LOS ANGELES - As the U.S. Women's National Team prepares to defend its title in the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup, the players are also in the midst of a legal dispute with the U.S. Soccer Federation over equal treatment and pay.
Twenty-eight members of the women's player pool filed a lawsuit March 8 in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles under the Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, alleging "institutionalized gender discrimination" that includes unequal pay with their counterparts on the U.S. Men's National Team and demanding a jury trial.
The USSF, commonly referred to as U.S. Soccer, is the governing body for the sport in the United States and provides their pay.
The lawsuit alleges USSF engaged in "systemic gender-based pay discrimination" and "has caused, contributed to, and perpetuated gender-based pay disparities through common policies, practices, and procedures."
The suit claims that the women are paid less than the men despite performing similar job duties for the same employer and outperforming the men. It supports that claim by listing examples of the WNT's "unparalleled success in international soccer."
It cites the team's three World Cup titles, four Olympic gold medals and its number-one ranking in the world for 10 out of the last 11 years. It also points to the 2015 World Cup title game as being the "most watched soccer game in American TV history" with approximately 23 million viewers.
"The USSF, in fact, has admitted that it pays its female player employees less than its male player employees and has gone so far as to claim that 'market realities are such that the women do not deserve to be paid equally to the men,'" the lawsuit states. "The USSF admits to such purposeful gender discrimination even during times when the WNT earned more profit, played more games, won more games, earned more championships, and/or garnered higher television audiences."
Despite the on-field success, the lawsuit alleges the women "spend more time practicing for and playing in matches, more time in training camps, more time traveling and more time participating in media sessions, among other duties and responsibilities, than similarly situated MNT players."
It claims that from March 2013 through Dec. 31, 2016, when the previous collective bargaining agreement expired, players on the women's team could make a maximum salary of $72,000, plus bonuses for winning non-tournament games as well as World Cup appearances and victories, and for Olympic placement.
"A comparison of the WNT and MNT pay shows that if each team played 20 friendlies in a year and each team won all 20 friendlies, female WNT players would earn a maximum of $99,000 or $4,950 per game, while similarly situated male MNT players would earn an average of $263,320 or $13,166 per game against the various levels of competition they would face," the lawsuit says.
It concludes that a top-tier women's player would make only 38 percent of a similarly situated men's player.
A pay disparity was apparent at the previous World Cups: In 2014, the federation gave the men's roster a performance bonus of nearly $5.4 million after the U.S. went out in the round of 16 in Brazil. The women's team received a bonus of $1.72 million after winning the 2015 World Cup in Canada.
When the USWNT players association entered into a new collective bargaining agreement with the USSF, which took effect in 2017 and lasts through 2021, the lawsuit claims the association even proposed a "revenue-sharing model" that would test the USSF's "market realities" theory regarding equal pay for men and women. The USSF rejected the proposal.
"Under this model, player compensation would increase in years in which the USSF derived more revenue from WNT activities and player compensation would be less if revenue from those activities decreased," the lawsuit states. "This showed the players' willingness to share in the risk and reward of the economic success of the WNT."
In addition to unequal pay, the lawsuit claims the USSF provides unequal playing, training and travel conditions, and unequal promotion of their games.
The USSF has formally denied allegations of gender discrimination and filed its answer to the lawsuit earlier this month. It claims every decision made "with respect to the conduct alleged in the complaint was for legitimate business reasons and not for any discriminatory or other unlawful purpose."
The federation has maintained the differences in pay are the result of different collective bargaining agreements that establish distinct pay structures for the men and women's teams. Those agreements are not public.
While star players on the women's team, like forward Alex Morgan, can make as much as their male counterparts because of endorsement deals, the disparity becomes greater for players with lesser profiles.
"I think the next step is that we need sustainable income so that people can feel this is their full-time job," midfielder Rose Lavelle told Yahoo! Sports. "The reality right now of women's sport in general is that they can't devote their whole life to what they love. That should be the next step. We need to make everyone feel like they're a professional athlete."
The women's team has often championed equal rights issues.
In 2016, five star national team players filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that alleged wage discrimination by the federation. The lawsuit filed in March effectively ends that EEOC complaint, brought by Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Becky Sauerbrunn, Carli Lloyd and former goalkeeper Hope Solo. The players received a right-to-sue letter from the EEOC last month.
"I think a lot of people look to us and our team and the collective voice that we have and what we've stood for, for inspiration and for power, and as an ally in this broader fight for equality and human rights, really," said winger Megan Rapinoe, a co-captain and veteran of 149 international appearances.
With the standoff continuing, the women will focus on winning their fourth World Cup title beginning June 11 against Thailand.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.