Not only did the U.S. Women’s National Team defend its World Cup title, they appear to be taking rental of the crown as the globe’s hottest celebs. After a ticker-tape parade Wednesday morning for the champs in New York City’s Canyon of Heroes (webcast here), the team will immediately depart for a flight to Los Angeles, where in the evening, the soccer champs will be hailed at the annual ESPY sports awards.
The USWNT is also in the forefront of business and politics.
During the the tourney in France, team tri-captain and Reign FC star Megan Rapinoe was engaged by President Trump in a Twitter spat over her unwillingness to attend any White House honors ceremony as long as he was the building’s main tenant. She is now a national hero to the left and condemned by the right, which means she is known in our hyper-politicized culture by nearly as many people as have heard of LeBron James.
Additionally, she and her 27 teammates in March sued the U.S. Soccer Federation over inequalities in pay, facilities and support compared to the men’s team, which helped the symbolic part of the women’s claims by failing to even make the 32-team World Cup field in 2018 after being thwarted by the powerhouse from Trinidad & Tobago. (Rule No. 1 for big countries in international sports: Never lose to a team with an ampersand in its name.)
While numerous arguments about inequity have merit, it is worth noting that the pay scales for both genders, based on a traditionally large disparity in revenue streams, were a result of several-years-old collective bargaining by separate unions with the USSF. Meanwhile, the prize money distribution for the World Cup is done by FIFA, the global governing body, and not a party to the lawsuit.
The point is that there is more to this disputation than the imposition of random cruelties by the sport’s patriarchy, which doesn’t absolve them, but makes matters more complicated. A more comprehensive look at the facts can be found in this Washington Post story here.
Coincidentally, the latest episode in the long-running dispute in soccer came to the fore during All-Star Game week for MLB, which also has a pay-inequality problem. But it’s not about gender.
It’s between major-league pay scales and minor-league pay scales.
The gap is shockingly abysmal, and has been so for decades. It is the subject of current negotiations between MLB and the 244 minor-league affiliates across the country.
Prior to the Home Run Derby Monday in Cleveland, Commissioner Rob Manfred was asked about the talks, and offered a non-specific answer.
“The game’s about young players right now,” he told The Athletic. “The clubs want to develop players in an environment that’s positive, and to have that positive environment, you’ve got to have good facilities. You’ve got to pay correctly, and make sure you got the right people teaching. So that’s what the negotiation’s really about.”
I don’t think I want Manfred as an arbiter of “correct” pay. Because he and his predecessor, Bud Selig, and Fay Vincent before him, and Bart Giamatti before him, etc., have been helping owners operate a hustle that started out bad and has grown worse as the cost of living climbs steadily.
Here’s a quick snapshot of minor league salaries, exclusive of signing bonuses, compiled by The Athletic:
AAA first year: $2,150/month; second year, $2,400/month; third year, $2,700/month (about $12,000-$15,000 a year).
AA first year: $1,700/mo., increasing $100/month for each subsequent season.
High A/Low A first year: $1,160-$1,500/month, increasing $50/month for each subsequent season.
While it’s true that numerous top picks in each year’s draft class get multi-million-dollar, one-time bonuses, it’s also true that nearly every signee in the bottom 40 percent of the 40-round class gets a bonus of $10,000 or less.
In 2019, the federal poverty line for single-income households is $14,380. Imagine making a go of things playing ball for less than $15,000 with Mariners’ minor league teams in Everett or Tacoma, where the cost of living is only a step or two down from Seattle’s stratospheric expense. And some of these players are married with kids.
The raw numbers do not reflect other odious aspects of the work: No union protection, long bus rides, poor quality clubhouse food, inadequate per-diems and little or no allotments for equipment.
Yet MLB owners had the stones to lobby Congress in 2016 for an exemption from federal laws requiring overtime pay for work beyond 40 hours. It worked.
The perversely named “Save Our National Pastime Act” was passed by Congress in 2018. It had bi-partisan support, so Chuck and Nancy get to share the overripe vegetable matter normally hurled at Republicans from outraged taxpayers.
Sure, MLB can say the job is the equivalent in another industry of a four-month summer apprenticeship, and hey, it’s living the dream with cute girls offering their phone numbers. What they also say is that if they can’t keep salaries lower than that of entry-level food-service workers, minor-league park revenues won’t cover increased expenses and (sigh) the owners will have to close cute little parks across America.
So, you know . . . support the troops or we’ll kill Crash Davis and Annie Savoy.
The fact is that MLB TV revenues are more than enough to subsidize a tripling of salaries and logistics support for every minor league player and facility, probably at a total cost equivalent of one year’s salary ($24 million) for Robinson Cano.
But since the owners run a monopoly with an exemption from federal anti-trust law that is as outdated as crank-handle telephones, no one can make them do anything they don’t want to do.
So at a moment in sports-business history where a collection of women champs seem near to creating some momentum and leverage for a culture change, it seemed worthy to keep in mind that there are 28 of them and more than 5,800 minor league ballplayers, about 20 percent of whom get cashiered annually.
When it comes to discrimination in sports, sports oligarchs often don’t discriminate.