Analysis: What equal pay in sports really means, as the fight goes on for U.S. women's soccer

Fans hold equal pay signs during the U.S. women's national team's match against Ireland in August at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire

THE CHANTS BEGAN almost as soon as the U.S. women's soccer team won the World Cup last July. The American squad beat the Netherlands 2-0 in the final, capping a month of dominance in which Team USA outscored opponents 26-3. But by the time Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan and their mates were celebrating their triumph, the world knew they would earn just $4 million collectively, a fraction of what their male counterparts had taken home a year earlier. Indeed, the $30 million awarded to all of the athletes combined at the 2019 Women's World Cup would not even equal the $38 million the French national team made after winning the 2018 men's World Cup, where prize money totaled $400 million.

So as FIFA president Gianni Infantino strode across the pitch at Stade Lyon to present the American women with their trophy, the crowd of 57,900 began to roar.

"Equal pay! Equal pay!"

It happened again three days later, after a ticker tape parade through New York's Canyon of Heroes honored the four-time Cup winners. When Carlos Cordeiro, then president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, began speaking in front of City Hall, shouts drowned him out:

"USA! Equal pay!"

"We hear you," Cordeiro told the crowd.

At that time, U.S. Soccer was already battling the women's national team in court, after all 28 members sued their national federation in March 2019 for "purposeful gender discrimination." It could have been the moment for USSF officials to declare victory and get out of that war, to find some way to share with the athletes the public triumphs and financial gains of American soccer.

Instead, the federation proceeded to file thousands of pages of documents asserting that, as one motion put it, "WNT and MNT players do not perform equal work requiring equal skill, effort and responsibility under similar working conditions." This past March, the USSF even declared it was entitled to treat men better because of biology: "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."

On May 1, a federal judge sided with U.S. Soccer on most of the key issues at stake in the lawsuit. U.S. District Court Judge R. Gary Klausner held that the women's national team had agreed to the terms of the deal that paid them. He also found that the WNT made more money than the men's team from 2015 to 2019. The athletes are planning to appeal, but at least for the moment, crucial parts of the suit have been dismissed.

In the court of public opinion, however, something snapped after those March filings. WNT members wore their jerseys inside out in protest. Major sponsors, including Coca-Cola and Procter & Gamble, released statements supporting the athletes. Cindy Parlow Cone, then U.S. Soccer's vice president, condemned the USSF's legal arguments. So did Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber. Cordeiro resigned three days later, and the federation switched lawyers within a week.

So this much is clear: Whenever and however sports reemerge from the deep freeze of the coronavirus pandemic, women's leagues and federations will face changing expectations as they answer the basic question of how to compensate their players. Spurred by the excellence of the USWNT, the idea of pay equity has taken hold among athletes, fans and sponsors. And now central offices across the sports map are scrambling to catch up. U.S. Soccer is at a crossroads: Whatever happens with the equal pay lawsuit, the USSF has to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement with the women's national team by the end of next year, and its long-term relationship with the National Women's Soccer League is up in the air. Meanwhile, the Women's Super League in England has gone fully professional. The WNBA inked a landmark labor deal in January, guaranteeing improved pay and unprecedented health benefits, after its players opted out of their CBA for the first time. And last May, 175 players left the National Women's Hockey League to protest poor wages, and they have been barnstorming as their own group.

But here's the thing. While equal pay for equal work has emerged as a rallying cry in the ongoing struggles of women athletes, equity doesn't always, or even often, mean literal equality across all sports. Consider a comparison: Anthony Davis was the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft in 2012. Heading into this season, he had made six All-Star teams, and he created 0.247 win shares per 48 minutes in 2018-19. Nneka Ogwumike was the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft in 2012. Also a six-time All-Star, she had a nearly identical 0.248 win shares per 48 minutes in 2019.

This season, Davis made $27.1 million. Last season, Ogwumike earned $115,000.

That is a staggering gap. Yet nobody is suggesting that Ogwumike ought to be paid $27 million a year -- not even the WNBA athletes who have been fighting the longest for better wages. "These are businesses, and none of us are out there saying we want to be paid the exact same as the men," says 17-year WNBA veteran Sue Bird of the Seattle Storm. "When I think of pay equity, I think of the opportunity that the NBA and other male sports leagues have to be successful."

