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What women’s cycling can learn from the US women’s soccer team

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On the same day as the Tour de France began last month, in a stadium in Lyon, the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup came to a close, with the US women’s team taking a commanding victory over the Netherlands. It wasn’t a win that went unnoticed – the US women’s team was catapulted to global attention, both positive and negative.

Cue record scratch.

Wait. Are we really talking about soccer¹? Just hear me out.

June 11th was the US Women’s National Team’s first game of the tournament, and it was historic; the US defeated their competitors, Thailand, 13 goals to zero – the largest margin of victory in Women’s World Cup history.

Enter the critics: Too much celebration. Too much show-boating. Too many goals. Too dominant. Too outspoken.

Now, I am not here to talk about controversy at the World Cup – there has been more than enough written about it on Twitter alone – but there’s a familiarity to this criticism that is worth discussing, especially in the echoes it has in other women’s sport.

Earlier this year, on March 8th, 2019, the 28-member US Women’s National Team (USWNT) filed a lawsuit against their employer, the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) for violations of the Equal Pay Act (“EPA”), 29 U.S.C. § 206(d) et seq., and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. (“Title VII”). Gender discrimination. This lawsuit hasn’t been the first effort by the US women’s team, either; they have been fighting for equality with factual allegations dating back to as early as 2012, making it a public fight in the last three years.

While differing from cycling teams in that the national governing body doubles as the athlete’s federation and employer, the USWNT have become a bastion in the fight for equal pay. I wanted to learn more about the overlap in calls for gender equality in the women’s pro peloton and what the US women’s soccer team is trying to accomplish.

Anna Van der Breggen winning the 2018 UCI Road World Road Championships – Women’s Road Race

USSF, UCI, ASO: taking on the acronyms

Trying to navigate the web of governing bodies and employers of professional sport can get a little challenging, and it wasn’t until I read through the USWNT’s lawsuit that I realised the magnitude of what the women’s peloton is facing.

In this case, the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) acts as the United States Women’s National Team (USWNT) governing body, as well as employer. This structure is both a little more streamlined than the women’s pro peloton’s, and much less regulated.

While Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) teams establish their team’s salaries independently, the UCI sets a minimum salary threshold for men’s teams, which will be introduced to women’s teams for 2020.

Is it the team’s responsibilities to step up, then? Sort of. “UCI women’s teams are currently regulated in a way that more closely resembles lower tier men’s teams,” Eric Bjorling, Direct of Brand Marketing and Public Relations at Trek Bikes told me.

The Trek-Segafredo Women’s WorldTeam sits in a fairly unusual place in this model with Trek not only being a title sponsor, but taking on an ownership approach. “[Trek-Segafredo’s] agreements are with the individual riders themselves and essentially they are contractors of Trek. This allows us to offer them benefits that are unique in professional women’s racing and provides an opportunity to support both the men’s and women’s programs equally. This is one of the key reasons that Trek takes an ownership approach to pro cycling rather than just sponsorship.” One example of the strength in this approach was apparent with the signing last year of the then-pregnant former World Champion, Lizzie Deignan.

Earlier this year, it was clear that some progress was being made at an institutional level for women’s cycling. On January 10, 2019 the UCI issued a press release titled “Women’s professional road cycling enters a new dimension in 2020”, which announced an updated race calendar, team structure and licensing durations.

One of the more notable sections is the Introduction of a Minimum Salary and Other Benefits, tapering in over a five year period. In 2020, UCI Women’s WorldTour teams will be required to pay riders a minimum of €15,000 and will gradually increase to €20,000 in 2021, €27,500 in 2022, and eventually become equal to UCI Professional Continental Teams in 2023 (a figure currently around €30,000). Rider’s are also entitled to benefits including holiday time, a maximum of 75 race days per year, health and maternity insurance, and more.

Prize money will also see a change. According to the UCI, “Between 2019 and 2022, the UCI will contribute to a 10% increase per season in prize money for the top 20 riders in each race on the women’s UCI Road International Calendar. Prize money will also be made available for riders finishing 16th to 20th in stage races. As of the 2022 season, riders will receive 50% of the total prize money for the general classification at the end of stages (instead of 20% previously), bringing the system into line with the men’s.”

Iris Slappendel is the Executive Director of The Cyclists’ Alliance

We are not alone…

The USWNT is a reminder for other women in sport that they are not alone in this fight. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act protects US employees, including the USWNT. The USWNT is governed, employed, and headquartered in the US, made up of US employees, and would, in theory, receive access to the federal laws in place to protect them – such as the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. While the lawsuit filed on March 8th, 2019 claims the USSF violated these laws, it isn’t a guaranteed winning outcome. Indeed, mediation talks with the USSF have already broken down, sending the fair pay fight to court.

