Economics and the USWNT

I don’t like to let bad thinking go unchecked on social media.

Maybe it’s a weakness of mine. Maybe I’m too easily triggered.

But I like to think it’s just me taking things seriously that ought to be taken seriously.

To that end, I’ve seen about 100 posts commenting on the gender pay gap for the US men’s and women’s soccer teams.

Mostly, understandable laments that the victorious USWNT is paid less than the terrible USMNT.

Rather than respond to every post individually, I’ll explain what’s wrong with these sentiments here.

To demand equal pay for equal work, or performance-based pay, is an understandable urge. Why should someone make less just because of their gender, all else being equal?

That said, in light of the USWNT’s recent victory, why should they be paid less than the losing USMNT? It seems unfair.

But what’s glossed over here is how we define “performance.”

There is no committee measuring the objective performance of all professional athletes. Athletes aren’t paid according to their skill. They’re paid by companies with the resources to monetize their talent by selling tickets, merchandise, and advertisements. They’re also paid by brands who use their names to sell more product.

The fact that Lebron James and Alex Morgan are good athletes adds no value to anyone’s life. It’s only when people can watch and be inspired by their skill that their talent becomes valuable. And only when people can see their skill do they want to buy merchandise.

The same isn’t true for, say, the best plumber in the world. We don’t have to watch the best plumber work in order to benefit from his or her labor. What matters is his or her finished product.

A plumber produces good plumbing. A soccer player produces an event.

Few would care who won the World Cup — men’s or women’s — if no one could see it happen.

In this sense, athletes are entertainers.

Only in the past few decades have athletes become the most recognizable faces in the world. This is due to the proliferation of mass media and associated technologies. Athleticism is easy to capture and display on video.

All that said, athletes are compensated by the market in accord with how many people will tune in to watch them. They are not compensated according to their talent alone, just like I am not compensated according to my talent alone, but according to how many people care about what I’m doing.

The fact is, few people care about women’s soccer. The women’s World Cup brought in about 1/50th the revenue of the men’s World Cup. Major networks did not show the women’s games.

You can blame the media for this lack of attention towards the women’s team, but competition in that industry is fierce. You can bet that any major network would have shown every single game if they thought he would give them a financial edge over their competitors.

The simple fact is women’s soccer, and women’s sports generally, don’t draw anywhere near the crowds of men’s soccer. It doesn’t matter how good each team is — if no one is watching, no one will pay.

There is no use lamenting the pay gap when people simply don’t watch or care. If you want women athletes to be paid more, the only thing worth doing is to encourage more people to pay attention to the dominant women’s team.