It’s completely unprecedented: a women’s professional soccer league in the United States reaching a fourth season. Not only that, the National Women’s Soccer League hasn’t lost a single founding club in three years and has successfully added an expansion team, with a second on the way. By the time the league begins its fourth season this spring, it will have grown from its original eight clubs to 10. Its two predecessors were closing up shop come year four.
Credit can be attributed to several factors. Fans would probably like to hear that the league’s comparative stability comes from the increasing enjoyment of women’s soccer, and that is definitely part of it. The sport is currently on an upswing, enjoying the benefits of two well-executed, accessible, high-profile World Cups in a row.
But therein lies the problem. The women’s national team is the one moving the needle. NWSL clubs still market heavily around national team players, and with good reason. It’s never been a secret that national teamers would be centerpieces, with both teams and the league hoping fans would then get sucked in and enjoy the rest of the product. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with using that as a strategy; it would be foolish to ignore the star power on hand.
It the strategy does prompt a few questions: What does the league do if that power diminishes? What if US Soccer decides the NWSL is no longer a suitable partner, stops paying the salaries of most national team players, and stops providing administrative support? Could the NWSL survive without that allocation money? Isn’t that the ultimate goal of the league, to be self-sustaining? Just how long can this partnership between USSF and NWSL last, and how and when should it change?
Considering that national team players in the lowest US women’s salary tier probably still make high five figures while the NWSL’s salary cap per player is $37,800, the league can’t compete with what the federation has established as the players’ value. Fortunately, neither can many other leagues. There are a few clubs in the world that can afford these players; most of them are backed by men’s sides, like Lyon or Paris Saint-Germain. Salaries are decent for top players in Germany, Sweden and (now) England, as well. So without US Soccer in the picture, players who stay in stateside are almost certainly going to accept less money, even if they still get paid by the federation for national team duty. Without US Soccer and Jill Ellis not-so-subtly reminding players that it’s much easier to evaluate talent in NWSL, you could reasonably expect a handful of national teamers like Christen Press to leave for destinations more easterly, settling in Europe and perhaps even Russia or Japan. US Soccer’s involvement keeps these players in the domestic league.