With the failure of the United States’ male soccer team to qualify for the World Cup, social justice warriors (SJWs) have another news hook to push identity politics. Here’s Charles Clymer on Twitter:
U.S. Men’s team failed to qualify for the World Cup.
U.S. Women’s Team are 3x World Cup Champs.
Guess who gets paid more by a lot?
What interests me, here, isn’t the tired call to join in with the gender war, but the suggestion that there ought to be some sort of arbiter for athletes’ pay — a bureaucracy of some sort empowered to proclaim judgments of unfairness and command correction. That very mechanism is under development, founded in anti-discrimination laws, but as it grows like a cancer, we should consider the end state and the principles involved.
Patrick Laverty, who’s still listed as a contributor on this site, questioned whether I was correct, on Twitter, to imply that market forces largely determine the pay rates. He notes that the female national team has recently brought in more revenue than the male national team. Even the New York Times acknowledges that setting player pay is complicated, but talking about revenue provides an entry point for the key economic debate.
The market enters the equation basically from two directions: How much revenue the players help to generate, and how much the league has to pay to attract competitive talent. Increased revenue from their games increases the women’s leverage for how much they can command in pay, but how quickly the numbers shift will depend on (basically) how easily players can be replaced with equivalent talent… or at least talent sufficient to keep up the victories and the interest.
In considering the matter, keep in mind that soccer must compete with other sports for both players and audiences. This fact means it may even be in the long-run interest of the league — on both sides of the gender divide — to take profits generated by the women and use them to increase pay scales for men, making them even more disproportionate. If that strikes you as outrageous, it may help to imagine the sexes flipped, or just to categorize them as Group A and Group B.
For Group A teams, the league can recruit world-champion talent at relatively low cost and generate lots of revenue. However, the revenue for Group B soccer has greater potential, and moreover, the market for Group B sports of any sort is many times bigger than for Group A sports. The slack between costs and revenue on the Group A side therefore allows investment to maximize revenue on the Group B side, which, again, has a much bigger upside. If that attempt is successful, the increased interest in soccer generally will ultimately benefit both groups.
Of course, the increased interest in Group A soccer could also increase interest in Group A sports of all kinds, leveling the broader playing field. Or it might not. At that point, we enter into unknowable social and cultural threads that are ultimately rooted in the individual preferences of actual human beings.
But let’s say that our Soccer Equity Czar decrees that men and women players must receive the same pay or — even more dramatically — that the women must be payed a premium commensurate with their victories and revenue. The consequence would be that the league has less money to pay male players, making their teams relatively worse. Rather than having a periodic disappointment, as with this year’s World Cup, potential fans would just write the team off. Growing interest in soccer, therefore, could conceivably reverse, ultimately weighing down women’s soccer, too.
To be clear, I’m not arguing that we should conclude that men should make more, or that the league should transfer the women’s profits to enrich the men. Frankly, I’m in the “athletes are overpaid because sports are over-emphasized” camp, but more importantly, I’m not in a position to make such judgments for the league, not the least because my livelihood doesn’t depend on them. My point is that a myopic gaze at the gender war angle doesn’t provide very good perspective on what the league should do, and in this regard, soccer is representative of the economy and society more generally.
If there can be shown to be some sort of unjustified conspiracy to favor men, then it’s certainly in the interest of the league to eliminate it, because it can only be a drag on the sport. But if we have to imagine the existence of a sexist flame because we aren’t interested in understanding how some other process is generating the smoke, we’re going to wind up making life worse for everybody except that small group that benefits directly from the conspiracy of favoritism that we tolerate in order to blow the smoke away.