Growing gains and growing pains in women's sports
Friday Five (10 Point Version) (Thursday's Version)
Hello, and welcome to Power Plays, a no-bullshit newsletter about sexism in sports, written by me, Lindsay Gibbs.
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Now, onto today’s newsletter. You all know there’s nothing I love more than talking about investment in women’s sports, so today we’re going long on two HUGE stories: The USWNT’s $24 million proposed settlement with U.S. Soccer, and Howard Megdal’s explosive Sports Illustrated story about clashes between WNBA owners that culminated in a fine over a private jet.
Borrowing my Friday Five format, we’re doing five bullet points on both, starting with U.S. Soccer.
Okay, friends. Let’s do this.
1. The USWNT’s $24 million settlement is, unequivocally, a good thing.
Last week, U.S. Soccer and the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) announced they‘ve reached a proposed settlement in the USWNT’s #equalpay lawsuit: U.S. Soccer has agreed to pay $22 million in back pay to the players and put an additional $2 million in a fund flagged for players’ post-playing careers and charitable endeavors. (In a gift to me, personally, the $22m + $2m agreement was announced on 2/22/2022.)
Meg Linehan at The Athletic also reported that “the federation has promised equal pay between the men’s and women’s national senior teams moving forward, for friendlies, tournaments, and World Cup play.”
This is the culmination of a legal battle that officially began in 2016 when Alex Morgan, Hope Solo, Carli Lloyd, Megan Rapinoe, and Becky Sauerbrunn filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission arguing that U.S. Soccer was systematically discriminating against women by playing them far less than their male counterparts; and escalated in 2019 when all 28 players on the USWNT sued U.S. Soccer for gender discrimination in federal court. Unofficially, this fighthas been going on since the USWNT played its first international friendly against Italy in 1985.
This is a staggeringly big deal, not just for the USWNT but for women’s sports as a whole, and it’s really important to take a beat and celebrate.
*insert celebratory dancing GIF that this post is too long for so you just have to use your imagination here*
But we also must acknowledge a couple of caveats:
The players have to figure out how exactly the money will be dispersed, and present a proposal to the court; that sounds exhausting and like a hell of a lot of math, but what a good problem to have to solve!
The settlement is contingent upon the ratification of a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between players and the federation.
Obviously, the latter bullet point is a MUCH bigger deal than the former. So let’s zoom in on the timeline here.
The USWNT’s prior CBA with U.S. Soccer expired at the end of 2021, but both sides agreed to a three-month extension, meaning the 2017 CBA is in place through the end of March. However, the U.S. Soccer presidential election is looming on March 5; Cindy Parlow Cone — the current president who is, herself, a former USWNT player — is running against Carlos Cordeiro, the former U.S. Soccer president who was forced to resign in disgrace in 2020 after U.S. Soccer’s extremely sexist and demeaning legal strategy against the USWNT came to light.
According to last week’s Full Time with Meg Linehan episode, while this settlement should give Parlow Cone a boost in her re-election campaign, there is a pathway for Cordeiro to win the presidency, too. Since players would *much* rather negotiate the CBA with Parlow Cone than Cordeiro, that could potentially add some urgency to the deal-making process.
2. The biggest win? U.S. Soccer came clean about its gaslighting.
Everyone involved in women’s sports — from fans to athletes to media to coaches — hear the same refrains over and over again: No one cares about women’s sports; women’s sports don’t make money; it’s not sexism, it’s just the free market at work.
And as I wrote in the very first Power Plays, it’s often the people in charge of women’s sports perpetuating the myth that they are in peril.
And THAT is why this settlement is such a big fucking deal. It’s not perfect, and I understand why some are holding their breath until the details of the new CBA come to light. But beyond being a significant amount of money, the settlement is U.S. Soccer admitting that yes, they were gaslighting the players all along.
I absolutely loved this column from Sally Jenkins in the Washington Post, which sums it up nicely:
U.S. Soccer’s biggest concession to the women’s national team members isn’t the $24 million. It’s the acknowledgment that millions of dollars in insults were real. Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Christen Press and their teammates, like so many other women who hazard a pay discrimination complaint against a powerful employer, were treated as if they had imagined the slights and the financial sleights of hand.
After six years, countless sophistries and innumerable shell games with the math, U.S. Soccer offered up back pay and made a pledge to equal compensation rates for its men’s and women’s teams going forward. With that statement, the governing body led by Cindy Parlow Cone essentially made an admission: It was all true. The members of the women’s team had been wronged. For years, they had to play more, and win bigger, to be paid anything close to their male counterparts. They got less pay for better work.
