The United States women's Hockey team is threatening to boycott the upcoming World Championships in Michigan, due to a lack of fair and equal pay. The tournament is scheduled to start on March 31st and if a deal is not done soon, Team USA will be sending scrubs to the championships. The issue here is not Team USA potentially missing the World Championships. The issue is women's rights and equal pay in this country. This time the battle is on the national level and directly linked to the sports world and our country, rather than just some privately operated company.
A couple things to know before we dive into this horrible lose-lose situation. First, the USA Women's hockey team (and all USA Olympians) are paid through the United States Olympic Committee (USOC), not the federal government. So you cannot blindly blame politics or whine that tax dollars should not be spent on women's hockey. Second, the women's hockey players are paid virtually nothing for the amount of time they put into national competitions. Playing professional hockey at the highest level is more than a full-time commitment. Lastly, do not get caught up in comparing the millions of dollars male hockey Olympians make versus female. The male player's dollars come from their league contracts, not the USOC.
So let's talk about what USA Hockey pays the average female USA hockey player. First, each female hockey Olympian is paid $1,000/month for the 6 months leading up to each Olympics. Second there is some extra money paid to these players each month depending on skill level; $2,000 for the top players and $750 for the worst. On average that's another $1,000 each month. Where they really get paid is for success. If the team wins gold each player is paid an additional $25,000 or if they win silver like in Sochi 2014 they get $15,000. So absolute best case scenario for the best women's hockey player in the United States? They get paid about $43,000 for six month's during the Olympics. Or worst case scenario, they get $10,500 for that same six months. Quite an enormous difference. Many people would say getting paid $40,000 for six months work to play a sport you love at the highest level is quite a deal. However, those people forget that it is not just a six month commitment. It is a four year commitment that requires these players to stay in peak physical condition year-round. Three and a half of those years are not paid for by the USOC. FYI: these same figures are basically true across the board for US Olympic athletes, regardless of sport or gender.
So although the women's hockey players are paid nearly nothing, it is a fair nearly nothing because that is about what everyone is paid by the USOC. All the other US athletes make their money from sponsorship dollars and professional contracts. That same level of dollars is just not available to women's hockey players. Female gymnasts can make a lifetime's worth of money off sponsorship deals after they win gold. Men's basketball players make millions of dollars from their NBA or other professional league contracts. There are no multi-million dollar sponsorship deals for a women's hockey player, there is no mega successful professional league. The women's professional leagues just are not successful enough to financially support the players.
Here is the rub for the USOC and why they are losing this battle... media headlines. A headline that reads "USOC refuses equal pay to female athletes" grabs a lot more attention than "US Olympians are not paid very much...". When I first saw what female Olympians were paid, I was disgusted and thought they deserved much more. After doing my research, I just think everyone deserves more. It also does not help the fact that heads of the USOC and USA Hockey are acting like this is not a problem. Dave Ogrean, Executive Director of USA Hockey, has said "[USA Hockey has] proactively increased our level of direct support to the Women's National Team as we prepare for the 2018 Winter Olympic Games" and they have a plan B in place if the players do boycott. So Mr. Ogrean has backup players on stand by and claims to have offered the players more "support". Which all means he really does not care if they boycott and he thinks they have been given too much already. Not a good publicity strategy by USA hockey. Making everything even worse, USA Hockey President, Jim Smith, declared that "USA Hockey's role is not to employ athletes and we will not do so." The company line should be We expect to have a team in place for the World Championships and are open to continue working on a fair deal between the USOC and these athletes. If Ed and Jim say that, this whole thing is a non-story and USA Today doesn't run any articles on it. Instead, they look like pompous jerks and have no public support.
So everyone is in the wrong here. The USOC, USA hockey, the women's hockey players, the media... everyone. Worst of all, there is no good solution to this. The USOC is never going to pay the players anywhere near the hundreds of of thousands of dollars they feel are deserved annually, they cannot afford it and the women's program does not generate the revenue to support it. The women's team has backed themselves into a corner where they now cannot accept anything less than a substantial raise. Once you strike you cannot cross the picket line until you get what you demanded. Otherwise you will never have a leg to stand on again. This is a staring contest between two sides with no muscle to back it up. Honestly, if this boycott story did not happen would you have even known there was a women's world championship in two weeks? Probably not, unless you are an avid women's hockey fan. That is why the USOC does not care about the boycott and why the players cannot win this battle.
If these players want higher wages they need two things: larger audiences and sponsorship dollars. That is the driving force behind everything in the sports world. There is no money in professional women's hockey because there are no crowds at their games. This is a general problem for women's sports. I really enjoy women's hockey, especially at the collegiate level. It's ultra competitive and fun to watch. Not many people share my opinion though. The players, along with management, need to figure out how to grow the game before any monetary progress can be made. That is a tough task when hockey is already only the fourth most popular sport in the United States.
This problem only has one solution and who knows how long it will take both sides to realize it. First, the USOC needs to adopt the same model the Canadian women's hockey team has in place. That is the Canadian players are paid year round at a slightly higher wage, even outside of Olympic years. That alone would probably make the US women happy. Also, they need to figure out a way to get the players a cut of sponsorships directly tied to the women's hockey program. This would help the players pockets and maybe also show them that their sport does not generate the dollars necessary to pay them significantly more. This solution is fair. The players get paid fair value year-round and can focus solely on playing hockey. They deserve to be paid more and deserve to be paid in non-Olympic years. They are full-time athletes, whether USA Hockey likes to admit or not.