So what's really at stake? As demands for equal pay spark across arenas, boardrooms, TV screens, Twitter feeds and even presidential campaigns, it's time to take a deeper look. To assess the new landscape and figure out just how it's changing, we talked with athletes and their advocates and opponents, and scoured academic research, court papers and financial documents across women's sports. The biggest lesson: Today's athletes are asking for something even bigger than the strict definition of "pay equity." They want a piece of the action.

MALE AND FEMALE athletes are paid on entirely different scales, to the extent that examples can seem literally unbelievable. Just one woman was ranked among the 100 highest-paid athletes in the world in 2019, according to Forbes (Serena Williams, at No. 63). Steph Curry's salary ($40 million) is more than three times as much as what every player in the WNBA earned in 2019 combined ($12.5 million). Last year, Delanie Gourley, a star pitcher in National Pro Fastpitch softball, disclosed that she makes less than a Yankees bat boy.

The disparity is so wide that the money pulls skilled men into a career in sports, while the lack of money makes it impossible for many talented women to earn a living as an athlete. As an example, the Global Sports Salary Survey (GSSS), produced by the U.K.-based research firm Sporting Intelligence, counted 137,021 men who played professional soccer in the world in 2017 and just 1,287 women -- a ratio of 106 to 1.

Even compared with other fields traditionally dominated by men, it's far harder for women to break into the upper ranks of compensation in sports. In the United States, women make up 24% of Congress, 18% of surgeons, 10% of Christian church leaders. Worldwide, 18% of university presidents, 11% of astronauts who have been to space and 6% of major-company CEOs are women. "None of which is laudable," the GSSS report says, "but it makes 1% of professional footballers look more pitiful still."

The salary gap between men and women athletes echoes the huge difference in revenues between men's and women's sports. For instance, NBA teams took in a total of $8.8 billion this year, according to Forbes. Meanwhile, WNBA revenues were probably around $70 million, estimates David Berri, a professor of economics at Southern Utah University and author of numerous studies about women's sports. The raw numbers make it easy to assume that women make less money simply because fans prefer men's games -- that pay follows revenues, and revenues follow popularity. But the truth is more complicated, because a league's financial data also embeds its history, opportunities and labor relations. "We have to consider why the revenue is different, what bias and discrimination are in play," says Lindsay Kagawa Colas, senior vice president for women's sports at Wasserman, whose clients include a bevy of the WNBA's biggest stars, such as Diana Taurasi and Maya Moore, as well as gymnast Katelyn Ohashi and swimmer Simone Manuel. "Have investments been equal? Has commitment been equal? Is the allocation of the best talent to thinking about ways to grow fan engagement, innovation or player experience happening?"

"These are businesses, and none of us are out there saying we want to be paid the exact same as the men. When I think of pay equity, I think of the opportunity that the NBA and other male sports leagues have to be successful." Sue Bird

Any sport needs three kinds of support to grow into a large-scale, sustainable business. And these provisions have tilted strongly, almost exclusively, toward men's sports for decades.

First, investment. A league requires seed money to grow. That includes outlays by committed owners with deep pockets, rather than the unstable financing that has so often plagued franchises in women's sports. (Including the very greatest: From 1997 to 2000, the Houston Comets won four straight WNBA championships with a core of Cynthia Cooper, Sheryl Swoopes and Tina Thompson, all top-shelf Hall of Famers. But in 2007, a furniture-store owner named Hilton Koch bought the club for $10 million, then couldn't pay its bills, and the team was disbanded the following year.) It also includes corporate sponsorship. And while companies have shown more interest in backing female athletes recently, men's leagues and teams still captured 93% of the $31 billion that corporations around the globe spent on sports last year, according to a November 2019 report by the German research firm Statista.

Investment includes public money too, usually in the form of taxpayer-financed stadiums. New arenas allow teams to improve their game experience, hike prices and build up adjoining land. And men's leagues have proved adept at getting state and local governments to defray the costs of that development. From 1990 to 2012, for instance, MLB, NBA, NFL and NHL teams got a mammoth $17 billion in public funds for new homes, according to research by economists Robert Baade and Victor Matheson. As Berri puts it: "Men love investing in men's sports."