The USWNT called U.S. Soccer’s bluff. It bet on itself. And goodness did it pay off.
3. For perspective, let’s remember just how sexist U.S. Soccer’s arguments against equal pay were.
Since Cordeiro has inserted himself back into the narrative, and we’re reflecting on the long journey in the rear-view mirror, I think it’s important to remember just how horrifying it was when U.S. Soccer put the worth of women’s sports on trial.
In 2020, an onslaught of documents in the court case were released publicly, giving us all a behind-the-scenes peek at how U.S. Soccer was fighting against the wage discrimination suit.
In one deposition, a U.S. Soccer lawyer (Q) questioned USWNT star Carli Lloyd (A) about whether the women’s national team could beat the men’s team:
I know Lloyd isn’t a Power Plays favorite, for legitimate reasons, but her “Shall we fight it out?” retort will go down in women’s sports history.
Ultimately, U.S. Soccer argued that women’s soccer does not require “equal skill, effort, and responsibility” as men’s soccer, and therefore there was no merit to the equal pay lawsuit.
The not-at-all-sub text was: if a women’s team can’t beat a men’s team head-to-head, then the women’s team doesn’t deserve the same compensation and accommodations as the men’s team. Fucking terrifying.
(I did an entire newsletter on this two years ago, for anyone who wants to take a completely infuriating trip down memory lane.)
4. Still, it’s so fucking depressing that women athletes have to fight this hard to get what they are owed.
Last week I was really dialed in on finishing my newsletter about Lia Thomas, so when news of this settlement broke I didn’t have time to dig into the details immediately. But when I was out to dinner with my aunt and uncle, they asked me what I thought about it. And my first instinct really surprised me: I was sad.
I wasn’t sad about the settlement itself; I was just sad about all of the hours and energy the players had to spend and expend fighting to get to this place that they had already earned the right to be.
Andrew Das @AndrewDasNYTBREAKING: US Soccer and USWNT have reached a settlement in their six-year fight over equal pay. The players will receive $24M, and USSF has promised to equalize pay between the men's and women's national teams for all competitions, including the World Cup. https://t.co/tqfyyEZ5jp
I know there’s no such thing as being “just an athlete,” and that labor negotiations are an essential part of men’s sports, too, as the MLBPA is showing right now. But what if athletes in women’s sports didn’t have to fight for the legitimacy of their sport every time they took the court/field/etc., AND didn’t have to fight tooth and nail for a living wage off of it? Wouldn’t that be lovely??
I mean, Crystal Dunn wasn’t able to be on the team’s media celebration tour last Tuesday because she was representing the players at the ongoing CBA negotiations.
It’s inspiring that they’re working as hard as they are for equality; it’s infuriating that they have to.
5. Okay I guess now we have to address the largely looming caveat to this whole thing: The TBD CBA.
So, it’s very safe to say that it would be EXTREMELY stupid for U.S. Soccer and the USWNT to announce this settlement if they didn’t both believe that the CBA would get across the line this month.
But honestly, I have no clue how they are going to get there.
How in the hell will this CBA handle the vast discrepancy in FIFA prize money between the men’s and women’s tournaments, and how cooperative will the men’s team be towards achieving that goal?
Total FIFA prize money for the 2015 Women’s World Cup was $15 million, TOTAL. At the 2018 men’s World Cup, the total prize money was $400 million. FIFA doubled the prize money for the 2019 Women’s World Cup, to $30 million, but it also increased the prize money for the men’s World Cup by ten percent, bringing it to $440 million.
That means the wage gap is WIDENING, as I detailed for ThinkProgress back in a previous life.
It’s going to take some creative math to even out those bonus pools, and could ultimately involve the men’s team giving up money. (Though, it must be said, if they don’t qualify for the World Cup again, the math would work in their favor!)
For years — slash basically all of existence — the US Men’s National Team (USMNT) didn’t demonstrate much labor solidarity with the USWNT. But that changed in 2020. You see, when the USWNT sued U.S. Soccer over pay discrimination, it compared the numbers on its 2017 CBA with the existing men’s CBA, which was signed way back in 2011. So when the men began trying to negotiate their next CBA around 2018, U.S. Soccer was EXTREMELY reticent to give the men more money, because it would make the 2017 CBA for the women’s team look even worse.
Suddenly, the USMNT discovered feminism. But how far will that solidarity go now that we’re putting pen to paper? STAY TUNED.
