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Monday, September 16, 2019

The Difficulties of Salary and Economics in Women's Sports

There are five leagues across the United States and Canada which are the pinnacle of their sports' leagues in the world. You can probably name four of them pretty easily: NFL, MLB, NBA, & NHL. But, you ask, what's the fifth? The National Women's Soccer League. It's also the training ground for the best women's national soccer team in the world: the US Women's National Team.

This, IMHO, makes the female soccer player's demand for more money far stronger than the same demands coming from women in other sports. Our US National Women's Team in soccer is a machine that brings home World Cup after World Cup; the men's team sucks and will continue to suck for decades to come. Why should men be rewarded with higher pay than our champions, the women?

Here are the basic arguments you see when the unequal payment across genders in the same sport is raised:  (1) Women's sports don't bring in the same revenue through television contracts, attendance1, or the licensing of merchandise.  (2) Women are already earning more of the disposable net income of their teams than their male counterparts.  (3) Women are not playing the same level game as men2.  (4) Women's sports are already being subsidized by the male versions of their sport. This last is limited to soccer and basketball.

My answer? Specifically for soccer, I don't care. All the points above are outweighed by one significant factor. The women bring us international championships while the men either don't make the tournament or are eliminated fairly quickly; the men are not and will not be competitive within the lifetime of anyone 30 years old as of today and probably longer. You reward winners who are bearing the torch for your sport in your country. Get a clue. Give them more money and promote the heck out of their success.  US Soccer is already paying the salary of all the USWNT members who are in the NWSL (at a higher level than other players3); it could increase that. You don't have to make women soccer players multi-millionaires, but if you want the team to remain the best in the world you need to pay them more. ATTENTION US SOCCER FEDERATION: In case you haven't noticed, the USNWT is your flagship team.4


Other Women's Sports

Soccer isn't the only sport where women are working toward higher salaries. Women's hockey and the WNBA have disputes as well. In hockey the collapse of the Canadian Women's Hockey League left the NWHL as the one league standing. Theoretically, one league should have strengthened the sport by concentrating the talent pool and allowing concentration in hockeycentric markets. In reality, a large block of players walked away and refused to play in the NWHL because the pay sucks and they don't think the facilities are adequate.

Video keyed to point of interview with woman from the NWHL

There's a lot of speculation that the entire point of the boycott is to force the NHL to  invest its funds into pay and resources for the women. However, the NHL has shown no interest in doing this and if that's the end goal, it's a tacit admission that the women's version cannot sustain itself. And that could be really bad news. The NHL isn't printing money at the same rate as the other major American leagues5 and faced with the prospect of a commitment that will constantly, for as long into the future as anyone can see, demand diversion of funds from its primary product, the NHL may make a financially appropriate business decision, decline to become involved, and let women's hockey fail.

In women's basketball, there has been a drive for an increase in pay for a couple years. The WNBA has benefited from being backed both financially and through publicity channels by the NBA. Despite drops in attendance, it continues to get television contracts which keep it in the public eye. Even better, it has retrenched and placed many of its teams in more appropriate venues. Unfortunately, its competition for the hearts and minds of basketball fans has become more prominent with the growth of the G-League (where people might see players headed for the NBA6) and the Big-3 (which has put more people in the seats). It also seems to have problems drawing the younger and/or female demographics.7

There are claims that the WNBA is running in the red and has for as long as it has been in existence.8 Lots of journalists and commentators want to dispute the lack of profitability, but I've not seen a creditable claim yet that the WNBA makes a profit. This is as much the fault of the WNBA as anything else; like many failing or marginal businesses, it doesn't publish its failure for the world to see (hard to get sponsors if they don't see a route to profitability through you). The players are talking about a strike to increase the level of pay.


The complaints of the various women players in professional sport are caused by an abrupt paradigm shift that occurs upon graduation from college. This is the point at which the profit incentive flips against female athletes.

Prior to graduation from college, the market is governed by Title IX.9 This law was passed in the 1970's and fairly quickly was interpreted to mean that for every single male sports slot on campus there had to be a female slot and the female in that slot had to be just as well equipped and looked after as the male. If you're old enough you remember the scramble in the 70's thru the 80's as schools tried to balance out the number of football players with female athletes. Sports which had both male and female teams or analogues were value neutral (basketball, soccer, baseball/softball). Sports which had only female players became extremely valuable (volleyball & field hockey10). Sports which only had male competitors, other than football, were a liability. In fact they were radioactive and sports like wrestling were killed off in droves. In any event, once all the dust settled we had a system wherein a female basketball or soccer or hockey player received basically the same treatment and facilities as a male.

