- Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC.
The long slog toward equal pay — and labor peace — in the U.S. Soccer landscape took a giant step forward on Wednesday with the announcement that the unions for players on the U.S. men’s national team and U.S. women’s national teams had ratified new collective bargaining agreements with the U.S. Soccer Federation.
The deals will begin on June 1 and will last through the end of 2028. In many respects, the agreements are history making.
In what ways are the deals historic?
The two unions and the USSF achieved equality in terms of economics. The World Cup bonuses, long a sticking point in the equal-pay fight, will now be split evenly between the two teams after the USSF takes its cut. The teams will receive 90% for the 2022 and 2023 World Cup bonuses and 80% of the 2026 and 2027 payouts.
Equality was achieved in other areas as well, with the men and women now receiving identical payments for per-game bonuses. For matches the USSF controls, players will receive $18,000 for a win, $12,000 for a draw and $8,000 for a loss if the opponent is ranked in the top 25 of FIFA’s rankings. For all other opponents, the amounts are $13,000 for a win, $10,000 for a draw and $8,000 for a defeat.
The two unions will also receive an even split for commercial revenue, which includes such items as sponsorships and media rights. The unions will receive 10% of commercial revenue between $55 million and $75m, and 15% of any commercial revenue above $75m. In terms of ticket revenue, each team will receive $5.06 for each ticket sold for games between 2022 and 2026, while the teams will get $5.75 per ticket for games between 2027 and 2028. (It’s worth noting that each team will receive a cut of the ticket revenue for its own games only, so the women will get ticket compensation for its games and likewise for the men — no sharing there.)
Both teams will have access to child care while in camp, a first for a men’s CBA.
“It can’t be understated the work that everyone put into this from the U.S. Soccer side, the men’s side, the women’s side and both of their [unions], the amount of work and amount of hours that everyone put into this,” USSF president Cindy Parlow Cone told ESPN. “Everyone was really focused on getting a deal done and moving in that direction. So while there were highs and lows, I don’t know that there was ever a super low moment. At least we didn’t stay there for a long period of time. We usually started creeping back up on the roller coaster.”
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All of this makes too much sense. Why didn’t they do this before?
There are several reasons for this. First, the membership of the respective unions had different needs. In most instances, the majority of a male player’s income is earned through his club. For a female player, with the club soccer landscape still growing in the women’s game, the national team was their primary source of income and benefits. This led to two widely different structures in terms of CBAs.
The men utilized a pay-for-play model. They only received compensation from the USSF if they got called up. If they were injured, too bad — they missed out. The women on the USWNT opted for more financial security, so they opted for a system that included guaranteed salaries for a subset of players, as well as game bonuses. If a player was under contract with the USSF, they would still receive the guaranteed salary even if they didn’t get called in for whatever reason. A player who wasn’t one of the chosen few contracted players relied solely on her game bonuses.
But there was also resistance by the USSF to pay players on the USWNT the same as men in terms of per-game bonuses. Some of that was down to the USWNT’s dominance of the women’s game, but it was also due to the leverage the USSF had over the women’s players because of their dependence on their national team income. The unequal treatment manifested itself in all manner of ways, from the payments, to the hotels the team stayed in, to the amount of support staff the USWNT were given.
In terms of sharing of World Cup bonuses, the USSF had long stated that there was nothing that could be done in terms of how FIFA decided to dole out prize money, and the difference is vast. The entire bonus pool for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar will be $400m while the bonuses for the women’s tournament in Australia in 2023 will be $60m. Put another way, in the previous World Cup cycle, the last-place men’s team won more prize money than the first-place women’s team.
So what changed?
None of this would have happened without the women players and their union, the U.S. Women’s National Team Players Association (USWNTPA), continuing to push the envelope for equal pay. Keep in mind that the players first filed a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2016. The subsequent class action lawsuit that 28 players filed against the USSF in 2019 kept the pressure on the federation, with the two sides eventually settling the case in February, which was contingent on the new CBAs announced Monday.