6. Hey! Everyone go take a break and read this piece by Howard Megdal, then come back and we’ll talk.
I’m assuming you’ve already read Howard Megdal’s tour-de-force feature at Sports Illustrated on the fractures between different ownership groups in the WNBA, and how it all came to a head during the 2021 season over the issue of chartering jets.
But you know what? Go read it again. I’ll wait.
Seriously, you must read it in full to absorb all of the details, it’s one of the best behind-the-curtain looks at how a sports league operates that I’ve ever read. But so we’re all on the same page, here are three plot points:
Joe and Clara Wu Tsai, owners of the New York Liberty, provided charter flights for their team to away games throughout the second half of the 2021 WNBA season, and for a recreational trip to Napa over Labor Day weekend. This was a violation of the WNBA’s CBA, as it presumably gave the team a competitive advantage over the teams that are riding commercial. The Liberty was fined $500,000, though WNBA general counsel Jamin Dershowitz reportedly floated far more extreme ideas, such as terminating the franchise and taking away multiple draft picks.
A huge piece of Megdal’s reporting hinges on a September 13 WNBA Board of Governors call:
“On Sept. 13, according to a source familiar with the call, the WNBA Board of Governors considered an unofficial proposal from the Liberty to make charter flights the default travel option for WNBA teams—the Liberty said they’d found a way to get it comped for everyone in the league for three years—but it lacked majority support. Some owners worried that players would get used to it, so there’d be no going back, and others wondered whether players might just prefer a salary hike instead.”
The WNBA denies that such a proposal was made, but Megdal stands by his reporting.
Another massive point of contention between owners was the recent $75 million capital raise. Megdal reports that there were “three camps within ownership—those who wanted the capital raise and were willing to participate, those who needed the capital raise but couldn’t or wouldn’t participate, and those who thought the capital raise simply wasn’t thinking big enough.”
For what its worth, regarding the last point, there were six1 WNBA franchises who weren’t a part of the $75 million capital raise: The Phoenix Mercury (owned by Robert Sarver); the Connecticut Sun (owned by the Mohegan Sun Tribe); the Chicago Sky (owned by Michael Alter); the Las Vegas Aces (owned by Mark Davis); the Atlanta Dream (owned by Larry Gottesdiener); and the Minnesota Lynx (owned by Glen Taylor). We don’t have time to dive into it all right now, but those are six very different owners/ownership groups with, it seems from the outside at least, very different bottom lines.
Gosh, what a fascinating, infuriating mess this is.
7. First off, I want to stress how lucky we are to have Howard Megdal.
Look, I’m not an unbiased person here. Megdal has been a friend and mentor to me for years, and I am not alone; you’d be hard-pressed to find a person in the women’s basketball space that he hasn’t gone out of his way to help time and time again.
Megdal — who, before I go any further with my praise, I must note, has embarrassingly awful taste in pizza — told us about his journey into women’s basketball reporting in an interview I did with him for a newsletter last month, “Meet the Wojs of the WNBA.” He started prioritizing women’s sports reporting because he feared that too many stories were being left untold, and thank goodness he did. A feature like this takes YEARS and YEARS and YEARS of source building and trust earning, and he has certainly put in the work. I don’t know anyone who works harder, which I get is a cliché, but it’s a deserved cliché in this case. So kudos to Megdal, and to Sports Illustrated for publishing it and giving the story the care it deserved.
Subscribe to The Next, the 24/7 women’s basketball newsroom he founded. Support the work that he does to support other writers and the women’s basketball ecosystem as a whole. And, as he says, if you have hiring powers in your newsroom, hire him full time to cover women’s basketball. It’s a no brainer. (Just, seriously, don’t put him in charge of lunchroom pizza orders.)
Julie Kliegman @jmkliegmanI should say: @howardmegdal was an absolute pleasure to work with every step of the way. And shouts to @Lauren_Green08 for the fact-check, @thesarahkelly for the copy edit, and @davidebarco for the incredible art https://t.co/PIp71dJSZt
8. Okay, back to business: What the actual fuck, WNBA?????
Look, I certainly don’t envy Cathy Engelbert and the WNBA having to balance all of these different owners and egos and agendas, particularly amidst a pandemic and during a perilous time for the league, and I am a teeny weeny bit sympathetic towards non-billionaire owners who are trying to play by the rules that everyone agreed to.
But there MUST have been a better way to handle this!!!
First off, if there is a proposal for three years of comped charter flights, TAKE THE THREE YEARS OF COMPED CHARTER FLIGHTS. That is the easiest win of all time! Yes, players will get used to it, and THAT IS A GOOD THING. You will have three more years to figure out how to make the charter flights permanent. Do that. Yes, some players would rather have more money than charter flights — Diana Taurasi has regularly brought up this point — but why must it be an either/or situation? The charter flight companies aren’t going to give you cash for salaries, they’re going to donate planes for the publicity. Take the damn planes.
