The world champions want to be paid the same salary as their male counterparts. Public pressure could help them achieve their aim

In an escalation of ongoing disputes over gender discrimination between the US women’s national team and US Soccer, the players have now sued their employer. Any hopes that these issues were close to resolution have now been dashed.

Who on the USWNT is suing US Soccer and why?

A group of 28 players on the US women’s national team, essentially the players that constitute the entire current pool, have signed on to a lawsuit accusing their boss, the US Soccer Federation, of gender discrimination. The lawsuit deals with accusations of wage discrimination and the notion that US Soccer paid the men’s team more, despite the men achieving far less. For instance, the lawsuit alleges that the men get bonuses of as much as $17,625. The Guardian understands that is more than twice the amount the women receive.

The men and women are paid differently through structures they each collectively bargained for – the women get salaries while the men are only paid through bonuses. But the lawsuit alleges that the federation made more compensation available overall to the men. If both teams played 20 friendlies in a year, the maximum that female players could have earned was $99,000 or $5,000 per game while the male players could have earned an average of around $263,000 or $13,000 per game.

But the lawsuit also deals with non-monetary issues and the overall treatment of the women compared to the men. For instance, the men’s team allegedly took 17 US Soccer-funded charter flights to and from games in 2017 while the women took none. The women played 62 home matches on artificial turf – which is harder on the body –over a four-year span while the men’s team played just one. The US men’s team has also allegedly benefitted from more marketing and higher ticket prices for their games compared to the women.

How long has this lawsuit been in the works?

If some of these complaints sound familiar, there is a reason for that. This latest lawsuit builds upon a wage discrimination complaint five players filed in 2016 with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which is now effectively terminated. Back then, the complaint was filed by ex-goalkeeper Hope Solo, along current players Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd and Becky Sauerbrunn, and this new complaint includes all of them except Solo, who is no longer with the team and has filed her own separate lawsuit against US Soccer.

The legal team advising the players, Winston & Strawn, has clearly been building their case since that initial complaint was filed. When it became clear the EEOC was not going to handle the complaint in a timely manner, the players received permission to sue US Soccer directly and now the EEOC complaint is dead.

It’s no coincidence that this lawsuit was filed on International Women’s Day, either.

What is US Soccer’s response and how do they justify the disparity?

US Soccer hasn’t formally responded to the complaint and it appears the federation was caught off guard. But we know from the 2016 complaint that one of the federation’s arguments will be that the women collectively bargained for the contract they have. In 2016, US Soccer essentially asked: how can it be discrimination if they agreed to the terms of the deal? After all, the men and women are paid very differently – the women get year-round salaries from the federation for playing with the national team and in the US Soccer-founded National Women’s Soccer League. The men only get paid for making rosters and playing in games, and the women aren’t asking to play under the same pay structure as the men’s team.

But from the players’ perspectives, they would argue that they bargained for as much as they could get so they could continue playing soccer. Despite that, no one can bargain away their right not to be discriminated against. The lawsuit alleges that the players asked to receive equal compensation to the men in contract negotiations, and when that was rejected, the women asked for a revenue-sharing agreement, which the federation also rejected.

In its defense, US Soccer has also cited higher revenues and higher game attendance for the men’s national team compared to the women. Historically, that’s been a strong argument for the federation but not so much lately: since 2016 the women’s team has brought in more revenue than the men. In the fiscal year for 2016, the lawsuit says, US Soccer projected a loss of around $400,000 but ended the year with $17.7m in profit due to the women winning the 2015 World Cup and surging in popularity. The latest financial picture released by the federation continues to show more revenue generated by the women. The men didn’t even qualify for the 2018 World Cup, losing out on what would have been big revenues.

How strong is the case and can the women win?

Without knowing how US Soccer intends to respond, it’s difficult to say right now. The specific numbers in the players’ lawsuit are certainly compelling. The lawsuit, for example, says US Soccer gave a team bonus to the men of $5.4m for their round of 16 exit at the 2014 World Cup, but the federation gave just $1.7m to the women for winning the World Cup in 2015.

The public relations battle – not the legal one – could end up being the most important aspect of this case, however.

Back in 2016, the five players who filed the EEOC complaint did a round of high-profile media, including the Today Show and 60 Minutes, which put the federation under public pressure. Discrepancies that were difficult to defend became major talking points and pushed public opinion to the players’ side in the fight. For instance, the men got per diems of $75 when traveling abroad while the women only got $60. The women earned $1.20 for every ticket sold to their games while the men got $1.50. The federation, embarrassed by these discrepancies, quickly sought to remedy them.

What remains to be seen is whether something similar can happen again: will the case simply be decided by lawyers and judges, or could public pressure prompt US Soccer to start addressing some of the complaints from the women?

What does the men’s team think?

After the players filed their 2016 complaint, a narrative quickly emerged of the women’s team being pitted against the men’s. Some of the players on the men’s team made comments that were unsupportive of the female players’ efforts – Alejandro Bedoya, for example, argued that the sports business model was too unique to expect equal pay between men and women, and Graham Zusi awkwardly tried to make a distinction that the women deserve more without proclaiming pay should be equal.

But the players union for the men’s national team, which is in the middle of its own contract negotiations, says it fully supports the lawsuit from the women and has made equal pay part of discussions with US Soccer.

“We are committed to the concept of a revenue-sharing model to address the US Soccer Federation’s ‘market realities’ and find a way towards fair compensation,” read a statement issued by the union. “An equal division of revenue attributable to the MNT and WNT programs is our primary pursuit as we engage with the US Soccer Federation in collective bargaining.”