A common way athletes can gain a voice in their respective sports is through different alliances, associations, and unions. The U.S. Women’s National Team Players Association serves as a leading advocate for women’s soccer players. As stated on their website, “Our primary mission is to protect the rights of USWNT players and to advance and safeguard the economic and social welfare of all USWNT players, both on and off the field.”

The Cyclist’s Alliance serves just that role for the women’s peloton. As Iris Slappendel, the Alliance’s Executive Director, told CyclingTips in a previous interview, “The Alliance is here to represent and protect riders; enabling fairness and equality, economic guidance, and dispute resolution. We are working as a partner with the UCI and the UCI-registered women’s teams to form the first women’s teams association in global cycling.”

In an effort to lead by example, and continue what they felt was a natural progression, the Trek-Segafredo Women’s WorldTeam was launched by Trek for the 2019 race calendar. “Operating a global business has given us enough experience and a great foundation for us to navigate international labor laws,” Bjorling stated. “Like any other employer, we have to make sure that we are in compliance with all employment law, no matter where we are.”

Among many other sports outside of soccer and cycling, surfing has been another prominent battleground of athletes fighting for equality. Author of the surfing memoir Caught Inside, Daniel Duane, reported in the New York Times article The Fight for Gender Equality in One of the Most Dangerous Sports on Earth about the pay disparity in surfing and the story that followed it. In his article, Duane explained the inequality in the world of surfing: “The World Surf League, a California-based company that runs more than 180 contests around the world, justified paying female athletes less than men by using a “pay parity” formula for calculating contest prize purses that adds the same fixed amount to the pot for every athlete, male or female. But the league invited far fewer women than men to nearly all contests, so purses — and therefore prizes — remained grossly unequal.”

But it was a Facebook post that arguably prompted change from the World Surf League (WSL). In July 2018, a picture emerged of two junior surfers, one male and one female. The two surfers were holding their payout checks from the event, with the female surfer’s being 50% less than the male’s, igniting anger in the surfing community. Only a few months later, the Chief Executive of the California-based WSL, Sophie Goldschmidt, had announced that they would become the first global United States-based sports league to offer equal prize money for men and women across all their events worldwide in an effort to continue to elevate women’s surfing. In a press release issued on the WSL’s website, six-time World Champ Stephanie Gilmore described the move as “Incredible… I am thrilled. The prize money is fantastic, but the message means even more.”

The women’s pro peloton is not alone in this fight, but there is hope.

The USWNT play by their own rules and don’t apologize for it

After their 13-0 win and the criticism endured from fans and media, there may have been some expectation that the USWNT would behave differently as a result. If you didn’t follow the rest of the tournament and have been off the grid for the last month, however, the Americans continued on with business-as-usual: celebrating as they found fit, and winning all the way to the end.

Women in cycling are becoming more and more unapologetic for acting like “women.” At La Course in 2018, Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (Bigla) gave a highly emotional and enthusiastic interview after finishing fourth in the race (she finished third this year). While there were many who found the interview endearing, there were also critics claiming Ludwig was a “cry baby” and “too emotional.”

A similar incident that stands out is when Trek-Segafredo’s Elisa Longo Borghini threw competitor’s Lizzy Banks (Bigla) bike after a crash at the Women’s Driedaagse Brugge-De Panne in March. While Longo Borghini issued an apology on Twitter after the race, many keyboard critics took to Twitter to call her behaviour out for being “disgraceful”, and demanding for the UCI and Trek-Segafredo to reprimand her. But there’s a double standard here: have we seen this same behaviour from the men’s pro peloton? Absolutely. Do they receive the same ridicule? To a certain extent, maybe, but to the level which Longo Borghini felt it? Hardly.

Admittedly there are details of each throw that we can pick apart to determine if these riders’ behaviour can be judged differently, but it is safe to say that there’s an ingrained expectation from some that women should behave differently than men.

If the platform isn’t big enough, make it bigger

With this year’s World Cup final reportedly generating over 14 million views, it was the perfect opportunity to send a message. The World Cup was a platform to discuss change, not just to win a trophy. While a tournament of as huge a scale as the World Cup is enough for many athletes to turn off social media and focus solely on winning, the USWNT did not stay quiet. Indeed, quite the opposite – many of the team members used it as a public platform to bring about change for women in sport.

This didn’t go unnoticed in the women’s pro peloton, a context where we have seen both regression and progression.