More recently, men's soccer clubs have kept the gravy train rolling. From 2005 to 2018, municipalities in the U.S. forked over a combined $738 million in subsidies for new Major League Soccer fields. These deals have been great for teams -- and for MLS; its expansion fee has rocketed to $325 million. But while women's clubs are sharing some of the new pitches (and a handful of NBA facilities too), when it comes to securing arenas as primary occupants, the women's game has barely arrived at the table. In 2021, Tacoma and Louisville are scheduled to open the first soccer-specific stadiums with National Women's Soccer League clubs as their highest-level tenants.

"The NWSL has the opportunity to be the best league in the world," says Becca Roux, executive director of the U.S. Women's National Team Players Association. "But we need investors with the mindset that there's tons of value here that hasn't been shown before who will go unlock it. And we need access to better stadiums, facilities and everything that makes a better entertainment product."

"The NWSL has the opportunity to be the best league in the world. But we need investors with the mindset that there's tons of value here that hasn't been shown before who will go unlock it." Becca Roux

Beyond money, a sport needs time to grow into its potential audience. Leagues and clubs are subject to what economists call "network externality," which means the value of something depends on how many consumers use it. Think of cellphones: If you were the only person to have one, your phone would be useless. It's when the number of people with them grows that the devices become valuable. In the same way, if you're the only fan you know of a new sports team, your experience will be extremely limited. Your joys and agonies and memories increase exponentially as your network of friends and family involved with the same team expands.

Successful sports build enough familiarity and loyalty that their followers spread, find one another and reach a critical mass that, like a chain reaction in a nuclear power plant, creates a new energy that feeds on itself over time. And it can take decades for leagues and franchises to develop faith and establish their footing.

The WNBA is scheduled to play its 24th season this year. The NFL was the same age in 1943, a year when it fielded only eight teams, including the Brooklyn Dodgers, and averaged a third of its 2019 per-game attendance. Women's professional soccer was actually banned in Germany until 1970, England until 1971 and Brazil until 1979; the NWSL, its latest and longest-lived incarnation in the U.S., has now been playing for seven years. In 1953, at the same stage in its timeline, the NBA had total revenues of less than $16 million in today's dollars, according to data collected by the House Judiciary Committee in 1957, and drew only 3,583 fans per game.

Of course, the sports world is bigger and more lucrative today. But a generation is still a generation. "No one should expect any women's sports league to have the following we see in men's professional sports today," Berri says. "Right now, WNBA fans are just beginning to pass their fan preferences down to their children."

Finally, sports need media to reach their full potential. And make no mistake, fans today have more access than ever to the games played by female athletes, because a burgeoning number of networks and apps, hungry to acquire and offer new content, are programming all kinds of formerly "niche" sports.

ESPN, for instance, dedicated more than 16,000 hours across all its platforms and partners to the programming of women's sporting events last year, up from 7,500 in 2015 and just 1,500 in 2010. CBS Sports Network struck a deal in 2019 to show 40 WNBA games a year, increasing the number of regular-season contests on national television by more than 60%. NBC and its fleet of cable channels showed a record 631.5 hours of the 2018 Winter Olympics -- and for the first time ever, a majority of prime-time airtime was devoted to women's sports, according to research by Andrew Billings of the University of Alabama and James Angelini of the University of Delaware. And the media surge is lifting smaller sports onto regional, digital and streaming platforms. B/R Live shows the Women's FIH Pro League, where women's national field hockey teams face off; FloSports streams Premier Girls Fastpitch, a top club softball league for high school and younger players.

Sustained exposure has certainly been a boon to college softball, to which ESPN has held the rights for 40 years. Broadcasts have spurred fan interest. And that's led to more viewers (Women's College World Series ratings have increased by nearly 40% since 2000), more revenues (up 360% from 2003 to 2016) and, in turn, more broadcasts (more than 1,600 games, including all of the playoffs, were scheduled for this season before the pandemic struck). In 2017, ESPN stayed with a WCWS game that went to extra innings instead of switching to a previously scheduled MLB broadcast. That's the chain reaction of network externalities.

