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U.S. Soccer hires lobbyists in equal-pay dispute

The U.S. Soccer Federation has engaged the services of two lobbying firms to counter claims by players from the U.S. women's national team that they are paid less than half of what their male counterparts make, a USSF spokesperson confirmed to ESPN FC.

Politico was the first to report the news of the lobbying firms being hired.

Twenty-eight players from the U.S. women's national team filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against the USSF last March, alleging inferior wages, working conditions and investment in their game despite the players doing essentially the same job as the U.S. men's national team. It alleged that the women earned as little as 38% of what the men's national team players made. In June, the two sides agreed to pursue mediation to resolve the dispute.

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In the wake of the U.S. women claiming their fourth World Cup title last month in France, legislation was introduced in both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives requiring the USSF to pay players on the respective U.S. women's and men's national team equally. The House bill, put forward by Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.), would withhold federal funding for the 2026 World Cup, set to be hosted by the U.S., Canada and Mexico, if U.S. Soccer fails to pay the women's and men's teams equally. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) introduced an identical bill in the Senate last month.

USSF spokesperson Neil Buethe told ESPN FC that the hiring of the firms was not intended to combat the legislation being put forward, but rather an effort to ensure that the information available is accurate. He added that the USSF received two separate letters asking for information, and that the hiring of the lobbying firms -- FBB Federal Relations and Van Ness Feldman -- was the best way to get that information across.

Buethe said in a prepared statement, "Due to the large number of requests we've received from policymakers since the Women's World Cup, we are taking the proper steps to make sure that those leaders have accurate information and factual numbers that will inform them about the unmatched support and investment the U.S. Soccer Federation has provided as a leader in women's football across the world."

Molly Levinson, a spokesperson for the players in the equal-pay lawsuit, said via text message, "We are stunned and disappointed that U.S. Soccer Federation -- the governing body for soccer in this country and a nonprofit organization -- would spend sponsor dollars and revenue to advocate against laws that ensure that women are paid equally to men. We can't imagine that fans or sponsors would support USSF's effort to misinform and mislead lawmakers about the facts by blatantly inflating numbers and minimizing and diminishing the work women players do. USSF should use their platform and resources to support equality in this country, not constantly fight against it."

Complicating matters is the fact that the contracts for the men's and women's teams -- both of which were negotiated through collective bargaining -- are structured differently. According to Yahoo Sports, 18 women players receive a base salary, compensation for playing in the National Women's Soccer League as well as health benefits -- provided by the U.S. Olympic Committee -- that the men's players do not. The rest of the women players are paid on a per-game basis, similar in structure to the men.

USSF president Carlos Cordeiro issued an open letter to the federation membership in which he contended that, "From 2010 through 2018, U.S. Soccer paid our women $34.1 million in salaries and game bonuses and we paid our men $26.4 million -- not counting the significant additional value of various benefits that our women's players receive but which our men do not."

Politico reported that the lobbyists circulated a presentation which states that in 2018, the women's team was paid $275,478 in average cash compensation per player, compared to $57,283 for the men's team. It's worth noting that the men's team didn't qualify for that year's World Cup, resulting in a significant drop in compensation.

The presentation's focus on a single year led Levinson to say that the lobbyists "cherry-picked numbers."

"In addition to adding NWSL compensation, which is a wholly separate job from WNT duties, USSF masks the fact that WNT absolute compensation is a result of number of games and unmatched on-the-field success," she said. "It does not include a control for number of games, MNT or WNT ranking, opponent ranking, or results of games.

Levinson added, "In addition to all of the funny math, this analysis presents a false comparison by highlighting what a hypothetical WNT player made compared to an MNT player in 2018, instead of what a WNT player would have made in 2018 if she was a man, and compensated as an MNT player."

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