By a lot of measures, times are good for women's soccer. The National Women's Soccer League is America's most successful attempt to date at creating a viable professional league and a new season gets underway on Saturday. For the second time in three years, it will open with an expansion team joining and no teams going out of business. It is the first women's pro soccer league in the United States to start a fourth season.
Despite that organizational success, progress on increasing the quality of life for the league's players has been incremental at best. While the United States women's national team is grabbing headlines for filing a gender-based wage discrimination complaint and taking U.S. Soccer to court over the validity of their collective bargaining agreement, they are the the NWSL's top earners by a wide margin -- and rightfully so, since they're the league's biggest draw at the gate.
But on the eve of a landmark season, the NWSL and the rest of its players are in a tough place: Everyone's learned enough from the past to celebrate the league's growth, but the budgetary caution that's enabled the league to make it to its fourth season has also dealt a hard life to the athletes who aren't stars. Without guaranteed full-time salaries, players who haven't made their national teams are increasingly choosing to retire in their 20s, despite winning roster spots. As one player who asked not to be named told SB Nation, "I'm one of the highest paid players on my team, but sometimes I look around and I'm like, what the fuck am I doing?"
The league's lowest paid players have no bargaining chips
The minimum salary for NWSL's non-USWNT, non-allocated pros is $7,200; the max is $39,700. Team and player salaries are not disclosed by the league or the players, but we know that some teams do not have any players who are paid the max. Most of the league's players require some financial supplementation from other jobs or cash from family and friends to pay their bills, and many stay with host families during the season.
Unlike the USWNT, the rest of NWSL's players are not currently unionized. "We need a players union," a player who asked not to be named told SB Nation. "It'll happen eventually, but you can't ask people to pay dues to a union when they don't make any money."
That leaves a huge power imbalance for the league's lowest wage workers, many of whom recognize the NWSL as their best shot at an audition for the national team. "We're so desperate for the league to exist that they drew up these rules and they constantly add rules, and it's basically given all the power to the clubs to try to survive," said that anonymous pro. "And for the players it's like, if you can make it work great, if you can't, move on."
Players can negotiate their salary directly with teams, but increases are capped and they can't negotiate any other terms because there's one standard NWSL contract -- either they sign it or they don't play. That's why some players don't even bother to have lawyers or agents. Last season, that contract didn't have dates, but read "from the beginning of the 2015 NWSL season to the end of the 2015 NWSL season." So when the date of the 2015 final was moved back, there was nothing the players could do. Theoretically, the league could have extended the league into December and the players would have still been contractually obligated to play for no more money.
NWSL pays role players in hope and not much else
Houston Dash midfielder Rebecca Moros has made U.S. youth national teams, but she's never been capped by the senior side. "Do they need to pay the players more? Absolutely," she told SB Nation. "These are wealthy owners who are connected in the community and the idea that they don't have the resources is ridiculous," she continued, referring to not just salaries, but expenses and a lack of offseason opportunities afforded to players by their clubs.
The 2016 NWSL salary cap is $278,000, with players who are paid by their national federations not counting against the cap. If every team spent at the cap, the average salary for non-allocated players would be just over $16,850. As every team does not spend at the cap, the actual average salary is lower than that. In the opening season of WPS, the salary cap was $565,000, with national team players making a minimum of $40,000 and counting against the cap. The average salary was $32,000.
NWSL demands players' full attention for six to seven months. During the rest of the year, they can seek other employment. But if a player making the league's minimum salary of $7,200 per season makes the same amount during the offseason, their yearly income will be less than the $15,080 a minimum wage worker makes for working 40 hours per week. The current poverty threshold for a single person in the United States is $11,770, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.
Because NWSL is part-time, many defend its practices. "I'm not sure 'below living wage' is accurate," Seattle Reign head coach Laura Harvey told SB Nation when asked about the low wages that NWSL pays non-allocated players. "You have to remember they're here for six months a year, not 12. The model we have now is a sustainable model." Harvey also pointed out that the Reign and other clubs provide players with two meals on training and game days during the season.
Even though many owners and coaches defend low wages by citing financial losses and the fact that the league is part-time, Moros says that players aren't encouraged to treat it like a part-time job and find other opportunities to make money in the offseason.
"There are some coaches that don't want players other jobs, but in the men's league if they paid that little, they'd be expected to get other jobs," she said. "In a women's league, it's not expected that they're breadwinners. There's an expectation for men that there's going to be a full career, but for some reason that standard isn't there." She continued, "They're not trying to encourage players to have jobs outside of the game."
Credit: Steve Dykes/Getty Images
Ultimately, the value proposition the NWSL offers non-allocated players is very low pay in exchange for a platform to potentially make a national team. With dozens of players coming out of college every year looking for a shot to make a roster, and more sticking around the league into their late 20s and early 30s, there's no lack of talented players willing to take the low payout. That competition pool makes it easy for insiders to argue that wages aren't the real incentive in this job.
