Dear Congresswoman Speier and friends,
Thanks for popping in to the wonderful world of women's soccer. I just finished reading your open letter to our fun pal Sepp Blatter, about the inequalities between men's and women's soccer. Love the enthusiasm: you really seem to care about the inequalities faced by women athletes, between the playing surface, the wage gap, the lack of development funds—you name it, we got it as a problem in women's soccer. And with women's soccer still somewhat on the mainstream radar after the Women's World Cup, your timing is solid. Sure, this whole thing looks a little like posturing (we can be honest here, because that's how open letters work), but there's nothing wrong with nabbing a few headlines.
Here's the thing: "We look forward to your response" won't get much out of Sepp Blatter. Because Blatter? Totally doesn't give a single shit about your letter, about the United States Congress, or about what you think FIFA should be doing for women's soccer.
And that's OK, I promise! We don't need Sepp Blatter. The issues you point out—the pay disparity, the lack of media coverage, the lack of investment in development and facilities—are not only FIFA's fault. In fact, many of these things are happening a little closer to home.
Your point about the prize money is bang on. And it sucks that the payout for the Women's World Cup is a tiny fraction of the men's, after they were forced to play on turf. But unequal pay isn't limited to international tournaments.
The minimum salary for a player in the National Women's Soccer League is $6,842 for six months of league play. For comparison, this year Major League Soccer and the players union reached a new deal on their collective bargaining agreement, which raised the minimum salary from $36,500 to $60,000. Now, it's true that the NWSL is a much younger league. MLS is in its twentieth year, and went through plenty of growing pains to get where it is today. Between its founding year and 2004, the league reportedly lost over $350 million. An American soccer league isn't exactly an easy thing to pull off. In fact, there were two failed attempts at pro women's leagues before the NWSL; neither made it past year three. NWSL, which is currently drawing record crowds thanks to the World Cup glow, looks like it will finally break that barrier.
While the women's league is equally owned between the nine teams, it is also subsidized in part by U.S. Soccer (a luxury MLS has never enjoyed), which handles "all management, governance, operational, administrative, and advisory services." In 2014, the federation spent $8,267,453 on the women's national team, and only $670,678 on the NWSL. To be fair, this number is an improvement over 2013's expenditures of $247,830, but it isn't too crazy to ask for further investment into a domestic league that boosts international success. Most of the U.S. national team plays in the league, and there are plenty more talented American women who grind away every day to play professional soccer, even without the reward of a Jill Ellis call-up. U.S. Soccer certainly has a vested interest in ensuring the long-term success of the NWSL for developmental purposes.
Maybe another open letter wouldn't be a bad idea right now, but send this one to U.S. Soccer. We're doing a lot of things right in America—otherwise we wouldn't have won the Women's World Cup—but there's still plenty of room for improvement. Unlike Blatter, U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati might actually listen to what you have to say.
You also dip into the lack of media coverage for women's soccer. Lack of promotion, yes, but the near-total absence of women's sports on SportsCenter is one of the few things we can't put on FIFA. How do we improve the depth of mainstream coverage of women's sports in America, not just women's soccer? Blatter is not who we want to investigate that question, trust me. Let's try to figure that one out ourselves.
Finally, on that long-term strategy you're looking for, I might have good news on that front. There are people in FIFA, like Moya Dodd, who care about these issues, just as much as you and I. I know, it's shocking, considering FIFA's track record of late. Granted, they're facing uphill battles and sexist attitudes across every level to promote and develop the women's game, but I also think they are earning small successes that are frequently overlooked. For instance, in 2012 Dodd helped reverse FIFA's ban of wearing a hijab—not just a cultural shift for FIFA, but a change that affects millions of women who may have not played otherwise. It's not the flashy numbers of prize money, but these are the types of battles that still need to be fought, and finally are being championed in the halls of Zürich.
While the Women's World Cup was going on, FIFA was also holding its 6th Women's Football Symposium. Three days dedicated to considering the governance of women's soccer, focused primarily on how to achieve ten development points. (There's considerable overlap with your open letter.) This isn't to say that they've succeeded. They haven't. I assembled a playlist of the roughly fourteen hours myself—while FIFA apparently cares enough to archive the videos on YouTube, they don't make them all that accessible, either. That's fourteen hours on investment, infrastructure, marketing, competitions, and more. There's also a PDF of FIFA's development guidelines for women's soccer for the next three years, but keep in mind that page 3 is simply a photo of a smiling Sepp Blatter, so you probably should keep your expectations in check.
Congresswoman Speier, I know you were probably secretly hoping to get under Sepp Blatter's skin. Instead, you just got me writing you this letter with some links and a YouTube playlist you likely don't have time to watch.
All jokes aside, we need your level of advocacy here in the United States. We need it for our own players, no matter what level they're playing at. There's work—serious, important work—to be done at home to address NWSL salaries, the diversity of higher level women's soccer, the sustainability and viability of women's professional leagues, and coverage of women's sports.
Chipping away at FIFA is necessary to drive progress, but Sepp Blatter won't be the one who has your answers.
When you call out Blatter for blatant sexist bullshit, though, it is totally boss. Keep that up, always.