On the other hand, sports news and highlight segments have historically focused overwhelmingly on men. In 2017, for example, a majority of the most popular sports sites on the Internet didn't dedicate even one page to a women's sport or league, according to research by Berri. For instance, NBC Sports had pages for horse racing and the National Dog Show, but not for the WNBA or NWSL. Earlier studies from 1990 to 2015 drew similar conclusions, whether looking at daily highlights or Olympic coverage, conveyed through print or images, on television or in newspapers or magazines: Men's sports got more coverage -- and more exciting coverage. Viewing stories about men's sports was like "watching that classic 1960s Batman TV show (Bam! Pow!) ... plenty of action," Cheryl Cooky of Purdue and Michael Messner and Michela Musto of USC wrote in a 2015 report that studied SportsCenter and local TV news broadcasts in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, listening to announcers talk about women's sports "was usually like hearing someone deliver a boring afterthought, with an obvious lack of enthusiasm."

News coverage of women's sports seems to have shifted considerably in just the past few years, though there aren't any published studies yet to say by just how much. Most major sites have now joined ESPN, which launched espnW in 2010, in allocating space to women's sports across multiple dedicated pages, particularly for basketball and soccer. The Athletic, for example, expanded its reporting in 2019 to include regular coverage of all 12 WNBA clubs and women's college basketball. But when it comes to getting the kind of daily, comprehensive news, analysis and statistics that multiple media outlets and platforms routinely provide for men's teams, most women's sports still lag.

Putting together all of the factors that affect league revenues -- investment, time and media -- it's apparent that most women's sports have struggled for years with what the Statista report calls a vicious cycle, which reverses the pattern that college softball has experienced. Low investment and media coverage have led to limited viewership, rights deals and sponsorships, which leads to low pay, which hampers the development of new talent and initiatives, which leads to ... low investment and media coverage.

Just maybe, however, that cycle is breaking at this moment, because women athletes are changing the terms of business in two of the world's biggest sports.

"ONE THING I DO KNOW," Sunil Gulati, president of U.S. Soccer from 2006 to 2018, said in a declaration to the equal pay lawsuit. "I never would have authorized offering or accepting, and never would have recommended to the board agreeing to, the same bonuses for Women's World Cup play that were contained in the MNT's agreement for their World Cup play for very simple reasons."

Now, comparing the finances of the U.S women's and men's national soccer teams is complicated. The squads face different adversaries, at different levels of competition, on different schedules, including World Cup cycles in different years. They have different collective bargaining agreements with U.S. Soccer, which pays base salaries, NWSL subsidies and performance bonuses to women while compensating men through much larger bonuses. To secure international friendlies, the men's team pays and sometimes earns appearance fees, which don't exist for women.

But Gulati's first reason for paying them unequal rates was simple indeed: The women were playing better, so they would have earned more. "I believed," he said, "the WNT was much more likely to qualify for and succeed in their tournament than the MNT was."

He certainly was right about that. The U.S. women have been playing so well that they now generate nearly as much money as the men on game days, despite typically lower official ticket prices. For years, the MNT had posted significantly more from events than the WNT -- more than three times as much from 2009 to 2015, according to data from U.S. Soccer. But that gap has virtually disappeared since the women's team won the 2015 World Cup and then maintained its global supremacy: The women's team has brought in $63.4 million since 2016, compared with $66.3 million for the men, according to U.S. Soccer's most recent financial statements. (These numbers include gate receipts but not sponsorship or broadcast-rights money, which account for about half of all USSF revenue but which the federation does not report separately for the MNT and WNT.) Today, grassroots support for the national teams seem to be at parity.

And the equal pay lawsuit has exposed just how out of whack performance and pay have become in American soccer, legally or not. Suppose we take the various rates of compensation for the men's national team -- bonuses for appearances and wins in friendlies, tournaments and World Cups -- and apply them to the members of the women's national team, player by player. That's the approach taken by Finnie Bevin Cook, an economist who compiled a report for the plaintiffs in the equal pay lawsuit. Cook found that under the men's wage scales, members of the women's team would have earned $91.8 million from 2014 to 2019. But they were actually paid just $27.7 million.

