They thrilled the nation during this summer's soccer World Cup but the Australian women's soccer team have this week hung up their kit over a pay dispute.
The team, nicknamed the Matildas, have boycotted a tour to the U.S. in revolt over their pay and conditions, which are a fraction of those enjoyed by their male counterparts, the Socceroos, who they consistently outperform in global competitions.
"We are paid a base rate of A$21,000 ($14,894), which doesn't even reach minimum wage levels," said Laura Alleway, a Matildas' defender. "I am 25 years old and can't move out of home because I want to play for my country. We are paid a part-time wage, but are expected to train full time."
The Football Federation of Australia argues it cannot afford to pay more to the Matildas, who have not received wages for two months following a breakdown in pay talks after their contract expired. The Federation is also embroiled in a dispute with the Socceroos over a new pay deal.
The debate raging in Australia and elsewhere over gender pay inequality in soccer follows controversy during the women's World Cup in Canada when it emerged the U.S. team pocketed US$2 million in prize money, compared with $35 million for the victorious German team in the men's competition.
Big pay gaps, which know few boundaries in the corporate world, extend to a range of global sports, with men earning on average 65 times more than their female equivalents in U.S. basketball and almost four times more than women in the British Open golf tournament.
OECD data show that men earn on average 15 percent more than women across industries in the developed world. The gap ranges from 5.6 percent in New Zealand to 36 percent in South Korea. In Australia, the gap is at a near record 18 percent, with the finance industry topping the list at 30 percent.
According to Thomas More Smith, assistant professor at Emory University in the U.S., the pay gap in sport is mainly a feature of demand and the marketability of television rights. "The TV rights deal achieved by the NBA is a thousand times greater than the one achieved by the WNBA so more money flows to players," he said.
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"But for sports where women play side by side with men and compete in the same environment, like tennis, and TV rights are sold as a package, you tend to see more equality."
Tennis also benefited from having a strong advocate for equal pay in America's Billie Jean King, who along with others finally persuaded all Grand Slam events to offer equal prize money by 2007.
Mel Jones, a former Australian cricketer and television commentator, said while market forces are a factor in creating a pay gap, discrimination is still holding back women's sports.
"Paying the Matildas half the average Australian wage is ridiculous as they are expected to train full time on part-time wages," she said.
Ms. Jones said there is a danger that female soccer players leave the sport altogether or stop playing for the national team, at a time when interest in women's sport has never been higher.
Television audiences are growing rapidly, suggesting nurturing female athletes and encouraging grassroots participation could pay off for sporting bodies.
The female soccer World Cup final in Canada between the U.S. and Japan attracted 25 million viewers in the U.S. — a record for any soccer match in the country, either male or female. In Australia, the Matildas' quarter final loss to Japan was watched on television by 350,000 people — strong ratings in a country of 23 million people.
This summer, Sky Sports broadcast the women's Ashes cricket series between Australia and England. "The viewership figures really blew Sky away," said Ms. Jones, who commentated on the matches. "Investing in female sports is a business decision that will reap rewards."