Fast Food, Women’s Soccer, and Consumer Preferences

The United States women’s soccer team (USWNT) has been in the news lately for winning the FIFA Women’s World Cup, which they’ve used as a soapbox to decry their apparent paucity of pay relative to their male counterparts. Sexism, it is said, is rampant in American professional sports.

But while blaming institutional sexism is perhaps emotionally satisfying, it’s not clear that it fits the facts.

Despite being more successful on the international stage than their male counterparts, women’s soccer–as with women’s sports in general–is less popular among sports fans. Not only does the National Women’s Soccer League as a whole have many fewer corporate sponsors than MLS, the NWSL also lacks any season-long television deals. Major League Soccer, by comparison, has a slew of broadcast deals valued at $90 million. Moreover, attendance at women’s soccer games is consistently lower than at men’s matches, and the Men’s World Cup generates far more revenue than the Women’s World Cup.

Economic laws are inviolable; if the available revenue is insufficient to cover a raise that increases female soccer players’ pay to parity with their male counterparts, then such a raise would be financially unwise for the NWSL.

So, if the league itself isn’t to blame for this state of affairs, is it the fans who are the sexists? I’m not convinced.

Imagine you have a choice between a ten-dollar gift card for your favorite fast food joint (say, Wendy’s) and a twenty-dollar gift card for the one you like the least (say, Jack in the Box). If your relative preferences were sufficiently disparate, you’d opt to take the smaller gift card and eat at Wendy’s.

Though this would be the equivalent of paying $10 not to eat at Jack in the Box, and despite plenty of apparently equivalent choices, you’d do it because you just wouldn’t value the fare at Jack in the Box as much as the food at Wendy’s.

In a given year, there are more people who share your inclination toward Wendy’s than there are people who have a predilection for Jack in the Box. The upshot, of course, is that Wendy’s has tended to generate more revenue than Jack in the Box. Is this a problem? From the point of view of the less competitive Jack in the Box, absolutely. After all, in order to stay afloat in the market, Jack in the Box needs to continue providing goods that consumers value relative to other, competing goods.

But imagine what it might look like if Jack in the Box were to make it a moral issue: they’d launch an ad campaign in which they would condemn the system as tilted against them. If the market were fair, they’d contend, consumers would value their food just as highly as they value the food at Wendy’s. If the market were equitable, they’d argue, both Jack in the Box and Wendy’s would enjoy an identically-sized portion of aggregate consumer demand. If the market were just, they’d say, Wendy’s revenue would be no higher–and no lower–than Jack in the Box’s revenue.

Being so aggrieved, the ad would conclude, Jack in the Box deserve a raise from consumers. Fairness, equity, and justice demand it.

To you, the loyal Wendy’s devotee, this shameless, self-righteous money-grubbing probably wouldn’t cut any mustard. Nor should it.

In The Constitution of Liberty, Friedrich Hayek, the philosopher and Nobel Prize-winning economist, wrote,

“From the fact that people are very different it follows that, if we treat them equally, the result must be inequality in their actual position…”

That is, when consumers are allowed to satisfy their wants with their preferred goods, unhindered by the arbitrary interposition of third parties, the results are disparate levels of individual prosperity.

In four of the last five years, the free choices of Wendy’s-loving consumers like you pushed Wendy’s revenue above that of Jack in the Box, and made Wendy’s more profitable than Jack in the Box every year since 2014. In choosing the former over the latter, consumers perpetrated no injustice against Jack in the Box. Indeed, the ultimate consequence of these billions of choices was, in the words of Scottish philosopher Adam Ferguson, “the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design.”

As such, Jack in the Box’s hypothetical appeal for redress of their apparent revenue deficiency is asinine. To frame such differences as unjust is to take a morally neutral concept–consumer preference–and sanctimoniously assign it to an arbitrary moral terminus.

Likewise, there’s nothing in theory or nature to lead us rationally to the conclusion that, save for overt sexism or unconscious bias, the respective fanbases of men’s and women’s soccer–and, by extension, their respective franchises’ revenues and players’ incomes–will (or should) be identical.

In fact, taking gender out of the equation still leaves us with significant revenue disparities between the all-male teams of Major League Soccer, the National Football League, and the National Basketball Association. If inter-league parity of consumer preference between MLS and the NWSL were the rational or moral expectation, logical consistency demands that we likewise expect intra-league preference parity among MLS, NFL, and NBA teams.

But that’s nonsense.

The reality is that, just like the Bulls and Bobcats, the Patriots and the Jets, Real Madrid and Barcelona, and Wendy’s and Jack in the Box, men’s soccer and women’s soccer are neither perfect substitutes for one another, nor held in the same regard by sports fans. As such, the leagues see very different revenues, and the players see very different remunerations.

Every competitive organization must justify its continued existence to its prospective customers. No individual bears a moral obligation to support underperformers, so it’s bizarre that the USWNT should approach increasing their market share by publicly castigating their financial anchorage, thereby risking the potential of severing their very lifeline in the stormy waves of a highly competitive marketplace. Sooner or later, fans will abandon the abuse in a tidal wave of eye-rolling.

And who could blame them?

Eventually, cries of wolf are no longer taken seriously. Booker T. Washington made precisely that point in his lifelong effort to improve the lives of his fellow black Americans. Writes historian and Washington biographer Robert J. Norrell,

He cautioned that when people protest constantly about their mistreatment, they soon get a reputation as complainers, and others stop listening to their grievances. [They] needed a reputation for being hardworking, intelligent, and patriotic, Washington taught, and not for being aggrieved.

If the USWNT expect to their moralistic appeal for greater pay to bear any fruit, they will almost certainly have to bypass the sports fans they unjustly censure, and rely, instead, on the coercive power of the state to spur some consumers out of inaction. That really would be unfair, inequitable, and unjust. Wrote Hayek,

“[T]he only way to place [people] in an equal position would be to treat them differently. Equality before the law and material equality are therefore not only different but are in conflict with each other; and we can achieve either one or the other, but not both at the same time.”

Perhaps instead of conspicuously attempting to stake out a nonexistent high ground by arbitrarily moralizing consumer preferences, the USWNT should take a page out of Washington’s book.