Why U.S. Soccer refuses to pay its national teams better

U.S. Soccer and its men’s and women’s national team have a fundamental disagreement that can’t be solved.

Until this week, the United States Men’s National Team had largely stayed out of the women’s fight for equal pay. Then, on Wednesday, the men’s players association released a statement and let everyone know where it stands. The union detailed the increase in U.S. Soccer’s revenues since its last collective bargaining agreement was negotiated, and advocated for both men’s and women’s players to get big raises.

“What we believe should happen is simple,” the statement reads. “Pay the women significantly more than our recently expired men’s deal. In our estimation, the women were due at least triple what our expired deal was worth in player compensation.”

U.S. Soccer issued a response to the statement, saying the federation needs to be “mindful of how and where we invest our overall financial resources so that we can continue to focus on investing in the development of our players, coaches and referees at all levels.”

This statement is consistent with what U.S. Soccer president Carlos Cordeiro said in his open letter addressing the equal pay lawsuit on July 29, 2019. He wrote: “These revenues from our sponsors are critical to supporting all aspects of U.S. Soccer’s mission to develop players, coaches and referees at all levels across our Federation, including support for our many women’s and men’s youth national teams, our Paralympians and scholarships for players from underserved communities.”

The players’ statements and federation’s responses illustrate the disagreement is about more than what percentage of revenue generated by the national teams should be returned directly to the players. At the heart of the fight is a question of how U.S. Soccer should operate, philosophically.

U.S. Soccer spent about $30 million on youth national teams and player development in 2019, even though the YNTs and Development Academy generate a fraction of that amount in revenue. The federation also funds the beach, futsal and wheelchair national teams, though not nearly as extensively as the primary men’s and women’s programs.

In U.S. Soccer’s latest financial statements, total revenue from national team matches, media rights and sponsorship was about $81 million. The senior national team players would argue that other revenue streams are attributable to them, and the federation would argue that not all revenue should count as money generated by those players. In the end, the federation spent just over $27 million in salaries and benefits for national teams, or about one-third of national team revenue.

By contrast, a roughly 50-percent revenue split between players and administrators has become standard in most major sports league CBAs. Those are multi-billion dollar businesses, however, and they don’t have an obligation to their sports outside of winning pro games. U.S. Soccer is a non-profit that is also tasked with developing its sport at the grassroots level.

U.S. Soccer and both players’ associations fundamentally disagree about what’s fair, and they don’t have much precedent to rely on given the difference the federation and pro sports leagues. This is why the USWNT is going to court, and the USMNT hasn’t had a CBA for two years. The players are demanding an industry standard revenue split, and U.S. Soccer doesn’t want to give it to them because they already don’t have enough money to do the things they want to do to grow the game. USSF’s revenues are less than half that of the German DFB and one-fourth of the English FA, for example, in a country with a significantly greater population.

The players will say that doesn’t matter, and that they’re entitled to a fair share of the revenue that they generate. They aren’t wrong. Without high level professional players, U.S Soccer has no meaningful revenue, and no reason for its most ambitious projects to exist. But if you’re wondering why U.S. Soccer doesn’t just pay up, now you know.

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