Chants of “Equal pay! Equal pay!” showered the U.S. women’s national team in the final moments of its World Cup victory, resonating across the globe but especially with some of the most iconic women in Minnesota sports.
As they joined the celebration, Lindsay Whalen, Jessie Diggins, Cheryl Reeve, Natalie Darwitz and Kelly Pannek recognized it as a seminal moment in the fight for pay equity. They, too, were ready to have their voices heard.
“Women are feeling like they can say what they feel like they deserve,” said Pannek, an Olympic gold medal winner from Plymouth who is now part of a pro hockey boycott. “You have the platform because people now are listening.”
The soccer team’s gender discrimination lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation, currently in mediation, is expected to revamp the highest level of women’s soccer. But what about the millions of other female athletes, including thousands in Minnesota, not on the cover of Sports Illustrated?
The Star Tribune put the question to athletes, coaches and leaders across the state this month, in the World Cup’s aftermath. Answers and emotions varied.
For Pannek, there was relief. She’s sure the soccer team felt it, too. “If we’re asking for more money, more support, we better make sure we show we’re worth it,” she said.
Reeve, the four-time WNBA champion coach and general manager for the Lynx, sees an opportunity for a renewed push for better investment in women’s pro leagues. Her former point guard, Whalen, was grateful the soccer stars used their stage to promote an issue much bigger than sports. This victory, Darwitz said, will add much volume to many voices.
And for Diggins, Afton’s gold medal hero of the 2018 Winter Olympics, there were too many feelings to count. The World Cup victory was another reminder for Diggins of this “very frustrating” fight. Championship payouts are equal for men and women in Diggins’ sport of cross-country skiing, and she wants to see that everywhere.
“I shouldn’t feel grateful about being paid the same. It should just be the way it is,” she said. “And I think that’s what needs to change. It’s going to take some time, but I think we’re going to get there.”
This has been the fight within the fight for equity: emotions in conflict. Celebrate and agitate, simultaneously. Equity has become the sports story of the summer, and champions of women’s sports are pushing for action to follow these feelings.
“Everyone’s asking what’s next and what we want to come from all this,” U.S. star Megan Rapinoe told reporters in France. “And it’s to stop having the conversation about equal pay and ‘Are we worth it?’ What are we going to do about it?”
How long a fight?
The most prominent female athletes in Minnesota wear the blue, gray and white uniforms of the Lynx. The players are sports stars, with their four WNBA championships this decade, but are not paid like stars. At least not like their Target Center roommates, the Timberwolves.
“Right now it’s not apples and apples, because of where the NBA is,” Reeve said.
As a league GM and coach, Reeve cannot comment on the WNBA’s collective bargaining agreement, which ends after this season. But on the subject of pay equity, Reeve looks back to look ahead. When the NBA was struggling — before Magic and Bird and Jordan — franchises would move from city to city as the league wobbled. “The difference is, back in that time, they didn’t say, ‘Let’s fold the league,’ ” Reeve said. “They just kept throwing more money at it. That’s what we do on the men’s side.”
Phoenix Mercury superstar Diana Taurasi doesn’t have Reeve’s patience. The 16-year WNBA veteran let rip last week, just ahead of the league’s All-Star showcase weekend.
“In the last 11 years, I think we’ve had a 1.5% increase in our pay salary,” she told ESPN. “I mean, who doesn’t leave that job?”
Taurasi, Whalen and others want to see enough change so that players don’t have to play overseas in the offseason to make more money. It takes a toll on their bodies, and its demoralizing to have “to go to a communist country to get paid like capitalists,” Taurasi said.
“Something has to give with the next [contract],” Whalen told the Star Tribune. “I hope they can figure it out, so the women can get an offseason.”
Lynx and Wolves owner Glen Taylor said he invested in the Lynx at the outset because “I just thought it was the right thing to do. We lost money for a number of years, until we were able to get the right draft choices, get a winning record, with Cheryl, and it all sort of happened. Then we became a profitable venture just on itself.”
From his unique position in this conversation — only four owners of NBA teams also own a WNBA team — Taylor, who also owns the Star Tribune, can see on one side wanting to better reward women, and the economics on the other.
“The revenue that comes in from TV and the various sponsorships, it’s not the same [as the NBA],” he said. “You have to deal with the real world out there, too.”
Whalen retired from the WNBA after 15 years, the final nine with the Lynx, and lived the economics side with an understanding of the limitations.
“There is no question if you’re doing the same job, you should get the same pay,” Whalen said. “But that’s in general. With sports, say the WNBA and the NBA, it’s two different situations. Can WNBA pay get better? I hope it does. But you can’t compare it to the NBA. They’ve been around so long, there are 20,000 [people] at the games, the TV contract.”
The top WNBA salary in 2019 is $117,500 for the 34-game season. When Whalen retired in 2018 to coach the Gophers, she got a huge raise. She signed a five-year deal that averages $454,000 a year. But that pales in comparison with what men’s coach Richard Pitino gets, about $2.4 million annually.
Whalen doesn’t search for the “Why?” She looks at the economics. “If you look at what you bring in with sponsorships, TV ratings, ticket sales …” she said. “If it gets close to equal, the pay should be the same. In some programs, like Connecticut, I’d guess the pay is pretty equal. That’s the bottom line for me.”
Where equity happens
Other female coaches at the U can relate to making less than their male counterparts. The Gophers have four nonrevenue sports with mirroring men’s and women’s programs — golf, gymnastics, tennis and track and field. According to 2017-18 budget numbers, the most recent available publicly, the Gophers paid their men’s head coach more than their women’s head coach that school year in all except track.
