Questions for NWSL Year 4: Should fans worry about the rich club-poor club divide?

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There’s a new team in town, and their name is the Orlando Pride. Major League Soccer franchise Orlando City SC bought in to the National Women’s Soccer League, announcing they would field a women’s side starting in 2016. They’re now the third MLS team to do so, after the Portland Timbers started the Thorns and the Houston Dynamo established the Dash.

Three out of 10 teams in NWSL are now MLS-backed. That means MLS money, MLS facilities, MLS support staff. It might, theoretically, mean crossover from MLS audiences. In Portland, approximately one-third of Thorns season ticket holders are also Timbers STHs. The Orlando Pride announced they already have 2,000 season ticket holders signed up, which is approaching Sky Blue FC’s entire average attendance for 2015. In fact, is better than their average attendance in 2014 of 1,656 and approaches league champion FC Kansas City’s 2014 average of 2,018.

Teams like Orlando, Portland and Houston have the benefit of already having laid the groundwork for a portion of their ticket sales. They can turn towards a pre-existing audience and offer them more of what they want, but for cheaper, and with some World Cup-winners thrown in.

Other teams like Boston, Seattle, Washington, Chicago and Kansas City also have MLS teams nearby but aren’t part of the same organization, leaving them to forge unofficial partnerships or do their best to try to capture some of those audiences. It’s not ideal and definitely doesn’t carry the same benefits as official MLS partnerships, like getting to use their facilities and front office staff, but they make do.

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Then you have teams like Western New York and Sky Blue, who kind-of-sort-of have MLS teams around but are essentially on their own in isolated geographical pockets (WNY plays in Rochester, New York; Sky Blue plays in Piscataway, New Jersey). Sky Blue has suffered from the lowest average attendance in the league every season, and the Flash’s numbers are steadily declining despite every other team (including Sky Blue) enjoying a bump in average attendance in 2015 due to the World Cup effect.

With rich MLS partners slowly but surely making up a larger and larger part of NWSL, could we see a money-based gap open up between teams?

There’s one primary barrier to the eventual division of the league into two tiers, and that’s the salary cap. Currently teams are limited to $265,000 spread over their non-allocated players. There are also rules in place requiring teams with extra allocated players to provide salary relief to teams with fewer. So in 2015, a team like FC Kansas City, with allocated players Nicole Barnhart, Lauren Holiday, Heather O’Reilly, Amy Rodriguez, and Becky Sauerbrunn, might have been required to pay back into the league to the benefit of a team like the Western New York Flash, who had only Whitney Engen and Sydney Leroux.

So the league is definitely concerned not just with keeping budgets manageable but also making sure no team can run away with a stacked roster. Of course, the salary cap hasn’t prevented some teams from signing top internationals, like the Seattle Reign pulling in Scotland’s Kim Little or, most recently, Manon Melis from the Netherlands. Even with a maximum salary per player of $37,800, NWSL is an attractive and competitive league, and an international who does well enough could find it a boost to their profile.

The flipside of the salary cap is that it artificially depresses the wages of players whose true value may be far beyond the league’s means. Without US Soccer paying the wages of allocated players, many top Americans would no doubt be seeking paychecks in Europe. Instead, national team players tend to get paid anywhere in the mid-five figures to low-six figures – but even 50 grand a year makes the average NWSL salary look like a struggle.

Teams with more money to burn and a hankering to stir interest by bringing in big names could lobby the league and US Soccer to increase that salary cap or institute a designated player rule. Or they might want increased roster sizes, increased minimum standards for travel, more international slots, revised stadium standards, and other development issues the league has so far had to keep in slowly-but-surely mode.

At the moment, those richer teams are outnumbered, but with MLS commissioner Don Garber on the record saying he’d “like to see every MLS team own a women’s team at some point,” it’s possible one day the league could be majority-MLS owned.” What happens when the majority of team owners want the league to go in a certain direction? Do smaller teams get pushed out? Replaced? Supplemented by other teams as a condition of changing the status quo?

Right now, allowing richer teams to ask for a standard that smaller teams can’t meet would be shortsightedly foolish, and it would probably not play very well in the media. It could also signal the loss of independence that some fans fear. At that point, the NWSL would no longer be a league of its own (as much as it is its own league while mostly operated by US Soccer) but an arm of MLS.

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There’s also the fear that MLS ownership would cut its women’s teams should times get tough, because in a financial pinch, the women’s side is usually the first to go. Hopefully any MLS buy-in comes with financial due diligence and conditions that assure the security of a women’s team for at least a period of years; on the MLS side, surely they of all organizations are aware just how long it takes to get a return on an investment. Hopefully they won’t cut and run if things get bleak.

Supplementing the poorer teams seems most likely in the event that there is some kind of financial expansion. It would also act as a control, like the salary cap – if you want to spend more money, you have to pay into the system, to make sure other teams can keep up. The league is still at a point where unity and parity have to take precedence over teeth-baring capitalistic impulses. Live together. Die alone.

We’re not there yet, though.  The league won’t expand again until after the Olympics (at least), and enthusiasm for expanding with an NWSL team may wane in the years between Olympics and the next World Cup (2019). Then again, those off years are the perfect time to get a team established with far fewer interruptions, and by now there some best practices have been discovered for smoothing over the whole process.

For now, MLS involvement remains in the NWSL’s best interest. But the league should just be careful with how and when it welcomes in the bigger names with bigger money.

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