But besides that, if for some reason you believe that to keep the peace amongst other owners you have to fine the Liberty for skirting the rules, you MUST be transparent about the process of enacting the fine and get ahead of the story. Something like this WILL NOT remain a secret. Don’t be so afraid of a bad news cycle that you corner yourself into an even worse one. (Again.) Being proactive and upfront beats being defensive and shady every single day.
9. Its time for the WNBA as a whole to move past the trauma of the 2000s.
(I’m 2,500 words into this newsletter, and I know I need to wrap it up, but bear with me for one — er, two — more points.)
Megdal’s entire piece grabbed me, but one line reached through the screen and shook me so hard I almost went into concussion protocol:
New owners—the Tsais in New York, Marc Lore in Minnesota, Larry Gottesdiener in Atlanta, Mark Davis in Las Vegas—found themselves dumbstruck by how little the WNBA could invest in growth.
Look, I’m not a billionaire, but from the outside looking in, I share their frustration! To quote our friend Kelsey Trainor, *INVEST* *IN *WOMEN.* (Note: I don’t know if Gottesdiener is a billionaire, but he’s getting grouped in; “billionaire” is more a class than a specific calculation here in Power Plays land.)
Now, it’s worth stressing that all four owners mentioned above are *very* new to the WNBA — Tsai bought the Liberty in 2019, and the other three came into the league after the most recent CBA was ratified in early 2020. It would be frustrating to buy a team, be really revved up to invest, and yet be hamstrung by an agreement you didn’t have a say in. I imagine this is extra frustrating for a billionaire who has always been able to extravagantly throw money at all of his problems.
But the context of WNBA history does help. The league is in many ways still recovering from the trauma of 2002-2009, when seven teams folded and three relocated. That’s 10 franchises either folding or moving in seven years!!
(And it would be 11 if it wasn’t for Ginny Gilder, Dawn Trudeau, and Lisa Brummel, three successful women and Storm superfans who stepped in and bought the Storm in 2007 when Clay Bennett bought the Seattle SuperSonics and moved the franchise to Oklahoma City. As I wrote in Power Plays at the end of the 2020 season, the Storm owners have been both an anchoring force and a guiding light for the WNBA over the past 15 years.)
WNBA history is littered with billionaires who balked at the notion of investing in women, who viewed the WNBA teams they owned as a pest, not a prize. It is still operating in a place of survival mode, an understandable — and even necessary — response to the trauma inflicted after growing far too fast, too soon, in early years. (The league launched with eight teams in 1997. By 2000 there were 16 teams!)
Most people in WNBA leadership and ownership today have been through hell and back, and are responsible for keeping the league afloat far before it was fashionable to do so, and while their colleagues were
The new billionaire owners are coming in with abundant energy, deep pockets, and fresh eyes, all of which are severely needed in the WNBA. There is still an overwhelming, almost suffocating, amount of institutional memory from the early years within the WNBA and NBA front offices and ownership groups. Probably too much. But also, most people in WNBA leadership and ownership today are responsible for keeping the league afloat while their colleagues and sponsors were abandoning ship.
I don’t have all the answers, but the multiple factions are going to have to work together and learn from one another in order to take the league to the next level. Let the mistakes of the past inform future growth, not inhibit it.
And hopefully, as the league flies to its next destination on a private jet, it can make moves with intentionality and true love for the sport. (Basically, just don’t turn into the MLB, please.)
10. Ultimately, this is all a really great problem for the WNBA to have, if it can get out of its own damn way.
In 2020, the WNBA Players Association ratified a groundbreaking new CBA that was widely praised, including right here at Power Plays. Less than two years later, that CBA already feels outdated in multiple ways.
Believe it or not, that’s a great sign. Change is happening, every day. That’s why there’s so much controversy. Change and growth are extremely uncomfortable states of being. But hey, feel the fear and do it anyway, right? (LOOK AT ME, BRINGING IT BACK FULL CIRCLE.)
And also, I cannot stress this enough, if someone offers you three years of private jets, take the free jets for fuck’s sake.
In the initial newsletter, I wrote that there were only four teams that weren’t part of the capital raise. There were actually six. I updated to include that the Atlanta Dream (owned by Larry Gottesdiener) and the Minnesota Lynx (owned by Glen Taylor) also didn’t participate in the capital raise.