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The Downsides of Subsidizing Sports

(Bob Kupbens/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

“If history is any guide, subsidies (not just in sports, but in all spheres of economic life) do not usually work.”

As the United States’ women’s soccer team clinched the championship in the 2019 Soccer World Cup, the gender pay gap is once again in the news. This time, members of the soccer squad complain that they are not being paid the same amount as the men’s national soccer team.

The gender pay gap has long been a matter of debate. The recent soccer hype is but one manifestation. It is absolutely true that, overall, in the United States women earn 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. But, as renowned feminist (and a critic of other feminists) Christina Hoff Summers argues, this statistic, “does not account for differences in occupations, positions, education, job tenure or hours worked per week. When such relevant factors are considered, the wage gap narrows to the point of vanishing.”

However, as many supporters of the women’s national team are quick to point out, the female players actually have the same occupation—and certainly the same hours worked per week, as the men’s team. Furthermore, they are even more productive than the men’s national team; they won the championship, of course. It is well-known that the U.S. men’s national soccer team has no chance against the likes of Messi, Ronaldo, whereas the women’s national soccer team is simply the best in the world. If anything, they should be paid more than men.

Sadly, things are a bit more complicated. Ultimately, inasmuch as this is—at heart—an economic issue, the discussion should be about who gets a bigger slice of the pie. It’s not about who is the better cook; it’s about who contributes more to the value of the pie. For many decades, Marxists have claimed that, whoever works the hardest in terms of hours and effort, should get the bigger slice. Marx adhered to the so-called “labor theory of value,” according to which, commodities get their value from how much labor goes into them. As applied to soccer, it may be reasoned that, inasmuch as women put greater labor into it (they, as opposed to men, achieved more results, presumably as a result of a greater effort), they deserve more.

Yet, bear in mind that this stance against subsidies needs to be more consistent. And this argument also applies to the quintessential macho sport in the United States: football.

But Marx was wrong. That is simply not the way economics works. Value does not come exclusively from labor. Many other factors are at stake. Someone with very little effort (or talent, for that matter) may nevertheless come up with a product that surpasses (in value) other commodities whose production is very labor-intensive, simply because there is greater demand for the less labor-intensive product. In the case of soccer, the value that is being discussed here is ticket revenue from soccer matches. Female soccer players may work much harder and may clinch championships, but that does not imply that they are contributing more to the value of the pie. As great as these female soccer players may be, they simply cannot fill the stadiums as men do, and hence, they produce less value. Therefore, it is only reasonable that they do not get the same slice of the pie as men do.

Why don’t people go to the stadiums for women’s soccer matches as much as men’s matches? Sure, there are many sexist prejudices, and sadly, fans succumb to them. But it can be safely argued that, for now, fans prefer to go to men’s soccer matches because, quite simply, it is a better show. Much has been made of the fact that, a couple of years ago, fifteen-year-old boys from a local team defeated the women’s national soccer team. This may have been just a scrimmage, but it does point to the fact that—like it or not—men still have the upper hand when it comes to talent in soccer. This needn’t imply that women are not more talented in other sports. Fans are more attracted by women than men in synchronized swimming, gymnastics, figure skating, and so on. Why is this the case? Probably because in those sports, women have better skills. Not surprisingly, in those sports, there is no gender pay gap.

Ultimately, to pay female soccer players more, even though they produce less, is a form of subsidy. Subsidies may have the virtue of incentivizing desirable activities that, at first, market forces do not allow to kick off. But the flip side of subsidies is that it may also incentivize inefficiency. By sending the signal that there is good money in soccer, artificially inflating women’s soccer salaries may end up pushing women into a sport in which they will never develop their more natural skills, while, at the same time, pushing women away from sports in which they have far better opportunities to develop their abilities. If history is any guide, subsidies (not just in sports, but in all spheres of economic life) do not usually work.

Yet, bear in mind that this stance against subsidies needs to be more consistent. And this argument also applies to the quintessential macho sport in the United States: football. Despite the NFL’s healthy finances, it is still a fact that most NFL stadiums are built with taxpayers’ money. If football players put on such a great show with all their macho bravado, and—unlike female soccer players—they are able to fill the stadiums, shouldn’t these stadiums be built solely with revenue generated from football games? The U.S. women’s national soccer team controversy should be occasion to be more consistent. On the one hand, some conservatives, critics of feminism, and so on, do have a point in arguing that it is not fair for female players to get equal or more pay than male players. On the other hand, these same conservatives and critics of feminism should come to terms with the fact that, by the same token, it is also unfair for governments to collect taxes to subsidize America’s favorite hyper-masculine activity: football.

Dr. Gabriel Andrade teaches ethics and behavioral science at St. Matthew’s University School of Medicine. He has previously contributed to Areo Magazine and DePauw University’s The Prindle Post.

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