Kasia Niewiadoma celebrates after taking the race lead on stage 1 of the Giro Rosa. Photo: Anton Vos/Cor Vos © 2019

For 2019, Trek and partnered to provide spectators the Giro Rosa’s first “free global broadcast”. At ten days, the Giro Rosa is the longest race on the women’s calendar. Having the availability of broadcasting the Giro Rosa is another way that the sport can gain support and show its value.

I spoke with Kathryn Bertine, a former pro cyclist and ambassador for equality. Bertine is also known as a documentary filmmaker, author, activist for women’s rights in pro cycling, and CEO of Homestretch Foundation, which “is a non-profit organization that provides temporary housing and other resources to professional or elite athletes — primarily female athletes — who face financial and economic discrepancies.”

“The women of USWNT were very smart to use the World Cup as a platform for equity for the exact reason [we did]: they knew the world would be watching,” Bertine told me. “It’s not a coincidence they announced their lawsuit for equal pay on March 8 2019, with the World Cup beginning on June 7 2019. They created awareness and momentum long before the World Cup began and it worked in creating genuine, sustained attention to the matter. This was no accident, it was smart, savvy and well-planned. We like to think we used the same tactic with La Course.”

Bertine went on to explain just how important it was to use the Tour de France as the platform to build a women’s race. “When we launched the 2013 petition to ASO for an equal women’s race at the Tour de France, [Le Tour Entier] did so with a very specific intent: Using the most famous bike race in the world as the platform for change. This is when the most eyes are on cycling, and when we knew we’d have the biggest audience. Many people believe change comes from the grassroots levels, but the truth is change must come from the top down and the bottom up. Not one or the other. Both. Simultaneously. With all eyes of cycling on le Tour each July, this was the right time to launch a platform for change. The media was in full force, and they were an integral part of the equation.” It seemed like this year’s La Course was a different story.

Bjorling from Trek shared a similar sentiment, “I think more than ever today, brands have a responsibility to do more than just make products and try to convince people that theirs is somehow lighter, stiffer, better, whatever. If brands are not actively working towards creating a better environment for all to enjoy cycling, I think people need to start asking why not.”

Persevere. Persevere. Persevere.

So what happens when major race organizations, like the Amoury Sports Organization (ASO), pull Flèche-Wallone and Liège-Bastogne-Liège from the Women’s WorldTour (WWT) in 2020 and don’t give the media support? The ASO refused to provide the guaranteed 45 minutes of live TV coverage from the two events, reducing the event classifications down to the second-tier ProSeries, a level below WorldTour. The ASO remains under scrutiny from not just athletes, teams, and spectators, but also from the UCI themselves who believe that, as one of the sport’s leading organisations, the ASO has a responsibility to support women’s cycling.

Bertine explains: “While we’re all very much aware ASO has broken their promise to expand La Course, it could be easy to dwell on the fact they’re still failing us. But there is a silver lining … more and more people and journalists are speaking up about the inequity, and so too are the female pro cyclists. I am so encouraged hearing their voices speak out. We will continue to keep pressure on ASO. I’m at work on a book about the journey of La Course and activism now, and in the meantime, I’m still pushing for change behind the scenes. We’ll get there. Faster, if we all keep speaking out.”

In the meantime, this year’s La Course remained as a one-day race, despite the demand from the riders and spectators, whereas races like the Colorado Classic removed the men’s race for 2019 and “are the only women’s stand-alone stage race in the Western Hemisphere on the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) calendar and USA Cycling’s Pro Road Tour,” as the race organisers stated in a press release.

While it may seem like the women’s peloton takes one step forward, and a few steps back – like during Omloop Het Nieuwsblad when Nicole Hanselmann (Bigla) caught the men’s field, forcing officials to neutralise the women’s race – we can’t stop now. While the fight for gender equality may feel nascent in the year 2019, it has the potential to improve.

“We are constantly challenging ourselves to do better and when we looked at the landscape and what the challenges were, we realized this massive opportunity in women’s cycling,” Bjorling said to me. “Whether it be offering equal pay out to all athletes at [the Telenet UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup] Waterloo, broadcasting the Giro Rosa for free, or creating parity in the gender makeup of our teams, we’re always looking for ways to break down the barriers so people can enjoy cycling. It’s part of the reason we exist. In so many ways, the Trek-Segafredo Women’s Team is a perfect embodiment of that commitment.”

If there’s anything that we can take away from the USWNT, it’s that we write the rules. As Olympic gold medalist and FIFA Women’s World Cup champion Abby Wombach put it: “If we keep playing by the Old Rules, we will never change the game. Welcome to the New Rules.”

¹ Yes, we know that the rest of the world calls it ‘football’.

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