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 U.S. 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 on the eve of mediation discussions to try to resolve the players’ federal gender discrimination lawsuit.

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 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 unlike Secret, it did not explicitly call for equal pay for the women’s team.

Megan Rapinoe, one of the team’s captains, stressed the power of that kind of corporate support in an appearance Sunday morning on “Meet the Press,” and she urged other companies to follow suit.

“These are some of the most powerful corporations, not just in sports but in the world, and have so much weight that they can throw around,” she said. “And I think that they just need to get comfortable with throwing it around.”

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 players could expect to earn tens of thousands of dollars less than their male 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 EEOC complaint, the players petitioned 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 directly, it is not the first corporation to make a financial commitment to the players. Days before the World Cup, Visa announced a five-year sponsorship that it said requires that 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 payments, Luna Bar said, represented the difference in the World Cup roster bonuses paid to the United States men’s and women’s 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 with U.S. Soccer. The men, who benefit from much higher club salaries, have prioritized higher match and victory bonuses from the federation, 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 biggest difference in compensation for World Cup success overall continues to be the bonuses provided to participating teams by FIFA, world soccer’s governing body. Those bonuses are more than 10 times as high for men’s teams as they are for women’s squads.

The debate about equal treatment in women’s soccer is not new. In 2012, it played out in the seating arrangements when Japan’s soccer teams flew to the London Olympics on the same plane: The women’s team, which 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 U.S. women’s team like Rapinoe, Alex Morgan and others, had been building behind the American players even before their victory in France.

In the week since the team claimed its second consecutive World Cup title, fans, companies and politicians have rushed to the players’ cause: 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 in New York.

In interviews, even Rapinoe has acknowledged that pay was only one kind of equality in “a complex argument.” On the eve of mediation talks with U.S. Soccer over the gender discrimination lawsuit, comments like hers de-emphasizing pay as the team’s solitary concern might be a signal to the federation that the players are not staking out a winner-take-all position. Having major corporations in their union’s corner, though, can only help.

“For brands, and especially a brand that is also a U.S. Soccer sponsor, to support our players both financially and publicly is hugely significant and important,” Becca Roux, executive director of the national team’s players association, said Sunday morning. “Equity and pay equity are systemic issues that need systemic solutions. Corporations are powerful, influential players within the system that can spur massive change for good.”

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