U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati, along with USSF outside counsel Russell Sauer, gave an impassioned defense of the federation's history of support for the U.S. women's national team, as well as the way it compensates the team's players.
Earlier Thursday, five U.S women's national team players -- Carli Lloyd, Hope Solo, Becky Sauerbrunn, Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan -- announced that they had filed an action with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) accusing the U.S. Soccer Federation of wage discrimination.
"We are leaders in developing the game, and we're going to continue to do that and take a leadership role on the women's side of the game," Gulati said during a conference call with reporters. "We are committed to working with the players' association to address some of the issues they've raised and getting an agreement done starting in January of 2017. I'm confident that will happen."
According to the federation's most recent annual report, it was projecting a loss for the combined national teams for fiscal year 2016, but as a result of the success of the women's team, it is now projecting $17.7 million in profit. This disparity continues in 2017, when the women's team is expected to net $5 million in profit, whereas the men's team will be $1 million in the red. The women make less in terms of travel and per diems.
It is important to put these numbers in context. The periods encompassing the 2016 and 2017 fiscal years will see the U.S. women's national team play two major tournaments: the 2015 Women's World Cup and the 2016 Olympic games. These years represent the peak revenue-producing periods for the women's team, and revenues are expected to go down in the two years following the Olympics. Even so, the women have made it clear that the revenue-producing power of the team has accelerated to the point that they should be paid on par with players on the men's national team.
"There's no justification to not be paid the same as the men," Sauerbrunn said in an interview with espnW. "We do everything the men do. We're marketable. We're popular. We are a revenue-generating team. There is nothing we don't do for this federation, so we should absolutely get paid the same as the men do."
Jeffrey Kessler, the players' attorney, told SI.com: "The reason the players have filed is because the USSF has made it clear that they will not consider equal pay [with the U.S. men] in the negotiations for a new agreement. So whether or not there's an existing agreement, they won't ever agree to make a change to give us the right salary. And the players have been very patient and have concluded now they have to bring a case."
The USSF made several counterclaims. Sauer said the USSF has never said in negotiations that the players would never get or weren't entitled to equal pay.
"I have been in every one of the negotiating sessions which have occurred to date, one of which was in November, the other of which was on Feb. 3 and the other of which was [in early March]," Sauer said. "I can tell you categorically, along with all the other U.S. Soccer participants, that statement, or anything along those lines, was never said ever."
Sauer and Gulati stopped short of saying the women deserved to be paid the same as the men. Gulati stressed that revenues are "absolutely part of the equation," and a USSF spokesman said the revenues associated with the U.S. men's national team are nearly twice that of the women.
"Do you think revenue should matter at all in determination of compensation in a market economy?" Gulati said. "If we look at the track record of the teams, a lot of things go into the compensation for the players. Part of it is based on revenue, part of it is revenue that accrued based on international competitions, part of it is based on incentives and the expected performance of the teams. All of that goes into it. Using the word 'deserve,' we think very highly of our women's national team. We're going to compensate them fairly, and we'll sit down and work through that with them when all of this settles down."
When asked if that almost two-to-one ratio was similar in terms of sponsorship and television revenues, Gulati said those deals are done collectively, and he thus declined to provide a percentage breakdown in terms of how much of the deal was tied to the women's national team and how much was tied to the men's. He said the television ratings for men's games were substantially higher than those of the women's games.
"An average rating [for a men's game], it's a multiple -- not 10 or 20 or 30 or 50 percent higher," Gulati said. "it's a multiple on the men's program right now."
When it was pointed out that in a market economy, the USSF essentially has a monopoly and thus extensive leverage over the player pool, Gulati said that was what a collective bargaining agreement was for and noted that the USSF pays its female players well beyond what other federations around the world pay.
"While the ratings and the attendance is starting to rise, we've been that way for a long period of time," Gulati said.
A USSF spokesman added that any revenue numbers from the players that showed otherwise were "inaccurate, misleading or both." The spokesman went on to add that the average attendance for U.S. men's national team games from 2011 to 2015 was 29,781, while games for the U.S. women's national team over the same period averaged 16,229 fans per game.
Sauer added that part of the pay disparity is due to the fact that back in 2005, the players' union opted for a pay structure that stressed guaranteed salary and benefits at the expense of a pay-to-play structure that would have increased payment for appearances in national team games. At the time, there was no existing women's league in the U.S. The CBA was then extended in 2013 through a memorandum of understanding, though its validity is currently being challenged by the players.
"This is part of the current and preceding CBA that was negotiated by the players association and ratified by the players themselves," Sauer said.
Sauer went through a list of benefits women players get that are not available to the men, including severance, health benefits, vision insurance, dental insurance and pregnancy leave, which allows them to receive 50 percent of both their national team and NWSL salaries. If they are injured, they receive 100 percent of their guaranteed salary.
"When someone negotiates for guarantees of downside protection, almost necessarily, the opportunity for upside gets squeezed down a little bit," Sauer said.