Women soccer players are younger than men because they can’t afford longer careers

Peak performance, not peak pay.
Peak performance, not peak pay.
Image: AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino
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At the very highest echelon of soccer, women players tend to be younger than men. In the 2019 women’s World Cup, now being played in France, the average player is 26 years old. At last year’s men’s World Cup, the average player was 27.4. While 36% of women on World Cup rosters were 24 or younger, that was true of only 24% of men.

What accounts for the difference? Our initial instinct is that it had something to do with a physiological difference in development between genders, and that this played into the rigorous demands of soccer. Because women tend to go through puberty sooner, perhaps they hit their peak performance at an earlier age, too.

A look through the scientific literature, however, suggested that was a not a viable hypothesis.

“There is no big difference between female and male athletes’ age of peak performance,” Júlia Barreira, a graduate student studying sports science at the University of Campinas in Brazil, told Quartz in an email.

In 2016, Barreira analyzed the data on elite female soccer players using data from the teams who participated in the 2012 London Olympics. She found that, among teams that made it to the quarter finals of the tournament or later, players tended to be 25.4 years old. Although these players were younger than today’s World Cup players, separate research on male players suggests that their ages have crept up over the years. Presumably, this change would also be present in women.

Soccer is a sport that requires players to have incredible physical endurance, technical skills, and a psychological maturity. Players in their mid-to-late 20s tend so have comparable physical skills compared to those in their early 20s, but have the extra advantage of being slightly more seasoned. After the age of 30, a soccer players’ physical capabilities tend to begin declining every year—which is why most players retire around then.

Money matters

If physiological differences don’t account for the age gap, there is another sizable factor that may: the difference in pay.

Although there’s no one standard pay rate for men and women soccer players, in general, female players tend to earn only a fraction of that of male players. In the World Cup organized by the International Federation of Football Association (FIFA), teams earn money based on how far they make it in the tournament. At this year’s event, the 24 teams earned $750,000 for making it to the tournament, and the winning team will earn $4 million. In total, FIFA will pay all teams $30 million. Compare that to the 2018 men’s World Cup, where the 32 teams brought in a total of $400 million. FIFA also gives teams money for training and other support for the tournament, but women’s teams get about half of what men’s teams do.

Outside of the World Cup, the pay of players on national teams is determined by their national organizations, meaning players from different countries earn different amounts. However, in almost every case, men are compensated more than women. In the US, women playing for the national team earn 38 cents for every dollar men on the national team make. This is despite the fact that the women’s team won the World Cup three times, while the men’s team has won none, and failed to even make the tournament last year. Players for the women’s team filed a class-action gender discrimination lawsuit against the US Soccer Federation earlier this year that has yet to be resolved. Earlier this week, a report found that in the US, women’s national team’s games have brought in more money than their male counterparts’ for the past three years.

Play for pay

That’s only the beginning of the pay discrepancy. Most male national team players play professionally, and many play in some of the most lucrative leagues in the world. Women have far fewer professional opportunities, and even those who can earn a living in soccer make far less than men.

Nilla Fischer, a Swedish soccer player, told Reuters that “What [men] maybe make in an hour, I make in a year.” A 2017 report from FIFPro, the football players union, found that 60% of 3,500 professional female soccer players earned $600 per month or less (pdf), or $7,200 per year; only 1% of them earned $8,000 per month, or $96,000 per year, or more. On average, men earn $263,320 annually. According to the FIFPro survey, 90% of players said they’d consider retiring early. About 46% of those women said that low pay was one reason they’d want to leave. Other reasons cited included wanting to pursue a new career, go back to school, or start a family. The US’s Jazmine Reeves notably retired from professional soccer at age 22 to take a job at Amazon.

Alternatively, it could be that these pay gaps dissuade women from pursuing professional soccer as a career altogether, Barreira says, which means talented players likely to have long careers aren’t even playing.