Why did this happen and why does it continue? School administrators will mouth nice platitudes about equality, etc. The reality is that it's all about the money. Colleges and Universities desperately need to stay on the right side of Title IX if they want their schools to stay solvent. They could refuse all student loans and grants and operate free from Title IX and other regulations tied to federal money. Very few do11 and once you take the King's shilling . . .   Et voilĂ , even in a worse case scenario where the school is losing money on each and every female athlete it makes sense to keep the female sports running and the female athletes well equipped so that the number of male slots in football (beloved by the donating alumni) are balanced out and the avalanche of money from student loans keeps pouring thru the gates of the school.

And then comes graduation and a post Title IX world where the women who are athletes have to generate a profit. And let's be clear here, they are in minor leagues, playing games in minor league facilities, and drawing minor league crowds. At this time, the appropriate leagues to compare themselves against are not the NHL, MLS, and NBA. Minor league life isn't one of luxury. It's usually populated by people who love the sport and want to play every last second they can or those who don't have anywhere else to go (in men's affiliated minors there's also those climbing the ladder, but that's not applicable here). You ride buses from game to game instead of flying; you stay at a Knight's Inn instead of the downtown Marriot; you eat whatever you can scrounge at 11 p.m. after the game from a place within walking distance of the hotel. And the cherry on top is that your pay sucks because whoever owns the team isn't making enough money to pay all the expenses and give players extravagant salaries.


The NWHL averaged approximately 830 attendees per game last season. The lowest level men's professional minor league (FPHL) averaged approximately 1,500 per game. If players in the FPHL (previously FHL) are being paid a maximum of $400 a week12 what can the women in the NWHL reasonably expect to be paid? $250 a week? $400? The league has promised more pay and a 50-50 split of the gate although that's more than a bit amorphous. Other reports say that it's a "50% increase in Salary, 60% increase to minimum wage, 25% increase to Per Diem, 33% more games... and THE FIRST EVER 50/50 revenue split." Since there are reports that players were subsisting on $2,000 per season, that seems to mean the pay will go up to $3,000 and the rest will be added on. If the boycotting players are honest in their demand for an "economically viable professional women's league" they have to realize that this is the economically viable model. If they can help grow the league they may be able to change the model, but they're not going to get the kind of pay of even an SPHL or ECHL player (which isn't all that much higher than the FPHL) unless they want to play for a couple years, drive the NWHL out of business, and put themselves out of a job.


The WNBA is messier. If it is truly running the deficit claimed it wouldn't even be in business without the NBA propping it up. However, I'm going to leave that alone. The NBA has decided to keep this league alive as a long term investment with hopes that it will eventually blossom into a profitable endeavor. Hopefully, it's right, but God help the WNBA if the losses are real and the next Commissioner is an accountant rather than an idealist. NBA support has long allowed the WNBA to live in the Realm of Oughtabe rather than the Land of Is.

The WNBA had an average attendance last year of 6,721. This was a significant drop from previous years because the NY Liberty moved to a much smaller arena. Its move also raised questions about the reality of WNBA attendance when the Liberty's owner revealed that its prior average of just less than 10,000 attendees was inflated because "roughly half of those tickets had been given away."13

The true competitor against which the WNBA needs to be judged is the G-League (the NBA's developmental league).14 The women in the WNBA recognize this as well; hence the complaints about the "select contracts." As best I can tell by forcing my brain to do math, the G-League averaged about 2,300 people per game last year (1.6 million divided by the number of teams divided by half the number of games). It's growing and I figure it might top out somewhere near five or six thousand in a decade or so as it stabilizes. Of course, the G-League is the NBA's potential gold mine for kids who couldn't go to college and are great players and an important place to develop role players or keep players good enough to come up to the NBA and fill a slot if someone is injured, but not good enough to stay there permanently. It's going to fill the same slot as AAA baseball and the AHL and it's value to the NBA is evident.15

