U.S. Soccer Sponsor Enters Equal Pay Fight on Women’s Side

U.S. Soccer Sponsor Enters Equal Pay Fight on Women’s Side

One of U.S. Soccer’s official sponsors has sided with the World Cup-winning United States women’s team in its fight with the federation for equal pay, urging its partner, the governing body for soccer in the United States, “to be on the right side of history.”

The sponsor, Procter & Gamble, declared its support for equal pay in a full-page advertisement in Sunday’s editions of The New York Times. It is the first of more than a dozen U.S. Soccer partners and sponsors to side so openly with the team in the equal pay fight, and its support could increase the pressure on federation officials.

The popular champions begin a multicity victory tour next month only weeks before the sides are expected to enter mediation to try to resolve the players’ federal gender discrimination lawsuit.

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Procter & Gamble, which supports U.S. Soccer through its Secret deodorant brand, also said it was making a donation of $529,000 to the women’s national team’s players association, which represents the team’s interests in its dealings with U.S. Soccer. The figure was symbolic, the company said: $23,000 for each member of the 23-player World Cup roster.

“Inequality is about more than pay and players,” Procter & Gamble said in the ad. “It’s about values.”

All of U.S. Soccer’s sponsors have embraced the team since its 2-0 victory over the Netherlands in the World Cup final. Nike, for example, released a 60-second ad online almost as soon as the title was secure on July 7; its message stressed equality for women’s sports and support for women’s empowerment generally, but it did not explicitly call for equal pay for the American team.

The women’s team and U.S. Soccer have been in a public fight over equal pay and support for years. In 2016, the team filed a wage-discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, citing figures that its lawyers said showed the women’s players could expect to earn tens of thousands of dollars less than their men’s counterparts for the same work. A year later, after months of talks, the team and the federation agreed to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement that included improved pay and working conditions, but by this March the sides were publicly at odds again.

Frustrated by the lack of progress on their E.E.O.C. complaint, the players asked to withdraw it and instead 28 members of the team sued U.S. Soccer in federal court, accusing the federation of years of “institutionalized gender discrimination.” The discrimination, the team said, affects not only their paychecks but also where they play and how often, the medical treatment and quality of coaching they receive, and even how they travel to matches and the hotels in which they stay.

While Procter & Gamble is the first U.S. Soccer sponsor to enter the players’ fight so clearly on the team’s side, it is not the first corporation to make a tangible financial commitment to the players. Days before the World Cup, Visa announced a five-year sponsorship that it said requires at least half of its investment be directed toward the women’s national team and other women’s programs. And in April, the energy-bar maker Luna Bar promised each player who made the Women’s World Cup roster a $31,250 bonus; the payment, Luna Bar said, represented the difference in the World Cup roster bonuses paid to the men’s and women’s World Cup teams.

Yet even those bonuses highlighted the complicated, and nuanced, debate about equal pay. In one of the most obvious differences, players on the men’s and women’s national teams compete under separate collective bargaining agreements. The men, who benefit from rich club salaries, have prioritized higher match and victory bonuses, while the women, who still make the bulk of their on-field income from U.S. Soccer, long had agreed to lower national-team bonuses in exchange for the security of guaranteed salaries.

The debate about equal treatment in women’s soccer is not new. In 2012, it even played out in the seating arrangements when Japan’s national teams flew to the London Olympics: the women’s team, who had won the World Cup a year earlier, rode in premium economy while the men sat in business class. But the momentum in the equal pay debate, driven by powerful voices on the United States women’s team like Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan, had been building behind the American players even before their victory in France. After this latest World Cup title, fans, companies and politicians have rushed to the players’ cause: in the moments after the United States’ victory over the Netherlands, fans chanted “Equal Pay!” inside the stadium, and days later the phrase was shouted repeatedly during the team’s victory parade and celebration last week in New York.

In an interview on the Pod Save America podcast last week, Rapinoe repeated the team’s demands for equal treatment. But she also acknowledged that pay was only one kind of equality in “a complex argument.” On the eve of mediation talks with U.S. Soccer in the gender discrimination lawsuit, that may have been a signal that the players were not staking out a winner-take-all position.

“It’s just apples to oranges,” Rapinoe said of the two pay structures in U.S. Soccer. “But I think what isn’t different is investment in teams, the care with which teams are thought about — whether that’s branding, marketing, how much money is put into the coaching staff, how much money is put into the whole program making it better, into the youth teams, into the way we travel and the way we stay. All of that, I think, should just be across the board the same.

“Until we have all of that the same, and have those conversations, the compensation piece is the very last part of it.”

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