Current Orlando Pride and former USWNT head coach Tom Sermanni advocates for more owner investment and a fully professional league, but he's also realistic about the world he's currently operating in. "If you want to be an elite sportsperson, you need to take a risk," said Sermanni at a National Soccer Coaches Association of America convention panel in January. He compared young players trying to break into NWSL and earning the minimum salary to young people who take a gap year between high school and college, or between college and starting their careers.
Plenty of players are willing to take that risk. "You don't have to sell these kids on playing for free. They'll do whatever it takes," said Washington Spirit head coach Jim Gabarra on the same NSCAA panel.
He continued, "One perspective is, 'Aren't you taking advantage of them?' But they're willing to sacrifice. You see that cycle of two years where they'll try it. If they make it, there's another two years, they think, 'Do I have a shot at the national team?'" He added, "These kids will stay involved as long as we manage them properly and make them feel like they can reach that goal."
By many accounts, the talent gap between USWNT and the rest of the NWSL's players is slim. "We have a number of players in our league that I think are national team caliber players," FC Kansas City midfielder Yael Averbuch told SB Nation. "They compete every day with national team players and feel that, 'Oh if I went into camp I could do a good job, if I was given the opportunity, I think I have qualities that allow me to compete.'"
That applies equally to younger players who have never been in the national team and older players who have come close to making it before. "There are a lot of players that keep the dream alive," Averbuch said. "We'd all be lying to ourselves if anyone who's ever gotten a sniff at the national team said they don't think about it. You just never know. It could be as small as one big game on the right day."
Players let themselves dream about a big break, even if they're not counting on it to actually happen. "Everyone's kind of fortified their life to make it work in their current situation but I do think that a lot of players think about, dream about, hope, talk about getting a chance with the national team," said Averbuch.
"Maybe that makes us crazy, I don't know, but it's the reality."
The death of WUSA and WPS made spending taboo
The NWSL's spendthrift ways are the product of hard-learned lessons. Two predecessor leagues both attempted to capitalize on the success of the USWNT and both failed miserably. The first was WUSA, founded off the back of the Americans' huge 1999 World Cup triumph. That tournament attracted big sponsors, sold-out football stadiums and enormous television ratings. A women's club league would only have to attract a fraction of the same sponsorship and attendance to be successful, the logic followed, so it was a good business proposition.
"I was intoxicated by what I witnessed in the 1999 World Cup and all the sponsorship surrounding that event," WUSA founder John Hendricks said after the league folded, "and mistakenly assumed that would flow over to the league."
WUSA raised $40 million from investors, which was their projected operating budget for the first five years of the league's existence. They burned through that sum in one year. Despite massive losses, WUSA managed to raise another $60 million while cutting costs, and losses fell from $46 million to $17-19 million. Still, the owners didn't see a route to profitability, so the league shuttered after three seasons.
It took three years for the WUSA Reorganization Committee, which was formed to revive women's club soccer, to find owners to start WPS. To avoid conflict with the 2007 World Cup and 2008 Olympics and to make sure their owners were ready to stick around for the long haul, Women's Professional Soccer got underway in 2009.
But WPS owners weren't as committed as the league thought. The Los Angeles Sol, despite finishing with the league's best record, folded at the end of that year. They had the league's best attendance and were backed by billionaire Phil Anschutz, but his company AEG turned the club back over to the league after most teams lost twice as much money as they expected. The following year, 2010 regular season and playoff champions FC Gold Pride ceased operations at the end of their title-winning campaign. As it turns out, the bottom of the worst recession in 80 years is a terrible time to start a women's soccer league.
For the league's final season, the now late Dan Borislow bought the Washington Freedom, moved them to Florida, named them after his company magicJack. He got into constant fights with the league, which kicked out magicJack despite needing the company to get sanctioned by U.S. Soccer for another season. WPS accused Borislow of "abusive behavior" and said they'd rather end women's club soccer in the United States than let him back into the league. They couldn't find another team to replace magicJack, so WPS disbanded permanently.
While WPS officials and owners were weary of what happened to WUSA and kept their budgets much tighter, they still spent much more than NWSL does now. Multiple players who have played in both leagues told SB Nation that their low-end salaries as rookies or young players in WPS were higher than their high-end veteran salaries in NWSL.
What NWSL learned from previous failures to set up a stable women's professional soccer league is that sponsorship will not come quickly and easily. Projected losses cannot be based on the expectation of corporate partners showing up, sticking around and writing seven-figure checks every year. At the same time, USWNT players expect to be paid like the stars that they are, and a professional league can't survive without them. To solve these problems, U.S. Soccer and the founding members of NWSL came up with a brilliant solution: national federations should subsidize star players' salaries.