Beyond anticipating the savings from that huge gulf, Gulati had a second simple reason for paying men and women differently: U.S. Soccer replicates the compensation practices of FIFA, the organization that is by far the biggest driver of unequal pay in global soccer. Realizing that FIFA awards much bigger prizes in men's events, the federation gave greater incentives and rewards to the men's national team, hoping they would bring home more cash.

As Gulati put it: "I believed that the MNT's participation and success in their tournament would result in the receipt of substantially more prize money from FIFA than the WNT's participation and success in their tournament."

FIFA has a notoriously checkered past with women athletes. "Female players are pretty, if you excuse me saying so," former FIFA president Sepp Blatter opined in 2004. "Let the women play in more feminine clothes like they do in volleyball. They could, for example, have tighter shorts." (Blatter is currently in the midst of a six-year ban from FIFA for ethics violations.) While men have always played on grass, FIFA staged the 2015 Women's World Cup at arenas with artificial turf, which American striker Sydney Leroux, one of dozens of athletes who protested, likened to "running pretty much on cement." Analysts have noted for years that when it comes to television rights, FIFA has treated the Women's World Cup as an afterthought -- at worst a loss leader, at best a chance for media companies to use women's games to prepare for the men's tournaments. "Every time FIFA bundles broadcast rights, it ascribes no value to the Women's World Cup," Roux says. "It centers contracts around the men's World Cup and uses TV coverage of women's games as a dry run for the men."

Until recently, it seemed that, at least from a business perspective, FIFA pursued that strategy because the money it brought in from the men's tournament dwarfed that from the women's game. For instance, FIFA says the 2018 men's World Cup generated $5.4 billion in revenue. Meanwhile, the organization's financial reports projected just $131 million in total revenue from the 2019 Women's World Cup, a number that spread like wildfire among outlets last summer. U.S. Soccer's lobbyists even used it to argue that the American women's national team is paid fairly, simply because there's so much less available to pay them.

But the number was wrong. FIFA did list $131 million under "total revenue" in its financials, but for some reason, that was merely an investment figure -- how much the organization initially budgeted to spend on the 2019 World Cup, as Rachel Bachman of The Wall Street Journal reported last September. There actually isn't any correct number, because income data isn't broken out anywhere for the Women's World Cup. FIFA commingles broadcasting rights and sponsorships for the men's and women's tournaments.

"As many rights for FIFA competitions are sold to commercial affiliates as a package, specific commercial revenues for the FIFA Women's World Cup cannot be distinguished from the overall revenue from FIFA competitions," FIFA said in a statement to ESPN. "FIFA wants to develop a specific commercial strategy for women's football in order to attract additional funds that can be attributed directly to the women's game. This new reality will only be reflected in our future financial results."

FIFA's own audience reports, however, show the value of women's soccer already rising rapidly. Matches across the 2019 Women's World Cup, for example, had an average live viewership of 17.3 million people, a whopping 106% more than the 2015 WWC. The U.S.-Netherlands final reached an average live audience of 82.2 million, up 56%. And overall, viewers consumed 2.49 billion hours of coverage across all platforms, a jump of 93%. As totals, these numbers are considerably smaller than for the men's game, but they are also generally growing much faster. For instance, 994 million people watched at least one minute of the 2019 Women's World Cup on linear television, a 30% increase from 2015, while 3.26 billion watched a minute or more of the men's World Cup in 2018, up just 2% from four years earlier. There are different ways to weight these audience eyeballs and viewing times, and to project future statistics. But there's no clear business reason for FIFA to keep acting like the Women's World Cup is worth less than 10% of the men's game.

Or for the USSF to follow FIFA's lead in allocating prize money. "It's not just FIFA that needs to be clear about the revenue that it's making from the Women's World Cup," says Molly Levinson, spokesperson for the U.S. women's national team. "U.S. Soccer has purposefully withheld and obscured the revenues that it has received through similar marketing deals."

"There is indeed a significant difference in World Cup prize money awarded by FIFA to the men's and women's championship teams," the federation said in a March 7 letter to its members, a copy of which it provided to ESPN. "However, it is not reasonable or fiscally sound for U.S. Soccer to make up the gap. It would seriously impair our ability to support our mission and invest in these other critical developmental areas."

