered record after record in France. They became the first nation to win four women’s World Cup trophies. They became the first nation to reach three-straight World Cup Finals and only the second team to defend the World Cup title. They set records for most goals (26), highest goal difference (+23) and most wins (7).

Individually, Megan Rapinoe became the first person to win the Golden Ball, awarded to the best player in the tournament, and the Golden Boot, awarded to the player with the most goals in the tournament. Carli Lloyd became the first player to score in six consecutive games, a run that started in 2015.

This was not a record-breaking group. This was a record-shattering group. It’s likely the best group of female soccer players ever assembled. Multiple players who did not see minutes during the World Cup would have starred for virtually every other country.

Yet it’s their impact off the field that will be longer-lasting. This team is comprised of fiercely outspoken individuals who stand up for what they believe in and speak out about those topics which is America at its best. What they’re fighting for, though, is one of the things that is America at its worst.

Despite all the records broken, the four World Cup titles to the men’s team’s zero, the unmatched success and the incomparable pressure placed on them, the gap in pay between the women’s and men’s team still exists despite mountains of evidence it shouldn’t.

An estimated total of 15.9 million people watched Sunday’s final of USA against Netherlands between TV, streaming and the Spanish Telemundo broadcast. That was a larger audience than tuned in for last year’s Men’s World Cup Final between France and Croatia. While it didn’t reach levels of the 2015 World Cup Final between USA and Japan, that match took place at 7 p.m. while Sunday’s final was at 11 a.m. According to Forbes, 47 percent of those that tuned into the World Cup this year were women. 

The numbers globally were more staggering. A total of 5.5 million Dutch tuned into the game which accounts for 88 percent of its viewing public. The BBC announced after Sunday’s final that 28.1 million people in England tuned in to coverage of the World Cup. 

Yet, when it comes to payouts for the women’s team, the gap is sizeable. FIFA, who reports its revenue in the billions, awarded $30 million in prize money at the women’s World Cup. At last year’s men’s World Cup, they handed out $400 million in prize money. FIFA vows to double the prize money for the 2023 women’s World Cup but that would still come in at 15 percent of the men’s pool as opposed to 7.5 percent. FIFA deserves no plaudits there.

A Washington Post article in June dove into the finances between the USWNT and its male counterparts. In 2018, the women generated roughly $50.8 in revenue while the men generated $49.9 million. In terms of net revenue, the women’s team collected a combined $9 million across 2016 and 2017 while the men’s team brought in just over $3 million between 2015 and 2016.

This year, the USWNT jersey became the highest-selling soccer jersey Nike has ever sold. The USWNT was serenaded with chants of “Equal pay!” after Sunday’s final. Now, it’s time for FIFA and the United States Soccer Federation to step up. The world is watching.