Megan Rapinoe is a great soccer player.
She’s demanding equal pay for equal work.
First, let’s define terms: What’s the work here? Kicking a soccer ball?
That’s hard work, but it’s hardly work.
The fact is, 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 (Rapinoe herself has inked deals with Nike and Samsung).
The fact that she (or anyone—Lebron James, Tom Brady, Serena Williams, etc.) is a good athlete adds probably no value to anyone’s life. It’s only when people can watch and be inspired by her skill that her talent becomes valuable. And only when people can see her 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 the 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. Imagine the World Cup, but played secretly and without fans or TV crews.
In this sense, Megan Rapinoe is an entertainer. That’s her work. She’s paid in proportion to how many people care to watch her.
So we’ve defined our terms. Megan Rapinoe is an athlete. Athletes are entertainers—compensated according to how many people enjoy watching.
Now what about the context?
Yes, it’s true—the USWNT (World Cup winner) is relatively better than the USMNT (didn’t qualify for the World Cup). And the USWNT earns revenue comparable to the USMNT.
But that last sentence actually undermines Rapinoe’s case for equal pay. The USWNT won the World Cup, but only barely beat the non-qualifying USMNT that year?
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.
Again, professional athleticism is about the show. If you cannot see an athlete’s performance, it’s not worth much (or even anything)—there is no “finished product” aside from whatever is captured on video.
Now: Does it make sense for one entertainer with a small audience to demand equal pay as anther entertainer with a large audience?
I don’t think so.
The popular conversation shows that many don’t understand how wages are formed (or even that they’re “formed”) or why wages rise. Until they do, we can’t expect most to be curious about the wide array of contractual forms that characterize the commercial world, including that of sports.
For instance, constraining the impulse to maximize individual stats at the cost of team performance has obvious analogues to more traditional commercial contexts (i.e. preventing empire-building at the expense of shareholder value). Curiosity about those questions won’t come until people grasp the basics of what a wage is.
As Bryan Caplan might say, it’s “labor econ vs. the world.”