At the Sports Business Journal Awards in Times Square on Wednesday night - the "Oscars of Sports" as one of the 1,100 guests described it to me - the room was suddenly energised when one of the biggest stories of the day was referenced.
Equal pay for the country’s international soccer players had been achieved. A first for the world and an outcome long needed.
It was a universally popular story and at the end of a hot day in Manhattan, it was applauded energetically by the ballroom on the sixth floor of the New York Marriott Marquis.
And this was a busy room with a lot of attention on heavy hitting people like New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Philadelphia 76ers part owner Michael Rubin while there were also presenting roles for former New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning and hip hop star Meek Mill.
Back to all of them later because they brought an interesting angle on the power of sport for good to the proceedings.
The annual SBJ Awards pays tribute to the aspects of sports that don’t involve the athletes themselves: owners, executives, agents, media companies and the other assorted masterminds behind the curtains that make sure we are endlessly entertained. And it was fitting that it came at the tail end of a day that had begun with a story around how athletes took all of the power on to themselves.
Almost three years ago, after the US Women's National Team stormed to a World Cup title and used their platform to petition for equal pay, a young soccer player from Upper Manhattan was commissioned to write a poem by the team at Glamour Magazine as that publication sought to honour the wold champions’ most prominent advocate, Megan Rapinoe.
Pausing to note the disclosure that I was involved in connecting the magazine and the youth development organization with which the poet takes part, the rest of the story is firmly theirs.
Mia and Megan met in November, 2019 and the poem paying tribute was a short, simple and beautiful urge for society to ensure that the young student be "the beginning of the end" of inequality.
Fast forward to another awards show this week and this time it was Sports Business Journal who wanted to spotlight sport for good during their awards show. Mia was chosen to be part of a Celebration of Service award and she decided to bring back the poem she wrote in 2019. She wanted to rekindle that memory and it felt right since both events had her on stage in front of over a thousand people, no mean feat for a young teenager.
There was maybe a week or so of planning but there could have been no predicting the serendipitous timing that the very thing Mia and Megan had been advocating for two and a half years previously would suddenly be resolved the morning of her guest appearance in front of some the most important sports executives in the US and some of the biggest players in the sports media market.
Soccer fans in this country woke up to news Wednesday morning that the men’s and women’s national teams had struck an agreement that will close the controversial pay gap between the squads.
It's an unprecedented step in world football that will even out salaries and bonuses when players pull on the national shirt at the biggest competitions. For example, the players’ World Cup bonuses will be pooled after being received from FIFA and divided out equally without regard for what proportion of event revenue is pumped into either of the events.
It ended a lengthy dispute between the women’s team and their national governing body, which included a contentious lawsuit that was settled earlier this year.
Until now and as with every other governing body, the greater revenue earned by the male tournaments meant that US Soccer saw fit to justify the delta in earnings, an argument upon which the vast majority of us have admittedly relied.
Of course the unique case of the United States is that there is a significant disparity in achievement in the opposite direction. The men's team can scrape into the knockout rounds if they qualify for the World Cup at all and earn their slice of a much bigger pie while the women win it all and earn drastically less at the end.
So in order to achieve some parity, the men needed to sacrifice some potential further earnings. Half the battle was shifting their mindset just as they were trying to make their way back to World Cup qualification.
“The immediate reaction was, ‘Wait, we’re going to give up what we already have?’ ” said Walker Zimmerman who was part of the players’ association leadership group during the talks. “I totally understand the immediate frustrations. But getting to where we are, I think everyone is really proud to get this deal done and be the first to do it (in the world).”
The $440m / €420m total prize fund in Qatar will likely be seven times as much as what the women's teams can expect when they follow up in Australia and New Zealand next year. Naturally, US soccer chiefs feared that any promise to level up on that scale would be detrimental to their overall operation so it needed the men to meet everyone in the middle.
As always, there’s a long way to go and although the US is leading the way internationally, it’s a small sliver of hope relative to other retrograde steps during a dreadful month that brought another mass shooting by a racist white supremacist as well as the revelation that the rights of women to choose would be soon curtailed by the supreme court.
But it was a sign that, although compromise can be powerful, first there needs to be an unpopular and an unwelcome push against traditional boundaries and norms.
This was also played out at the awards ceremony from a different point of view when rapper Meek Mill took to the stage to speak on behalf of his friend and advocate, Robert Kraft who was receiving a lifetime achievement award.
The New England Patriots owner famously reversed the fortunes of his local football team when he took over the ailing franchise and turned it into a six-time Super Bowl winning behemoth. At their lowest ebb, they were on the verge of leaving town. But Kraft rescued the situation and then some.
Kraft has been living his best life since he became a widow in his 70s. The recent octogenarian befriended a new generation of professional team owner Michael Rubin years ago and it was ultimately through Rubin that Kraft accepted the invitation to visit Meek Mill when he was serving time in prison for a minor offence which was committed while under probation from a gun charge almost a decade prior.
Mill was an established and hugely successful hip hop star when he was reprimanded for pulling a wheelie on a motorbike in Manhattan - an annoying thing to do in a busy city but not worthy of jail time, in and of itself. But the vagaries of the US criminal justice system saw his situation spin wildly out of control and he was locked up for four months until an appeal rightly went his way.
He had moved his life on but the system had no way of letting go of his past. His powerful friends Rubin and Kraft saw this as a larger struggle and all three recognised the power of the platform to push for change.
“I try to take the time to listen and learn,” Kraft told the audience on Wednesday night. “Whatever small role I might have played in my pal Meek’s story, I truly recognise that without the power and visibility the sports industry has given me, no one would have cared what I said outside those prison walls.”
As much as I’ve tried to resist it, my respect for one of the NFL’s most prominent owners went up. His story about writing into the contract of his players that they must carve out time for community service was a new one for me as was the fact that the Patriots paved the way on this way back in the early 1990s.
Kraft recalled that the coach had some choice words for the shift of focus away from pressing matters on the field of play but eventually that boundary pushing play became what is now firmly embedded in the professional athlete’s life.