On Tuesday, the U.S. women’s national team made its 2019 Women’s World Cup debut with a 13-0 victory over Thailand, setting a new single-game record for goals in World Cup play-the men’s or women’s edition-in the process. The top-ranked team on the planet has won three of the seven Women’s World Cups, including the most recent tournament in 2015, and is a 2-to-1 favorite to repeat as champion this summer in France.
The U.S. women are as dominant in their sport as the U.S. men are middling in theirs. Since World War II, the men have advanced past the World Cup Round of 16 exactly once, when their 2002 quarterfinals appearance netted an eighth-place finish. They are 24th in FIFA’s rankings, and failed to qualify for last year’s tournament altogether. As The Daily Beast‘s Tim Burke noted, the men needed the previous 6,202 days to match the 13 World Cup goals the women scored on Tuesday. By notching five of those scores, Alex Morgan equaled their total over the previous 3,271 days all by herself.
This history of success on the international stage, to date, has not been enough to convince American soccer authorities to pay the women commensurate with their male peers. Earlier this year, the players filed a federal employment discrimination lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation, alleging that although they could earn a maximum of $99,000 for winning 20 friendlies in a year, the men would earn an average of $260,000 for the same accomplishment. Even if the men lost every one of those matches, they’d still make around $100,000. For its 2015 World Cup title, the women’s team received a total of $1.725 million from the Federation; for its 15th-place World Cup finish a year earlier, the men’s team took home bonuses totaling nearly $5.4 million.
Critics of equal-pay laws believe wage gaps reflect not the operation of sex discrimination, but some combination of personal choice and objective merit. “The ‘gender wage gap’ reflects women’s freedom to pursue the education and occupation they desire, and their opportunity to choose a job environment and work schedule that fits their needs and desires,” argues Rachel Greszler of the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation. Compensation disparities in elite sports, and especially in U.S. professional leagues, often get attributed to the unfeeling operation of other market forces: Fans spend more money on men’s leagues, and so men’s leagues give their athletes more of it. The highest-paid WNBA players, for example, earn about one-eighth the salary of the lowest-paid NBA players and a lower percentage of league revenue than their NBA counterparts, according to a pair of recent Forbes analyses.
Research from Harvard economist Claudia Goldin, among others, indicates that factors like occupational segregation, childcare responsibilities, and educational attainment account for at least some of the observed differences. Yet none of these explanations, to the extent you find them convincing, adequately explain the pay differences in American soccer. Members of the U.S. women’s team have not made a different “choice” than members of the U.S. men’s team. They have made the exact same choice, actually: to represent their country in international play. They have the same job description: to win soccer games. And while the NBA and WNBA are affiliated but distinct leagues, the same organization-the Federation-pays both the U.S. men and women from the same pot. It simply divvies up that pot unfairly.
Oftentimes, what appear to be neutral “market forces” are in fact the product of affirmative choices-ones that are more attributable to discriminatory behavior, or, at the very least, to unconscious bias. “I believe that if you build it, they will come,” says Mary McVeigh Connor, executive director of Soccer Without Borders, a nonprofit that works to expand access to the sport in underserved communities. “When you have six million people watching a Women’s World Cup game but the stands are empty, that’s a marketing failure.” Decisions about how to promote players, sell merchandise, produce matches for TV audiences, among many other things, affect how popular the respective programs become, and how much money they make.