Photo courtesy of National Women's Soccer League / Twitter

Pay Disparity and Poor Conditions in the NWSL

For every child who plays a sport, the dream is to be a professional athlete when they grow up. For some, this dream fades as they get older, but there are others who are able to beat the odds and live that dream. For many women soccer players, however, obtaining their dream job does not always equal living their dream life.

In the United States, the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) is the highest-level women’s soccer league in the country. It has been in existence since 2012, and its five-year tenure makes it the longest lasting women’s soccer league to date, as two other organizations, the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA) and Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS), both folded after just three years of existence. This was due to various issues with funding and a lack of stability. While this feat in and of itself is an accomplishment, there are still problems within the NWSL that make the lives of its players difficult and unfair.

Primarily, there is a wide variety of pay disparities within the league. For starters, the salary cap placed on each team is astronomically lower than the one placed on both women’s leagues overseas and on Major League Soccer (MLS), at $4.035 million. For a roster of 18-20 women, the salary cap for each team is $350,000 with the minimum at $15,750 and the maximum at $44,000. Interestingly, as proven in this article by Backline Soccer, no one player on a team can actually make this maximum salary because it would mean that all other players would barely make over the minimum. In a world where salaries are openly discussed, this would not happen, especially since many of these teams have multiple world-class players that deserve to be making their fair share.

It is important to note that players allocated by the United States Soccer Federation and the Canadian Soccer Federation are paid by their federations. The league accounts for their presence by counting them towards the team's salary cap as being paid the minimum salary, which does provide a little more money for the non-allocated players on the team.

For many players who are just making enough to get over the poverty line, being a professional athlete is not their only job. They are forced to take on second jobs, often coaching local soccer teams, on top of all other responsibilities. Think about that for a second. Imagine having to train for hours a day, be as fit and healthy as possible, rest your muscles to prevent injuries, travel occasionally across the country for away games, get enough sleep, and then on top of that work another job in order to make ends meet. That is completely unfair to these women who have been working their entire lives to achieve their dreams. As a result, some women are forced to play overseas to live a more comfortable and stable life.

In addition to the salary cap, another problem that the league faces is that some teams are not stable. In the past three years, three teams have either folded or had to change ownership completely. Following the 2016 season, the Western New York Flash, coming off a championship season, was sold and became the North Carolina Courage. Then, in late 2017, FC Kansas City was purchased and became the Utah Royals. Then, right before the start of the 2018 season, the Boston Breakers folded, causing those players to be dispersed throughout other teams in a rapid “dispersal draft.” These changes were likely for the best, since they allowed the league and at least two teams to continue to function in some capacity. However, they also uprooted the lives of over 60 women and forced them to not only cope with a whole new environment, but also with new people in terms of coaching staff and fellow teammates. The folding and transfer of teams is not a sign of stability and is something that the league must work on in order to maintain its credibility.

The major concern for NWSL players, outside of pay, is conditions. As a professional league, many of the environments that these players face are completely unacceptable and would never fly in leagues like the MLS. Players have passed out from heat stroke at the end of games from playing in 100 degree weather. In 2016, a game was played on a baseball field that was 100 yards long by 58 yards wide (for reference, the NWSL and MLS standard is 110 yards long by 70 yards wide). The league came under fire in August for allowing two games in Seattle and one in Portland to proceed despite wildfires along the West Coast that caused the air quality to be classified as unhealthy by the Air Quality Index. Although the NWSL apologized and implemented policies to prevent such incidents from occurring again, these women were continuously put into danger and treated as less than professional athletes.

A clear example of a more systemic issue with conditions comes from Sky Blue FC. World-class player Sam Kerr, who played for Sky Blue in 2017 before being traded to the Chicago Red Stars in a three-way trade, made comments following a game about her former team, stating, “I’m just going to say the girls deserve better and I’m just going to leave it at that.” It was widely known in the women’s soccer community that Sky Blue was having some issues, but following these comments, it came out that things were worse than originally thought.

In an expose by Once a Metro, it was shown that players were not being reimbursed for their travel expenses, were given inadequate housing, had their training locations changed on a daily basis, and used a two-stall, non-air conditioned locker room for game days. Additionally, as the team cut corners on travel expenses, players were crammed into rooms together on game days following early checkouts and did not even have a goalkeeping coach travel with them. This is simply unacceptable and no team, especially a team that is a part of one of the nation’s top sports leagues, should be treated like this. In the end, these poor conditions were reflected in their performance on the field. Despite some true talent, the team ended the season 1-17-6.

Some MLS teams partner with a couple of NWSL teams such as the Portland Thorns, the Houston Dash, the Orlando Pride, and the Utah Royals. These teams consistently see the highest attendance and have some of the best facilities, as they are using the same locker rooms and fields that the men use. It’s also not just MLS teams. The North Carolina Courage, two-time consecutive Supporter’s Shield winners and current champions, are supported by a United Soccer League (USL) team. The financial stability of partnering with pre-established men’s teams is enticing. It is something that the league seems to be looking to do more often with more than half of the current nine teams in this partnership.

The NWSL needs to work on developing their current independent teams because, although they are all not as concerning as Sky Blue, the disparity between teams is apparent just from looking at home game attendance and top standings. In the past two seasons, the only two independent teams to break into the top four spots and reach the playoffs were the Chicago Red Stars and the Seattle Reign. However, although both teams are not officially affiliated with any male professional club, simply being in cities where MLS teams are located is an advantage.

Overall, the NWSL is still a blossoming league. With partnerships forming with television broadcasters, one game a week is shown on Lifetime and the other games are streamed online via the NWSL website. If you like soccer and want to watch some women play their hearts out, or if you want to show your support and help boost the conditions of these professional athletes, tune into some games. Even better, if you’re located near one of the teams, attend some of the matches. The best way to grow the league is to increase the number of people who watch the games and build a larger community. The women have the talent. They simply need the proper conditions and recognition in order to flourish like their male peers.

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