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Ironic potential beneficiary of FIFA’s equal pay ‘ambition’: The U.S. men's national team

FRISCO, TX - FEBRUARY 22: Becky Sauerbrunn of United States holding a us pennant during the SheBelieves Cup match between Brazil and United States at Toyota Stadium on February 22, 2023 in Frisco, Texas. (Photo by James Williamson - AMA/Getty Images)
Becky Sauerbrunn holds a U.S. pennant during a SheBelieves Cup match versus Brazil at Toyota Stadium on Feb. 22 in Frisco, Texas. (James Williamson - AMA/Getty Images)

The contentious labor battle that roiled American soccer for years was underpinned by a maddening, seemingly unflinching inequity: FIFA, the sport’s global governing body, paid participants in its men’s World Cup many multiples more than those at its women’s World Cup.

So it was women, as always, who fought for better treatment. It was the U.S. women’s national team, specifically, who had to fight for equal pay. They won it last year, alongside the U.S. men, by devising a scheme to pool World Cup prize money with the men and take equal shares. It was a victory for both sets of players — who became two of the highest-paid national teams in the world, regardless of gender — but especially for the women, who figured to gain millions of dollars beyond what they otherwise would have earned from FIFA.

That is, until Thursday, when FIFA president Gianni Infantino began talking about his own “path to equal pay.”

He spoke at FIFA’s annual Congress about his “ambition” to offer equal prize money at the 2026 men’s and 2027 women’s World Cups.

It’s an “objective,” as Infantino called it, that would have an ironic beneficiary: The USMNT.

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Both U.S. teams, to be clear, would benefit in equal measure from FIFA’s enlightenment. But their own agreement, originally designed to primarily boost the USWNT, could ultimately boost the USMNT even more.

Last year, the two players’ associations and U.S. Soccer struck a deal whereby they’ll merge 2022 and 2023 World Cup winnings and give 45% to the men, 45% to the women and 10% to the federation. In 2026 and 2027, the allocation will be 40%, 40% and 20%.

The purpose was to manually close FIFA’s gap, which many expected to be $440 million in total for men’s teams in 2022 versus $60 million for the women in 2023. The popular assumption was that, even if the USMNT flopped and the USWNT triumphed, the men would be sharing with the women. There is no language in their nearly identical collective bargaining agreements that accounts for the possibility of FIFA equalizing prize money itself. There are no provisions, multiple sources confirmed to Yahoo Sports, that would amend the pooling scheme if FIFA drastically amends its payouts. That scenario, after all, was once outlandish.

Now it no longer is.

Now, after women’s players and FIFPRO, an umbrella organization of unions, led a push for increased prize money, Infantino is talking about “embarking on a historic journey for women’s football, and for equality.” He is talking, specifically, about “equality in payments for the 2026 men's and ’27 women's World Cups. This is the objective that we set,” he said Thursday.

With the men’s World Cup expanding to 48 teams in 2026 and the women’s tournament only just now expanding to 32, it’s unclear what “equality in payments” would look like. But if they’re proportional — if, say, the champion on both sides earns $40 million, and the runner-up $30 million, and a semifinalist $25 million, and a quarterfinalist $20 million, and so on — then if, say, the USMNT reaches the quarters and the USWNT loses in the final, it would actually be the U.S. women giving $4 million of their winnings to the U.S. men.

In fact, the USWNT has never finished worse than third at a World Cup, while the USMNT has never finished better than eighth in the post-war era. So, in the FIFA-enlightened scenario, the pooling of money would almost certainly be a net gain for the men.

But again, they would both benefit — from any upticks in prize money on either side, and from each other’s success. That dynamic is one of the many beauties of the historic CBAs. When FIFA announced Thursday that 2023 prize money would be $110 million rather than the previously mooted $60 million, it likely meant an extra $50,000, or thereabouts, for each individual U.S. World Cup player, male or female.

During the bargaining process and discussions within players associations, some calculations were rooted in that presumption of a $60 million 2023 pot, with the champion earning around $6 million. Now that it has risen, the math has changed. U.S. Soccer earned $13 million from the USMNT’s Round of 16 adventure in Qatar, with $11.7 million of that going into the players’ shared pool. The USWNT, with a deep run in New Zealand and Australia, could contribute almost as much, depending on the specific breakdown of payouts, which FIFA has not yet revealed.

Even with a three-peat this summer, it’s unlikely that the women will become the chief contributors, and the men the chief beneficiaries. But in three and four years, and perhaps on balance throughout the CBAs, which expire in 2028, that could be the case.