How USWNT players get paid
Under the memorandum of understanding signed by U.S. Soccer and the USWNT players union prior to NWSL's inaugural season, national team players earn a salary ranging from $36,000 to $72,000 for national team play, with 18 players making the high end of that at all times. Between NWSL, win bonuses, sponsor appearances and incentives based on World Cup and Olympic performance, players end up making quite a bit more than that. The World Cup win bonus and victory tour payout meant that numerous players made more than $300,000 in 2015.
A big chunk of that money came from playing in NWSL. USWNT players who were under contract in the league's first year earned $54,000 for playing in NWSL in 2015, and will make $56,000 this season, in addition to their national team base salary. Players who have joined the national team since 2013 are paid $10,000 per season less than founding members of the league. Importantly, the NWSL salaries of national team players are paid by U.S. Soccer, not the players' clubs, a cost-saving move built into the business model to ensure that the best players gave the league credibility without adding to owner's losses. The Canadian Soccer Association has a similar arrangement, with 11 Canadian players currently having their NWSL salaries paid by their federation.
Given their status as the stars of their teams and the main drivers of ticket sales, it's fair to argue that USWNT players are under-compensated for playing in NWSL. They might not be twice as valuable as the best non-national team player on a squad in a pure sporting sense, but they certainly are from a revenue-generation perspective.
That's of no particular concern to the league or its owners, because they don't foot the bill for their best players. That system is the league's founding principle -- giving USWNT players somewhere to play without risk-averse owners having to pay them. The stars' salaries are someone else's problem, and ownership just has to worry about a running minor-league operation. It's not that to the players, coaches and fans, of course, but functionally and economically, it's very small-time without USWNT and CANWNT players as part of the regular labor force.
Tasting the USWNT dream doesn't guarantee a raise
Former FC Kansas City defender Leigh Ann Brown is among the dozen or so players who have gotten a national team look, failed to stick with the team, and decided to spend a long career in American women's club soccer anyway. "Maybe when you're 21, 22," Brown told SB Nation about holding on to national team goals, "but I'm 29. Knowing that I'm not going to be called back in with the national team does make it hard. In the offseason you've just kind of got to scrape by a little bit."
Brown, who retired at the end of last season, says that the grind got tougher once she was dropped from the team in 2013 after picking up two caps. "I honestly don't think my coaches -- at least from my personal experience -- I don't think they realized what a confidence hit I took, because it is hard. You get called up and that kind of goes away and, I think that was probably the biggest issue for me. Mentally I probably didn't recalculate the correct way."
But while Brown's competitive spirit took a hit, she also missed out on a full-time contract with the USWNT after being closer than ever to a payday. There are others who have been on contract with USSF, then lost their spot. One of those players is Averbuch, who has been on contract with USSF then cut from the team on two separate occasions.
Yael Averbuch playing with Carli Lloyd on the USWNT in 2009. Credit: Cristina Bie/Getty Images
"I focused really hard on improving myself as a player every year, and I thought, oh, my career path and my salary will go in line with that," said Averbuch about her mindset after getting capped by the national team while still in college. "And that hasn't been the case at all, and I realize how far out of my control that is. Because in my mind as a young professional, it just made sense."
"The first time that I was taken off contract," she continued, "it was a rude awakening for me."
By getting dropped from the national team, Averbuch's income was more than cut in half. "It's a lifestyle change," she said. "I have to make plans in the offseason that I didn't have to make before to make money on the side, all the coaching stuff I do on the side. Which I thoroughly enjoy, but I'm not just doing it because I'm choosing to. I have to do it."
To make up lost income, some players opt to spend their offseason playing overseas. Boston Breakers midfielder Kristie Mewis, who was once an allocated player but is now contracted to the Breakers, spent her offseason with Bayern Munich in the Frauen-Bundesliga. But due to differences in contract rules between the Frauen-Bundesliga and NWSL, things got complicated.
Boston announced that Mewis had signed an extension with them and been loaned to Bayern for six months. At the same time, Bayern told Bavarian Football Works that the deal was until the end of their season, because the Frauen-Bundesliga does not allow six-month contracts. Eventually, Breakers and Bayern communications got on the same page and started towing the same line -- that Mewis would be returning to Boston in time for preseason, period. But in the unlikely event that Mewis wanted to stay and Bayern wanted to go back on their agreement, the Breakers would have had no recourse. If this handshake deal went bad, it could have derailed Boston's season before it even got started.
