– July 14, 2019
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The U.S. women’s national team brought home their second consecutive World Cup on the same day that the U.S. men’s national team lost in the CONCACAF Gold Cup final to Mexico. 

The U.S. women’s team, which began this year’s World Cup with a 13-0 bludgeoning of an overmatched Thailand team (and endured a bit of criticism for so joyfully celebrating late goals in a game they had clearly already won), had a brilliant run through the World Cup tournament and made it look too easy at times. 

I watched or at least followed most of the games and got to see a couple of minutes of the final on a big TV near One World Trade Center. The U.S. women’s team is clearly the best the world has to offer. 

The U.S. men’s team is … not. And yet the men make more money, which a lot of people think is a serious injustice. What if we reacted the way a lot of activists want us to react when they see workers they think are being unjustly exploited and boycotted the product? 

Let’s just try a mental experiment. Let’s regard the players on the team as some seem to regard themselves, exploited and underpaid. The same claims are made for many people around the world. The commonly proposed solution is the boycott. 

Think about this. Would we help the members of the U.S. women’s national team (and female athletes more generally) by refusing to go to games, refusing to buy their merch, refusing to watch them on TV, and so on on the grounds that we will only buy a scarf and change the channel back to the USWNT when we see that they’re being paid better?

No — not if you understand why boycotting clothing companies that employ “sweatshop” labor and food companies that employ low-wage migrant fruit pickers would be counterproductive.

A lot of the commentary has focused on the fact that the women’s national team works just as hard as the men (if not harder) and wins championships while the men struggle and failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. They’re the best in the world, I enjoy watching them, and I’m proud of their achievement. However, merely working hard and being very good at something is insufficient. You have to work hard and be very good at something people are willing to pay you to do. 

Suppose you’re one of the best kazoo players in the world. You might not earn as much as a mediocre accountant because, for whatever reason, there’s a much larger market for accountants — even mediocre ones — than there is for professional kazoo virtuosos. To use another example, male models probably work as hard as female models, but they’re paid much less.

In this light, U.S women’s national team (USWNT) superstar Megan Rapinoe hit the nail on the head when Rachel Maddow asked her what fans can do to increase players’ incomes: go to the games, buy the gear, and watch them on TV.

In other words, increase demand for their services. Raise the value of their marginal products. The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) apparently streams its games on Yahoo Sports, if you’re looking for a way to contribute to higher demand for women’s sports. Tune in, and encourage your friends to do the same. Higher salaries will follow. 

By contrast, boycotting and refusing to watch the USWNT and the NWSL would almost certainly hurt the players. They compete in an insanely competitive market for entertainment, not just on the soccer field. If people were to stop watching, how long would they last? Similarly, what do you think happens to low-wage workers in sweatshops when there’s suddenly no longer any demand for their product? They don’t earn higher incomes, if that’s what you’re wondering.

In competitive markets, the intersection of workers’ productivity and their best available alternatives determine their incomes. Hence, the way to increase their incomes is to make them more productive, give them better options, or both. 

Think about the demand side. Revenue from the last cycle for the men’s World Cup was over $6 billion, which is almost 46 times as much as the $131 million anticipated for the women’s World Cup cycle, 2019–22. Much has been made of the fact that game revenue from ticket sales and such for USWNT games was higher than game revenue for USMNT games. 

This hasn’t been true from year to year, though, and game revenue only represents “about one-quarter of the [U.S. Soccer] federation’s gross revenues.” Given that sponsorships and payments for TV rights for U.S. Soccer aren’t earmarked “for the men’s team” or “for the women’s team,” it’s difficult to say with any confidence that the value of the marginal product for women’s-soccer players is higher than the value of the marginal product for men’s-soccer players. 

What’s more, women’s-soccer players got a larger share of the revenue generated by the Women’s World Cup than men got from the Men’s World Cup. If there’s an injustice here, it’s hardly obvious. If you want to close the earnings gap between men and women, you should spend more on women’s soccer. 

You should also work to improve the players’ options off the field. There is a much larger market for male athletes in general than there is for female athletes in general, and those alternatives mean that everything else equal, it’s harder to induce men to choose soccer over other sports. A man with the athletic chops to be a world-class soccer player could have likely earned a decent living playing another sport. 

Think, for example, about Tim Tebow and Michael Jordan taking up professional baseball — or think about Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray, the #1 pick in the 2019 NFL draft and the #9 pick in the 2018 MLB draft. There just aren’t as many options out there for women’s-soccer players. In order to increase the earnings of women’s-soccer players, then, perhaps you should also reallocate some of your entertainment spending toward professional softball.

Who ultimately decides how much Megan Rapinoe and company are paid? As Ryan McMaken points out, it’s ultimately the consumers, and by and large, consumers have voted overwhelmingly for men’s sports. There’s a lesson in here, incidentally, about raising the wages of anyone we think underpaid or otherwise ill-used, whether they be sweatshop garment workers, migrant fruit pickers, or the greatest soccer players in the world. If we want them to earn more, we need to vote for them with our dollars.

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Art Carden

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Art Carden is a Senior Fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research. He is also an Associate Professor of Economics at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama.

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