Caught in the Crossfire: USWNT and the NWSL

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Every war has its collateral damage. Every battle affects the innocent. In the latest battle of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team’s war with the U.S. Soccer Federation over equal treatment, that innocent could be the National Women’s Soccer League.

Despite not being part of the USWNT’s complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission about the lack of equal pay compared to the USMNT, the NWSL has already been brought into the fray. U.S. Soccer mentioned the league in their response.

“After three unsuccessful attempts by private entities to maintain a women’s professional league, U.S. Soccer committed to investing in and administering the National Women’s Soccer League to ensure our women’s players would have an ongoing professional environment in which to continue their careers.”

Not only is this erroneous – at last count, only two top-tier women’s soccer leagues have folded, unless they are counting the USL W-League, which was pro-am – but it is unnecessary. The WNT’s complaint has nothing to do with the NWSL. NT players get paid far more than their NWSL teammates, and they know it. In fact, getting paid more was a stipulation of their last Memorandum of Understanding with the Federation. What U.S. Soccer does accomplish with this sentence is remind the players of the interest and control they have in the league. Their subsidy of the federation players helps keep both costs at a manageable level and the players at their beck and call.

And unfortunately, whether intentional or not, it is likely this will not be the last time the NWSL gets dragged in. Whatever the outcome of the complaint, this could have long-reaching effects on the fledgling league. Let’s take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The good: a win-win. The WNT achieves wage equality with their male counterparts and turns their attention to their NWSL teammates. Under pressure from the visibility and clout of the NT, the league is forced to pull salaries above poverty levels. For the record, the minimum league salary in 2016 will be $7,200, with a maximum of $39,700, for roughly seven months of work. In comparison, it has been reported that tier one NT players receive $54,000 for playing in the NWSL on top of a $72,000 base salary from U.S. Soccer. This does not include bonuses. While no one expects the NWSL players to be paid the same, both fans and players have long complained about the paltry salaries that force many professional athletes to get a second job just to make a living and drive others into early retirement.

The bad: a win-lose. The WNT achieves wage equality with their male counterparts and goes on their merry way. The wedge that already exists between NT and non-NT players in the league is driven further. NWSL players have in the past admitted that the pay disparity between them is an issue, and it isn’t a stretch to imagine they find the WNT complaint hard to swallow even while they support them as fellow female athletes. Should the WNT not stand up for their lesser-paid, unrepresented teammates, this resentment will only deepen. Any sports fan can tell you of the difficulties supporting a team with inner strife, especially when it shows on the field.

The ugly: a lose-lose. The WNT achieves wage equality with their male counterparts, but U.S. Soccer follows through on their implicit threat and pulls player funding from the league. While U.S. Soccer currently provides a subsidy to Major League Soccer, they do not pay the NT players’ salaries. Should they move to that same structure for the NWSL, would the subsidy be enough? The common theory in WoSo circles is that several NT players would much rather play in Europe than the NWSL and are only restrained by the possibility of losing their NT spot. Other players would likely be seduced by the higher salaries offered in the Bundesliga or Division 1 Féminine. With the attrition of some of its most talented and popular players and the loss of significant funding, the league’s viability would be at risk. Make no mistake about it: this would be a loss for the NT. A solid domestic league is essential to the success of the National Team.

The downright dirty: total loss. The WNT fails to achieve wage equality with their male counterparts. While initially the status quo is maintained, US Soccer reigns down retribution on the league, making the lives of all worse than when this started. Best not to get into detail.

None of this is to say the WNT are not making the right move. The USWNT is not only far more successful than the USMNT, they are the most successful women’s soccer team in the world. They’ve won more Olympics and more World Cups than any other women’s national team, never failing to medal at either major tournament. The USMNT’s best finish at either was a quarterfinal appearance at the 2002 World Cup. The women play just as many if not more games per year and bring in comparable revenue (projected to exceed the men by $8 million in 2017). Yet the men are paid $5,000 per player for losing a friendly while the women make $1,350 for winning and nothing for losing. The list goes on. Even if you factor in the women’s base salary versus the men’s pay-per-game, it still isn’t even. And this doesn’t touch on playing conditions, travel accommodations, or marketing. It’s past time for U.S. Soccer to make One Nation, One Team more than a catchphrase.

The hope is that U.S. Soccer realizes that it’s 2016 and equality is overdue. The hope is that the daughters of the current players don’t have to fight this battle again. The hope is that the WNT remembers they are standing up not only for themselves but for their league teammates, for all female professional athletes.

The fear is that the NWSL will once again be left out in the cold.