The G-League players get $7,000 a month culminating in $35,000 earned over 5 months. Of course, each team will have two men on two-way contracts which pay just under $80,000 while the player is in the G-League and league minimum when the player spends a stint in the NBA. And, of course, there are the $125,000 select contracts which no one seems to have signed.16 Looking thru these pages, it seems the lowest WNBA salary is $41,965 and none exceed $120,000 (although quite a few come close); at an eyeball guesstimate, I'd say the average salary is about $65,000 with the lowest salary being higher than the basic G-League salary and the higher end ones being more than three times the amount paid to a basic G-leaguer. The high end even outstrips the men with two-way contracts, although by my math about two weeks in the NBA balances that out. Basically, the WNBA's salary is better than most of the men in the league to which it is most equivalent. This puts the WNBA's players in a weak position when they come to the table to argue for more money.


There's one women's team in all of American sportsdom which can tell me that my analysis is BS: the Portland Thorns. More accurately, since I am a fan of the Courage, I should call them the despised Portland Thorns. In any event, the Thorns are averaging over 19,500 people in the stands per game and are therefore possibly the only team in all the women's leagues that is strongly outdrawing men's teams. To put that in perspective, they are outdrawing by a wide margin every team in the USL, more than half the teams in the MLS, and 6 teams in the MLB. It's impressive and proof that a female team can draw support at a level such that it can individually be viable. Unfortunately for the Thorns, the rest of the NWSL, while growing, isn't there yet.

The argument in women's soccer doesn't seem to be so much about the pay to play in the NWSL, but how much the pay should be for the USWNT. This is a little hard to separate since US Soccer pays the salaries for those players in the NWSL who are on the national team. It pays them between $67,500 - 72,500 while those not on the national team can earn no more than $46,200.3

Anyway, in 2017 the men's national team self destructed with a little help from our friends in Trinidad and Tobago. The fans for the USMNT aren't there like they used to be. Even with the newly added Cincinnati adding 27,000+ fans at every home game, the MLS' attendance is losing ground. Whatever can we do to bring soccer back to popularity in the US? Who could we turn to who first made soccer popular and has continued to make the US look like a juggernaut?

It is my opinion that US Soccer has for some time intended to complete a flip from female soccer dominance to the primacy of the male part of the sport.17 The US has for years been in a weird situation where the women's team is winning multiple World Cups and Olympic Gold Medals (4 each) and the men's team suuuuuuucks. The women's team brings glory to the nation while even a glance at the men's World Cup record shows that they are non-competitive. Additionally, attendance at NWSL teams is trending upward (up 19%) while attendance at MLS games is stagnant and actually slightly dropping (down 3%).

US Soccer has forgotten a couple basic rules. First, you promote success. Second, a rising tide floats all boats. Instead of squabbling over monies paid to the women for the World Cup, the Federation should pay the WMNT the exact same percentage as the men make out of ticket sales and television contracts (minus whatever the Federation pays in excess of the NWSL's maximum salary). After all, the women's World Cup, starring the American team, was watched by 14.3 million people in the US while only 11.6 million watched  the men's World Cup the year before. Heck, pay them a little more of a percentage than you do the males - or have you lost the concept of a loss leader too?

You need to make your only homegrown soccer superstars happy and get them out there telling Americans how great soccer is so that people consider going to their local team whether that be a NWSL team, a USL team, or an MLS team. The men can't do this because they failed; the women aren't doing this because they're too busy telling everyone how you're cheating them financially.

As for the NWSL, it's hard to compare it to any other leagues. The best players are subsidized by US Soccer and some teams are subsidized by or at least engage in economy of scale relationships with male teams. Perhaps the best league to compare them to is another subsidized league, the WNBA. The NWSL should, at the very least, strive to put in place a similar pay scale to the WNBA's minimum of $41,965 and maximum of $120,000. The attendance averages are close and it does appear that the NWSL is becoming the most successful women's professional league. An appropriate salary range should follow that success.



Simple economics make it difficult for top professional female athletes to receive the same pay as male athletes do. Their leagues, viewership levels, and merchandise sales cannot support that level of pay. However, let's not forget that these are early days for these leagues. Male players in nascent leagues aren't/weren't paid well either.18  Major League Lacrosse pays its male players between $10,000 - $20,000. The cure for low pay is to make the leagues viable so that the economics change. Personally, although I'd like to see all the leagues named above succeed I only see the NWSL getting there.