Previous generations of the U.S. women’s national team also did their bit to push for better pay and benefits starting in the 1990s, laying the groundwork for concessions. This agreement is the result of all of those efforts.
“I am grateful to the women who have championed this women’s rights issue long before me and I’m humbled to join them in this service,” said Gotham FC and USWNT forward Midge Purce, who was a member of the USWNTPA’s CBA committee. “I also feel a lot of pride when it comes to the young girls who are going to see this and grow up recognizing their value instead of fighting to find it.”
There was also a change in leadership at the USSF. Cone took over amid controversy after predecessor Carlos Cordeiro resigned over legal filings that disparaged the USWNT players. One legal filing stated the women “do not perform equal work requiring equal skill [and] effort” because “the overall soccer-playing ability required to compete at the senior men’s national team level is materially influenced by the level of certain physical attributes such as speed and strength.”
While Cordeiro had also vowed to address the equal pay issue, once Cone took over, she made it a priority to settle the equal pay lawsuit as well as the CBAs. In fact, she tied the settlement of the equal pay lawsuit to negotiating CBAs that were equal in terms of economics, including the World Cup bonus issue. The fact that she was a former USWNT player gave her some credibility with the USWNT players that their concerns would be heard. The tone of the talks changed.
Lastly, the men’s union, the U.S. National Soccer Team Players Association (USNSTPA), had to agree to share their World Cup bonuses, which given the pay disparity wasn’t easy. But they ultimately agreed to meet the women halfway.
“This doesn’t happen without the men championing this,” Cone said on a conference call with reporters.
Sounds like the USMNT gave up a lot then, right?
They did and they didn’t. Certainly they’ll be getting less money from their exploits in Qatar than they otherwise might have, but according to a USNSTPA source with knowledge of the negotiations, the big issue for the men was increasing the per-game bonuses outside of a World Cup, which affect a greater number of players in the player pool. It’s worth noting that just 23 players will go to Qatar. Fifty-seven players made at last one appearance for the USMNT in 2021, some of whom are just starting their professional careers. In those cases, the increase will make a significant difference.
The men will also receive a $2.5m payment that won’t be shared with the women and counts as both a World Cup qualifying bonus and retroactive pay given that they had been operating under a CBA that expired at the end of 2018. Combined with a $10,000 per-game bonus for each player on the World Cup roster, along with the 2023 World Cup bonuses that the women will share with them, the USNSTPA felt it was made whole to a degree that it was willing to share its cut of World Cup bonuses.
There was also a sense that sharing the bonuses was “the right thing to do,” as Nashville SC and USMNT defender Walker Zimmerman put it.
“It’s something that [the USWNT players] deserve,” Zimmerman said. “It’s something that they have fought for so hard, and to be honest, sometimes it does feel like we had just kind of come alongside of them and had been a little late. And it’s not easy to look back and think about this whole journey and where it started for them and how we entered and that’s why it’s even more important for us to feel like we are getting involved. You know, it’s never too late to get involved.”
Why was the USWNTPA willing to give up guaranteed contracts? Isn’t there more risk now?
There is certainly more risk, but it’s worth remembering that just 16 players earned guaranteed USWNT salaries in 2021, and that number had been decreasing over the years. The rest of the player pool relied on per-game bonuses.
The upside in the new deal is staggering. For matches that the USSF controls — namely friendlies — players on the U.S. women’s team can receive as much as $18,000 for a win. That more than doubles the maximum of $8,500 they could earn in their previous deal.
According to numbers supplied by the USWNTPA, a player making all rosters in a non-World Cup year, including the ticket- and revenue-sharing portions, could make $450,000 under this new contract. In a World Cup year that number could double. Players in 2022 could see their compensation increase by anywhere from 34% to 49% when compared to 2018.