In some situations, that could be explained by differing levels of experience and success. But the men’s golf coach that school year was John Carlson, who made $144,077 in salary, benefits and bonuses, compared to $127,273 for women’s golf coach Michele Redman, even though both had been hired in 2011.
Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle replaced Carlson this year with a new men’s golf coach, Justin Smith, whose new salary is $110,000.
Coyle also has hired two deputy athletic directors — John Cunningham and Rhonda McFarland — who make the same salary, $225,000, according to the U.
“I think we’re very consistent on that side,” Coyle said. “ … [Pay is] about the position and not about the gender.”
Disparities in official salary figures between genders are largely nonexistent in Minnesota high school sports. Coaches are paid a stipend for a season, an amount that is determined when teachers contracts are negotiated. The rate of pay is determined by the length of the season, and the base rate of pay for coaches in comparable sports is widely seen as equal for both male and female coaches.
At Minnetonka, for example, the boys’ and girls’ basketball coaches get paid the same, with that number increasing as seasons are accumulated. “In fact, I probably make more than [newly hired boys’ coach] Bryce Tesdahl because with every year, my percentage goes up,” said ninth-year girls’ coach Leah Dasovich. “It all has to do with years of experience.”
Matt Percival, the activities director at Eastview, concurred. All stipends in District 196, which represents Apple Valley, Eagan, Eastview and Rosemount, are determined when agreements are negotiated. Edina School District 273 won the boys’ and girls’ hockey state championships. Coaches Curt Giles (boys) and Sami Reber (girls) were each paid $7,581 as a base salary. Activities director Troy Stein said coaches are eligible to receive increases based on coaching tenure.
Ancillary income, mostly from summer camps, is far more subjective, with some Minnesota coaches earning more based on how those entities are structured.
Set to begin her second year as girls’ basketball coach at Cretin-Derham Hall, Crystal Flint said that while pay is even, equal treatment and resources don’t always come with that. She said she pushed hard for change while coaching Minneapolis North and is now feeling strong support at Cretin.
The whole picture is more than salary, she said, it’s “concessions and T-shirts and hats. ... I just want to see those things evenly distributed.”
The equality that can be found on Minnesota school campuses will spread if Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s new push is a success. Four days after the World Cup victory, Klobuchar, D-Minn., called for a senate committee hearing on pay disparity in U.S. sports.
“In Minnesota, we’re home to some of history’s greatest sports stars — from Cindy Nelson to Lindsey Vonn to Jessie Diggins we take pride in our incredible female champions — and we know that every athlete, coach, trainer, and staff member deserves to be paid fairly, regardless of their gender,” she wrote in an e-mail to the Star Tribune. “It’s past time we level the playing field for female athletes.”
Darwitz, a three-time Olympian, remembers the struggles the U.S. women’s team had last decade gaining equal status with the U.S. men’s team. USA Hockey provided the men better pay, hotels, flights and training resources.
“You worked as hard as they did,” Darwitz said. “You did the same drills. You busted your butt. And it’s, ‘Oh well, that’s just how it is.’ No one was really speaking up. No one had a voice. No one had a platform. It was just, ‘Yeah, we’re the girls.’ ”
Darwitz saw one U.S. teammate, Cammi Granato, advocate for better treatment only to get cut from the team, shockingly, before the 2006 Olympics.
“Looking back, I wish I had a stronger voice,” Darwitz said. “I wish I would have stuck my neck out a little bit more.
“And with USA Hockey’s track record of Cammi Granato and what happened there, who feels comfortable? Who’s willing to do this? Who’s going to have my back? Your dreams are on the line if you stand up with me.”
That’s why the USWNT’s united front has been so inspiring for Darwitz, a former Gophers star who is now the women’s coach at Hamline.
“These are things we were all thinking [in her playing days],” Darwitz said. “But nobody was willing to say those first words. … It’s about timing, and with social media and politics, there’s certainly a right time to talk about these things. And the next generation will benefit from what’s happening now.”
Pannek had just made the U.S. women’s national hockey team for the first time, in 2017, when the squad threatened not to play the world championships over pay equity. It worked, as USA Hockey agreed to give the women’s players a sizable raise, to about $71,000 annually.
That added to the celebration when Team USA went to the 2018 Olympics and won its first gold medal since 1998.
Now, Pannek is among 200 professional players prepared to sit out the next NWHL season if player pay and team resources don’t increase.
“In women’s sports in general, a lot of the conversation is leaving the game better than you found it for the next generation, setting them up for success,” Pannek said. “With everything that our sport’s trying to do, with what the women’s soccer players are trying to do, the ones that are really leading that charge — they’re probably not going to see most of the benefits.”
One week earlier and half a world away, the global sports star of the moment was most definitely ready to lead a charge. Rapinoe & Co. will come to St. Paul later this summer as part of their Victory Tour across America.
The USWNT earned the World Cup prize of $4 million. The 2018 men’s World Cup champion, France, took home $38 million, about $8 million more than the total prize pool for the women’s tournament this summer.
The math almost certainly will look different in four years, for soccer stars and maybe many others.
“I feel like this team is in the midst of changing the world around us as we live,” Rapinoe said in France. “And it’s an incredible feeling.”
Star Tribune staff writers Rachel Blount, Joe Christensen, Marcus Fuller, David La Vaque, Jim Paulsen and Kent Youngblood contributed to this story.