By Suzannah Gonzales and Mica Rosenberg
CHICAGO/NEW YORK (Reuters) - Five top players for the World Cup champion U.S. women's soccer team have filed a federal wage discrimination complaint claiming they are paid less than male players even though they generate more income for the United States Soccer Federation.
The athletes, including star scorer Carli Lloyd and goalkeeper Hope Solo, claim some of them earn as little as 40 percent of what men's team players make, lawyer Jeffrey Kessler said on Thursday.
In the complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed on Wednesday the players asked for an investigation of the federation, which is the governing body for soccer in the United States and the women's employer.
U.S. Soccer said in a statement that developing women's soccer was a top priority. "We are committed to and engaged in negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement that addresses compensation," it said.
The women's team, which has won three World Cup titles and four Olympic gold medals, made at least $16 million for the federation in 2015 while the men's team lost money for the entity, Kessler said, citing federation financial records.
The federation did not respond to requests to verify those figures.
The complaint alleges disparities at every level of the sport, from lower compensation for friendly matches and sponsor appearances to smaller travel allowances.
For example, the women earned $2 million for winning the 2015 World Cup while the men earned $9 million after being eliminated from the world's top tournament in 2014, the complaint said.
Both national teams are required to play 20 friendly games a year and earn more if they win. But a male player who loses all the games would make $100,000 while a woman would make $99,000 for winning all, the complaint said.
"The women of the national team are disappointed that they have to resort to legal action to force the USSF, kicking and screaming, to comply with a legal obligation that they have to provide equal pay for equal play," Kessler said.
Defender Becky Sauerbrunn, forward Alex Morgan and midfielder Megan Rapinoe are also parties to the complaint. The five players have said they are acting on behalf of the entire women's team.
"We continue to be told we should be grateful just to have the opportunity to play professional soccer," two-time Olympic gold medalist Solo said on NBC's Today show.
EEOC spokeswoman Justine Lisser said the Commission reviews allegations and decides whether to launch a full-scale investigation and potentially bring a lawsuit, after trying to settle the case informally. Or the EEOC can give the players the green light to sue U.S. Soccer directly.
The backdrop for the complaint is a dispute over U.S. Soccer's collective bargaining agreement with the Women's National Team Players Association, the union representing the players.
U.S. Soccer sued the union earlier this year to try to establish the validity of the agreement.
Alan Milstein, a New Jersey-based attorney with expertise in sports law, said the soccer players have a strong case.
"These women athletes are far more successful than the male athletes," said Milstein. "By any stretch of the imagination they should be making more money."
Retired U.S. men's soccer player Landon Donovan tweeted his support for the women's claim. "If the #USWNT generates more overall revenue, they should absolutely be paid more."
The women are concerned about issues beyond pay. Last December the team canceled an exhibition game in Hawaii after finding the stadium's artificial turf was unsafe.
"We want to play in top-notch, grass-only facilities like the U.S. Men's National Team," Morgan said in a statement. "We want to have equitable and comfortable travel accommodations and we simply want equal treatment."
(Reporting by Suzannah Gonzales in Chicago and Mica Rosenberg in New York; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey and Megan Cassella; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Fiona Ortiz)