Averbuch and Mewis are playing in NWSL this season, but a former USWNT teammate of theirs has decided to retire. Rachel Van Hollebeke, who has been capped 113 times by the national team, decided to end her soccer career at just 30 years old after finishing up last season with the Portland Thorns. Van Hollebeke was a popular player and regular starter under Pia Sundhage, but was phased out from 2013 onwards under Sermanni. He was replaced by Jill Ellis after just over a year in charge, but Ellis didn't call in Van Hollebeke either. With no clear path back to the national team, Van Hollebeke opted to go to medical school.
The constant influx of players chasing the national team dream has kept the level of play in NWSL from dropping off, but could that change? If wages don't go up it's possible that quality players will leave faster than new ones come out of college. "Now that our league has been around for four years," said Gabarra, "you're going to see a lot of players retiring, when they see there's no carrot out there."
Non-allocated superstars get paid far less than they're worth
Meet Kim Little of the Seattle Reign. She's the 2014 NWSL MVP, four-time NWSL player of the month and two-time Best XI member. She won the golden boot in 2014, then finished second in goals in 2015 while also topping the league in assists. Many believe she's the best player in the world. Last season, she scored this goal to complete a hat trick against the Houston Dash.
Little cannot make as much as a USWNT player. No matter how many goals she scores and no matter how many championships she wins, her income is capped at a level below inferior players. And because she's Scottish, not English, her chances of getting a big paycheck from her national federation before her career ends is basically non-existent. The same goes for her Reign teammate and three-time Best XI midfielder Jessica Fishlock, who is Welsh.
It's everyone's hope that someday NWSL stands on its own and club play is taken as seriously as international play; that winning club trophies will matter as much as winning international ones. But right now, NWSL and other leagues are very much secondary to the international game. And even though there are a couple thousand dedicated supporters in Seattle who will pay to see Little and Fishlock, most fans are paying to see USWNT stars. That leaves the rest of players with little leverage to demand better pay.
Little and Fishlock might be able to make more money overseas, but they've opted to stay in NWSL because it's so competitive. "I think that the reality is you have international players that want the opportunity to play in America," says Harvey, their coach in Seattle. "Outside of the U.S., [NWSL] has a huge reputation. It's thought of so highly."
Portland Thorns head coach Mark Parsons agrees. "What other country can say that there is something that produces 25 players per season," he said about the NCAA on an NSCAA panel. "The quantity of high quality players that come through every year is unmatched."
Fishlock summed it up herself: "If you want to be the best, America is the only place to be." But even if she is the best -- better than her peers on the USWNT -- she'll never be paid like it.
When will NWSL grow up as a league?
The wage gap between international superstars, fringe USWNT players, veterans who haven't gotten national team looks and rookies is small in NWSL. All of them make very little money, and they all have zero leverage to get more. The league doesn't have a lot of money to pay them with. Everyone is at a stalemate, but there are ways to bridge the gap from what NWSL is paying players now to a decent living wage.
"I don't like when people say 'what if we had this," says Averbuch. "Why don't we talk about what we can do based on what we do have? What the aim should be should be keeping people in their markets, making them their homes, and building from there. Building happy players who live in those communities, are known in their community, and are offered money-making opportunities outside of the season in those markets."
Moros agrees. "You should have some obligation to help people create a life in a community. Pick players in an educated way, don't pick players to trade them. Help them become passionate about the club they pay for, so fans keep coming and care about those players."
NWSL owners can commit to to keeping players in one market and helping them find offseason jobs tomorrow, without reaching into anyone's pocket. Establishing themselves as a fixture in a community makes it easier for players to market themselves, whether that be as coaches or in a field unrelated to soccer. It's also a no-brainer from a PR perspective for owners -- the more players are known as community fixtures, the more people will pay to come see them play.
For players who aren't interested in work outside soccer, a formal partnership between NWSL and Australia's W-League, where a number of players currently spend their offeseason, might help too. In addition to supplementing income, it'll keep players playing pro soccer 10 months a year while avoiding messy situations like the one Mewis and Boston faced.
But these are temporary fixes. Eventually, someone is going to need to find more money, something NWSL hasn't been very good at. Though the Reign and FCKC have secured big shirt sponsors in Microsoft and Domino's, respectively, the league hasn't added a single league-wide sponsor since the 2015 World Cup concluded.
While NWSL has survived longer than any of its predecessors, it is not yet a success. The league and its owners are great at controlling costs, but not yet at growing revenue or making the lives of their athletes better. For non-national team players, wages keep trending downwards with each new women's soccer league that is founded.
"Maybe that's to create sustainability," Brown said about the low minimum salary. "I don't know, I mean that's what the league's claiming. So if it can work, great, but at this point nobody really knows."
Year four is here. NWSL has survived. Now, the biggest question it has to answer is whether or not it's capable of more than just surviving.
Stephanie Yang contributed additional reporting to this story.