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 1 Only one women's team in the NWSL has a greater average attendance than the worst attended team in the MLS, the Chicago Fire (11,900), although the Portland Thorns at an impressive 19,500 have an average attendance better than 13 MLS teams.

2 "Some users recalled the U.S. Women’s National Team’s blowout loss in 2017 to an FC Dallas club team whose players were aged 14 and 15. The final score was 5-2. The defeat of the U.S. women, widely considered the greatest women’s soccer program in the sports history, is not an anomaly.

In 2016, the Australian women’s national squad suffered an embarrassing 7-0 defeat to a team of 15-year-old boys. In 2013, Sweden’s women’s team, runners-up in the 2003 women’s World Cup, lost to a local team of teen boys. The U-17 USMNT reportedly thrashed the USWNT 8-2 in a closed-door scrimmage in 2012." link

3 At the very least US Soccer pays "$67,500 to $72,500 per player as a salary for playing in the National Women’s Soccer League" while those paid by the teams earn from $16,538 to $46,200.

4 "According to Nielsen, roughly 14.3 million US viewers tuned into the final match last weekend versus approximately 11.4 million for the 2018 Men’s World Cup Final, marking a 22% US viewership boost.

What’s more, total viewership including online streaming peaked at about 20 million, making it the most-watched soccer match on English-language television — men’s or women’s — in the US since the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup final. That match drew 25.4 million viewers."

5 The NHL is clearly profitable, but "unlike other major pro sports leagues, NHL teams still make most of their money on ticket sales." So, its profits aren't as high and it is probably already subsidizing in some manner at least a few of its own teams (the Arizona Coyotes, Florida Panthers, and New York Islanders come to mind).

6 "You might call it a minor-league production, but it has major league implications. Isaiah Whitehead, Milton Doyle and James Webb III all have moved frequently between the LI Nets and NBA Nets this season. Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris and Quincy Acy on the big club all played previously for other G League franchises."

7 "Women’s basketball is largely supported — just in terms of the demographics — by older men, for whatever reason, who like fundamental basketball, and it’s something I’ve talked a lot to the players about,” [NBA Commissioner Silver] said. “We’re not connecting with almost the same demographic that our players are."

8 "The WNBA says it has lost significant money the last 22 years, including $12 million last season.

9 "No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance."

10 Yes, before all 1.3 billion of my Indian friends correct me, I know that the sport is played by males as well. That's just not the way it has developed in the USA.

11 But See examples Wyoming Catholic College & Hillsdale

12 "The FHL’s weekly salary cap is $4,400, which gets divided among 18 players, most of whom make between $200 and $400 per week."

13 Admittedly, I'm not sure what to make of this. Under various news articles claiming salary injustices against WNBA players, I found numerous trolls claiming the WNBA was padding its numbers across the board by giving away a lot of tickets. I read and ignored them figuring that such a claim - even if true - would never be provable. Then I tripped across Dolan's quote and now I don't know if that was just the Liberty or if other teams reporting large numbers are playing this game as well.

14 I don't think the Big3 is a competitor to the WNBA because it's really nothing more than a traveling show. It's fine, but it's not a real league and the reason its attendance reaches the levels it does is because it is a once a year event at whatever venue it cherry picks each week.

15 At first, I was going to compare the WNBA with AAA baseball because the attendance of the G-League is so low. However, that would be comparing apples to cars while the G-League comparison is one of McIntoshes to Granny Smiths. I think that while the G-League attendance is less, the strong incentive for the NBA to favor it balances things out so that it makes a good comparison with the WNBA.

16 The select contract is an incredibly stupid idea from an individual team's perspective. You sign the kid, pay the kid, train the kid, and then at the end of the season the kid is available for anyone to draft. It has a strong probability of being a great waste of time, effort, and money.

17 I wrote most of this post in one day, but it got too late and I had to postpone finishing it. When I reread the the paragraphs I had written late last night about soccer I decided to rewrite them. After all, if I were to call the men running US Soccer "neanderthals who care about nothing but skimming money and promoting the male part of the sport because they want so badly to be in fief to FIFA which is run by men who think that the women in the sport are just there for eye candy" that might be libelous and therefore I would never publish anything like that except as an example of something I'd never publish.

18 NFL "pay in the 1960s was so low for the majority of players that they had to work second job during the offseason - even if they had been labelled a "franchise player" for their team."

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