Piece together all of these revelations about how the highest level of women's soccer has been functioning and you'll notice a new horizon is looming for the sport. As important as the equal pay lawsuit is for the players who are seeking back pay and damages, it's essentially about the past. Looking ahead, the women's national team also has a collective bargaining agreement with U.S. Soccer that expires at the end of 2021. And it's in the runup to that deadline that the two sides will collide again over the even bigger issues at hand.

Over the past two years, U.S. Soccer has spent half its budget (which was $131.8 million in 2019) on management expenses and youth programs and devoted less than 30% to athlete pay and benefits. And over the next two, it has plans to spend down its surplus, which swelled to more than $160 million after the Copa America in 2016, to about $50 million. But suddenly the USSF has a new president in Parlow Cone and a new CEO in William Wilson, formerly an executive at Wasserman and MLS. It has lost the support of the men's national team, which has accused U.S. Soccer of "working very hard to sell a false narrative" and called for a sharp increase in women's compensation. And it is also contending with at least four other lawsuits, so its legal bills will total about $9 million this year. These short-term issues could blow up U.S. Soccer's priorities, and new labor negotiations are an even bigger threat.

Meanwhile, the U.S. women want more than a new pay structure. At peak popularity, marketability and leverage, they are also seeking more equitable spending on coaching. (In its most recent fiscal year, ending in March 2019, the USSF paid $304,113 to current men's coach Gregg Berhalter for four months of work, $241,869 to former coach David Sarachan, whom Berhalter replaced in December 2018, and $1.475 million to former coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who was fired in 2016. Meanwhile, over the same span, women's coach Jill Ellis, winner of back-to-back World Cups, earned $390,409.) They're looking for better training and travel budgets. They want more open accounting and less obeisance to FIFA. Critically, they have called on U.S. Soccer to spend more on marketing, in part by investing much more in the NWSL. "The bar is pretty f---ing low," says one executive close to the team, noting that U.S. Soccer contributed less than $850,000 to the NWSL's administrative costs last year.

Essentially, the women want to partner in growing their game. "The good news is that folks outside the federation, from sponsors to broadcasters to partners, are incredibly bullish on the U.S. women's national team and on women's football," Levinson says. "I think they're going to all drag the federation along, hopefully to a place where there's equal pay and beyond."

If there's a way forward, it might be thanks to one more surprise from the past few months: The WNBA's new CBA is fundamentally different from every past labor agreement in women's sports.

AT THE NBA All-Star Game in Charlotte in 2019, where athletes met to discuss their collective bargaining agreement, NBA commissioner Adam Silver ran into Terri Jackson, executive director of the WNBA Players Association. "If players are talking ridiculous salaries ... ," Silver began.

"Let me stop you," Jackson said. "We're not, and I think we should talk."

"If that's the case, then we should talk," Silver agreed.

Of course, compensation has always been a serious issue in the WNBA, which paid its players one-ninety-sixth the NBA's average salary at the time Jackson and Silver chatted. Pay is so low that it has compelled most American athletes to play overseas as well as in the WNBA just to make a living, increasing their wear and tear and their injury risk. As just one brutal example, 2018 league MVP Breanna Stewart ruptured her right Achilles tendon in April 2019 while playing for Dynamo Kursk in the EuroLeague women's championship.

Low pay has also warped the women's game itself. A small number of women players are truly dominant at the college level, which makes the first few picks in the WNBA draft extremely valuable. At the same time, there's very little downside if a player happens to go bust, because even top rookies earn only about $50,000 a year. That risk/reward ratio, combined with restricted-free-agency rules, has created more incentive to tank for teams in the WNBA than for those in any other major sport. From 2011 to 2015, the Phoenix Mercury went 19-15, 7-27, 19-15, 29-5 and 20-14. Can you guess in which season they rested Diana Taurasi and earned the league's No. 1 draft choice, and in which they won the WNBA championship with Brittney Griner, whom they selected with that pick?

