Retired soccer player and ESPN color commentator Julie Foudy remembers when former tennis star Billie Jean King changed her life for the better. Back in the mid 1990s, not long after the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) won their first FIFA World Cup, the U.S. Soccer Federation was getting ready to offer a new contract to Foudy and their teammates. It was then that she heard King tell the story of how she founded the Women’s Tennis Association and her struggle for equal pay in tennis.
“We were getting ten dollars a day when we started, and we were just excited to be on the national team, but in the ’90s we started realizing, ‘Hey, we’re proud to be playing for our national team but it doesn’t seem right that we’re staying in roach motels and taking hotel shuttles to a game,'” Foudy told TheWrap’s Debbie Emery at the Power Women’s Summit in Los Angeles.
“And then I met Billie and she told her story, and I just sat there and absorbed it all. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is us!– with what you did breaking away and unifying all these women to form the Women’s Tennis Association.’ And she literally came up to me and said ‘Wake up, Foudy! You’re the one that’s going to have to do this!’ So I ran back to the team and I yelled, ‘Guys, listen! We can’t sign this contract! Billie Jean said!”
The result was a unified USWNT, comprised of women soccer players who stood up for better wages and treatment from the U.S. Soccer Federation, leading to better coverage and marketing for the team as it has gone on to win two more World Cups in 1999 and 2015. And last year, the women currently playing on the national team followed King’s example again when they successfully pushed for a new collective bargaining agreement that ensured another pay increase and further investment in the women’s game.
Foudy, along with fellow ESPN broadcaster Cari Champion, said that following King’s example is essential in the push for equality in sports, specifically praising her ability to encourage her fellow athletes to find strength in numbers. The duo noted that not only does it lead to better terms in contracts and CBAs, but it also helps elevate the national profile of the entire sport.
“When women’s teams get better deals, it leads to more marketing and promotion for the sport because they have to get more revenue from the team because they have to pay you,” Foudy said.
Unfortunately, she noted that this sense of solidarity hasn’t taken root in some sports the way it has in women’s soccer and tennis, noting that for all its advances, the WNBA still only pays its best players no more than $100,000 a year — while their male counterparts in the NBA turn down multiyear, eight-digit contracts on a regular basis.
Champion, who has covered the WNBA Finals and interviewed the league’s stars like Nneka Ogwumike and Candice Parker, said that she wants women to rally around the WNBA stars the way they have around Foudy and other American women’s soccer legends.
“We as women aren’t supporting the WNBA,” she said. “The pay disparity between male and female basketball players is astounding, and it makes me mad when I don’t see women supporting this league and supporting these women as they fight for better pay.”
Foudy also lamented that despite winning the gold medal at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, the U.S. Women’s Hockey team hasn’t banded together to push for better pay and promotion the way the USWNT has.
She notes that 20 years ago, when the team won the Olympic gold medal the first time women’s hockey was added to the event, then-captain Cammi Granato attempted to push for better pay for the team, but could never get the team to rally around her. She was infamously cut from the team just prior to the 2006 Winter Olympics, and it wasn’t until 2017 that the U.S. Hockey Federation agreed to a new CBA that allowed the women’s team to make up to $71,000 per year.
“They were making very reasonable requests, and the federation shut them down,” Foudy said. “They cut Cammi for making the simple request for better treatment, and the team didn’t stand by Cammi for fear of getting cut. Now, 17 years later, it was finally this team that finally said, ‘this is crazy’ and decided they were going to make it better for the next generation and change this contract.”
With Serena Williams continuing Billie Jean King’s legacy on the tennis court and the USWNT getting ready to defend their World Cup next year, the benefits of banding together is clear for female athletes. And for the U.S. women’s hockey team, as Foudy said, the consequences of not doing so are also apparent.
“If the hockey team had stood together back in 2000, the trajectory for that program would be so much higher than it is now because the Federation would have been forced to support them,” Foudy said.
“Instead, it has stagnated, and we don’t see the grassroots level of support for the sport today that you see with women’s soccer. Their win in the Olympics this year was fun to watch, but I just sat down with them at an ESPN conference two weeks ago and I asked them what they’ve been doing since then, and they said…’nothing.'”