The NWSL Salary Maximum is a Lie


No one being paid by the NWSL makes the league allowed $41,700 maximum salary.

How do I know this, since the league does not allow contract details with salaries to become public? Because math tells me if anyone did the rest of the team would be making the minimum. 

The NWSL isn’t 100% transparent on how the roster pay structure is set up. They do tell us in the rules that the cap is “spread across a minimum of 18 Players … based on adjustments for Federation Players,” and that “if a Team is carrying less than 18 Players, minimum salary Player spots are added to the Team’s budget for the purpose of calculating the total”.

While the NWSL won’t comment for sure if the adjustment made for the USWNT player is to simply add minimum salary player spots as they do when the roster is under 18, we can be reasonably sure this is how it’s done.

The league’s salary cap is $315,000. What this means is that if one person out of the NWSL minimum 18-player club makes $41,700 for the season, there will be $273,300 left to pay the other 17 players on the team or about $16,076 per player for the season. That’s the league minimum of $15,000 plus an equal portion of what remains of the cap ($1,076).  

It would be nearly impossible for any club in the league to keep 17 players around at $16,076 while a single player on their roster is making $41,700. Not when salaries can’t happen in a vacuum.

It’s much more likely most players are making between $15,000 and $20,000 a season. To fit under the $315,000 cap, five players could be making about $20,000, while eight players make $17,500, and the remaining five players make the league minimum of $15,000.

Remember, too, that while 18 is the minimum number a team has to carry according to the NWSL, they can have as many as 20 players on their roster at a time. And in some instances, as when players are on the D45 list, or out for the season with injury, etc., their replacements are subject to salary cap rules as well, though a team can apply for relief from the NSWL. In other words, it’s probably standard operating procedure for a team to carry a little breathing room under the cap in case of injury. So that sample team breakdown? The numbers could be even lower. 

You want to know why the NWSL relies heavily on amateur players to fill in? 

Because they don’t have to pay them. 

If you really do care about players in the NWSL getting paid then you have to care about getting the salary cap raised before anything else matters. The NWSL can list the maximum salary as anything they want if it will never be paid. 

How the National Team Fits In

When people go on and on about the USWNT and the clause in their contract that states they must be paid more than any NWSL player, they’re mostly being angry simply to be angry. They often criticize the team for being on the leading edge of fighting for equal pay when they make triple what their club teammates do. Or they take shots on those who have some and are trying to get more when there are those who have much, much less.

As a reminder USWNT players are not paid by the NWSL. The clubs these players play for, along with the Canadian National team players, don’t hold their contracts either. As we talked about above the current interpretation is that rosters account for these players at the minimum salary.

The USWNT players are paid a USWNT salary, and on top of that, a NWSL salary. Their NWSL salary does not come out of NWSL funds, the USWNT pays it. The accounting for the salary cap is made up with ghost players making the league minimum on rosters to get to the magic 18 number.

In theory the more USWNT players on your team, the more to go around. The ghost players are only making the minimum so $2,000 or more from each can go to other players on the roster.

A USWNT player makes about $50,000 to play in the NWSL on top of their USWNT pay. But with the salary cap the way it is now, even if there was no clause preventing an NWSL player from making that much it would be nearly impossible–using any math out there–to get more than one or two non-USWNT players to $30,000, much less $50,000. The salary cap locks them into their wages more than the USWNT and that clause ever could.

The Future of the Salary Cap

One of the biggest problems the NWSL faces is growing salary in a way where players are able to make soccer their full-time job. No more being forced to coach on the side, no more picking up a part time job in between practices or using savings to get through the lean times.

To do, that it’s not the maximum salary that needs to change, no one can get it now anyway. The salary cap is where the attention for growth needs to be. That is what will change the real day to day lives of players in the league.

To look at how different caps effect the bottom line of pay, I set the cap at three different levels and played out what an 18 person roster could be paid while keeping under the caps. I did use whole round numbers to make the math easier.

What Might Future Salary Caps Look Like?

Salary Cap: $425,000

Possible Option:

  • $20,000 @ 3 players
  • $22,000 @ 6 players
  • $25,000 @ 4 players
  • $27,000 @ 5 players

My goal here was to lift the minimum as well as use the $425,000 to make sure that the clubs could pay the core of their team a little bit more. This possible option gives the clubs a bit more in the way of creating levels of play where rookies come in the league and move up after they have proven themselves.

Salary Cap: $500,000

Possible Option:

  • $23,000 @ 5 players
  • $25,000 @ 7 players
  • $30,000 @ 2 players
  • $35,000 @ 2 players
  • $40,000 @ 2 players

With this option, there is a lot of moving players up and giving levels of rewards based on what happened the year before. At the very top, the clubs would have six players they could reward as they would likely be the pillars of the team.

Salary Cap: $630,000

Possible Option:

  • $25,000 @ 5 players
  • $30,000 @ 6 players
  • $45,000 @ 5 players
  • $50,000 @ 2 players

Having double the current cap to play with gave room for everyone to be making the type of salary that will at least keep them buying the name brand Band-Aids for their blisters. With this option, the lowest was $25,000 with seven players able to move into the $45,000+ range.

Final Thoughts

As the NWSL grows they are going to have to decide if it’s the minimum or the maximum salary they want to focus on. Do they want to lift the minimum while leaving the maximum, as useless as it is right now, where it is or do they want to lift the maximum in a meaningless show that they are able to do so?

I hope it’s the salary cap that gets the most attention. With a properly adjusted salary cap the minimum becomes less of a “most players make this” and more of something used as a starting place as players’ contracts are being worked on.

If the cap can be lifted to $450,000 (or more) in the next season or two then soon players should have the chance to focus on soccer in a way that they have not been able to do en masse before. No more coaching to make ends meet, no more divided attention, or bills going unpaid.

The NWSL has lasted longer than any other league. The foundation has been set and the walls raised. It’s time to start paying the players who have put in so much work to build this house.

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