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Carli Lloyd took a turn in the international spotlight Sunday, scoring three goals from all over the field as the U.S. women's soccer team routed Japan 5-2 in the World Cup final. More than 25 million people watched the contest, making it the most-viewed soccer game in U.S. history.
Despite the exposure, Lloyd and her teammates will likely struggle to gain the salary and endorsement windfalls enjoyed by their male counterparts. Despite on-field success, female players in the United States face an uphill battle to catch up to the financial success of men's soccer.
"There is a great trajectory for the women, but there is still a big gap compared to the men," said Manish Tripathi, an Emory University marketing professor and co-founder of Emory Sports Marketing Analytics.
Each of the nine teams in the fledgling National Women's Soccer League — which started in 2013 after two previous U.S. women's leagues folded—has a $265,000 salary cap. Currently, franchises have to pay their players a minimum of $6,842 per year, with a ceiling of $37,800.
Compare that team cap to men's Major League Soccer, which has a ceiling of more than $3 million, about 11 times more. The average MLS player makes $305,809 annually, according to sports analytics site sportingintelligence. That comparison is skewed, however, by the salaries of a few high-paid male players such as Thierry Henry, who earned $4.3 million last year.
Top-tier women's players can make more than the maximum salary in the NWSL, largely because of the national soccer federations that field teams. The sport's U.S., Canadian and Mexican governing bodies pay wages for certain national team players, who can make more than the league's maximum pay without counting against the salary cap.
The U.S. soccer federation's contributions are "foundational" to the NWSL's potential success, said Jeff Plush, the league's commissioner. He declined to give details on the partnership, but the U.S. federation lists $670,678 in expenses related to the NWSL in its fiscal 2014 financial statement.
U.S. soccer's investment is crucial because a big disparity in sponsorship, television and ticket revenue drives the gender pay gap in the sport, Tripathi said. He noted that the U.S. women's team took a $2 million prize for winning the World Cup, compared with the $35 million won by champion Germany in last year's men's tournament.
While the U.S. women's stars have fewer endorsement opportunities than men, sponsorship and other off-the-field opportunities are "key" in the current salary structure, Tripathi said.
Star American forward Alex Morgan, for example, makes more than the league minimum for the Portland Thorns but less than $100,000. But she takes in more than $1 million once money from sponsors including McDonald's, Panasonic and ChapStick is included, according to multiple reports. Despite her success, Morgan's pay still pales in comparison to top American male players such as Landon Donovan, who made more than $2 million just from his club last year.
Will the World Cup win change anything?
Even before the final, viewership for this year's World Cup had climbed two to three times from the previous tournament in 2011, Tripathi noted. Ad revenue roughly quadrupled. On Monday, Fox Sports said the TV rating for the game was up 77 percent from the 2011 final, also a match between the U.S. and Japan, which was broadcast by ESPN.
The win brought some immediate effects for U.S. women's soccer. Team apparel sales increased 3,000 percent on Sunday, according to online retailer Fanatics.com.
All but one of the women on the U.S. World Cup team currently play for NWSL teams. That gives the league "fantastic" exposure, Plush said.
"It puts a very bright spot on our sport and the opportunities it can present," he said.
While "it doesn't mean that dollar signs are going to be in our eyes tomorrow," the World Cup win gives the league more leverage to drive revenue, Plush added. More cash flow will fundamentally allow teams to shell out more to their players.
The NWSL could prove "tough to sustain" if the league cannot translate the World Cup win into a wider following, Tripathi noted. He said that converting the current fervor for women's soccer into sponsorship and ticket sales is vital to the league's success.
And it will, of course, help to put a little more money in players' pockets.
—CNBC's Zack Guzman and Jessica Golden contributed to this report.