Yet as WNBA players came to a crossroads in 2018, nobody told their union leaders to demand million-dollar salaries. The athletes did want a larger share of league revenues. But they were just as concerned about the relentless everyday signals that ownership -- which is split 50-50 between team owners and the NBA -- was running the league on a shoestring. Just five WNBA teams were playing in NBA arenas, with two others at college campuses, two at casinos, two in G League gyms and the New York Liberty shunted to a 5,000-seat facility in Westchester County, 30 miles from Manhattan. Athletes were traveling by cramped coach flights, sometimes by bus, and staying in shared hotel rooms and dormitory-style housing. Maybe most important, while TV ratings were way up, promotion and marketing remained extremely limited.

The players wanted a viable league where they could build careers, not just part-time jobs. Jackson, whose husband and son are both NBA veterans, kept asking, "What motivates you?" They kept telling her, "This is the legacy we want to protect."

In October 2018, the G League announced it would provide new contracts worth $125,000 for elite prospects -- which meant it would pay some 18-year-old men more than any woman had ever earned from the WNBA in a year. Leading WNBA players were stunned, but they took note of the NBA's terminology, which was full of words like "development," "programmatic opportunities," "supporting infrastructure" and "tools for top young players to grow." Jackson posted the phrase "language of investment" on her office wall.

Shortly afterward, the players opted out of their CBA. Union president Ogwumike announced the move in an essay for The Players' Tribune titled "Bet on Women."

In July 2019, the WNBA hired Cathy Engelbert, former CEO of the consulting firm Deloitte -- and a basketball walk-on who became a captain under Muffet McGraw at Lehigh in the 1980s -- as commissioner. Jackson met with Engelbert even before her hiring was official and told her the players were concerned about salary and compensation, player experience, and health and wellness. Engelbert wrote those items down. It was an unprecedented moment for a commissioner of a professional sports league and a head of a union: The labor deal they were about to negotiate could become a major platform for women's empowerment.

Silver was ready to hear about investment and commitment and even empowerment. The NBA commissioner complained publicly that the WNBA was losing more than $10 million a year, but that number said more about how the women's game was still small scale than about any significant damage to the bottom line of NBA teams. To grow the WNBA, he and the owners were prepared to, as he put it, "double down." The two sides channeled that willingness into the areas Engelbert and the league's negotiators discussed with Jackson, Ogwumike and the players, and reached an eight-year agreement in January.

The new CBA raises the WNBA salary cap by 30% and boosts maximum annual salaries from $117,500 to $215,000. Players will also be able to earn up to $250,000 apiece from a $1.6 million pool the league is dedicating to marketing agreements and will gain free agency after five years, down from six. Teams will provide housing with two bedrooms for athletes with children, individual hotel rooms on the road and flight upgrades.

The deal also pioneers a range of provisions important to players who are mothers or potential parents. Under the old CBA, athletes who had children lost pay when they lost work time; now they will have maternity leave with full compensation, plus space set aside in arenas for nursing. They will also be eligible to get reimbursed for the costs of adoption, surrogacy, fertility treatments and preservation of eggs. The new WNBA calendar will make it harder to play overseas and stateside in the same year, which could force athletes earning big money internationally to make some tough decisions. But the league has agreed to prepare and promote players for coaching and other jobs in the offseason.

As important as all these changes are, their total cost is about $1 million per WNBA team per year, which means the proportion of league revenues paid to players will rise only from about 20% to approximately 30%. Since most major sports are at around 50%, you could look at that and say the players are still leaving considerable cash on the table. But once two sides establish good faith in a negotiation, both can see spending -- or sacrifice -- as an investment. "This new CBA is going to dramatically change how this league operates," Bird says. "It's more merit-based, it will make us feel more professional and well-established, and kids are going to be able to see you can have a full-on career in the WNBA."

Essentially, the women and men all around the table decided to partner in growing their game.

IN THE UNITED STATES, we have now spent two generations since Title IX raising women athletes to compete on the same footing as men. That's one kind of equity: equality. Much more than ever before, the women who become professionals are now building the public support, partnerships and organizations they need to get paid what they are fully worth. They're not just bringing their skills to market, they're trying to make sure the market supports their skills.

That's the other kind of equity: ownership.