When you consider that the minimum salary in the NWSL is $35,000, the amount of additional money from USWNT duty could be life-changing for some players. There is also a sense that the NWSL as a league is growing, and that as time goes on, those salaries will make up an increasing percentage of a player’s compensation.
“We now have a strong-enough league here at home where we can depend on those salaries a little bit more and leave a little more risk up to the national team,” Purce said. “And I think that’s really helped free up that risk.”
What would happen if one of the teams fails to qualify for a World Cup?
Then the bonuses wouldn’t be shared. The possibility of this scenario occurring is so remote, though, it’s borderline unthinkable.
Sure, the U.S. men didn’t qualify for Russia 2018, but they’ve already qualified for the 2022 World Cup and are co-hosting the 2026 edition. That takes the USMNT through this CBA.
CBAs tend to build on past agreements, so this is likely to be in place for the 2030 men’s World Cup and beyond, but with the men’s tournament expanding to 48 teams, the USMNT is even more likely to qualify.
As for the USWNT, beyond the team’s obvious quality as the No. 1-ranked team in the world, that World Cup is set to expand to 32 teams, making qualification easier. The women will continue to contribute their share to the World Cup bonus pool.
So are the deals identical?
Close, but not quite. The women still wanted some benefits in their deal that gave them some downside protection, including injury protection, health and dental insurance, and parental leave. The injury protection provision goes away in 2026.
Not every USWNT player will get these benefits either. There will be 27 “benefits players” in 2022, and 23 such players for the rest of the CBA’s term. USWNT manager Vlatko Andonovski will decide who those players are. There are some demands of the players selected in that they must make “best efforts” to be available outside of FIFA windows, keep the USSF medical staff informed of injuries, submit to weekly medical monitoring and make best efforts to share “sensor data” from their clubs to the USSF.
What did the USSF achieve?
Certainly the federation helped advance gender equality, even if it did take a painfully long time to get there. The USSF took a beating in the court of public opinion, deservedly so at times. Now the federation gets to put this behind them in a way that it can look forward.
Cone can certainly take a victory lap given that she helped get these deals over the line while also pushing a settlement in the equal pay case. The job of USSF president would seem to be hers as long she wants it.
Some wounds take time to heal, though, and the years of distrust and confrontation between the USWNT and the USSF will not go away overnight.
“My dad always said that you don’t get rewards for doing what you’re supposed to do, and you’re supposed to pay men and women equally, so I’m not handing out any gold stars,” Purce said. “But I am truly grateful for all the work and effort that we have all come together to put this together.”
So is everything good between the USWNT and the USMNT?
The vibe between the two teams is certainly better than it was. Zimmerman spoke about how the partnership with the USWNT is “a clean slate” and added: “We’re gonna be cheering like crazy because that’s exactly what this CBA is. It’s equal. We will be their biggest fans. I’m sure they will be our biggest fans as well.”
Purce added, “We love watching [the men] play. Whenever we’re in camp, everybody has it on their phones. We’re watching it, but I’m sure now that when they win, everyone’s gonna be jumping up and down and screaming. It’s going to be great. I think it’s going to be a start of a new look for what a national team looks like in the U.S. and I hope we have doubleheaders and all kinds of interteam things going on.”
What will these deals mean long term?
The expectation is that there will be ripple effect. On a conference call with reporters, Purce spoke of the CBAs “setting a new value for women in the workforce.”
Cone said it was impossible at this point in time to know what the ramifications will be, and that it would likely be “10 to 15 years” until such an assessment could be made, but there are still other places where the equal pay push can continue. Cone said that she has brought the issue of globalizing equal pay to CONCACAF president Victor Montagliani and FIFA president Gianni Infantino.
“They’re open to it and I think we have willing partners there,” Cone said. “But you know, things just don’t move as fast as we would like them to move.”
Cone added she wants the USSF to be a resource for other organizations — in the sport of soccer and beyond — to make their own push for equality. That way Wednesday’s announcement will be just the beginning.
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