Since the first FIFA Women’s World Cup was played in 1991, the professional game for women has taken an interesting path. The first professional league with full rosters of paid players wasn’t formed until the establishment of the Women’s United Soccer Association in 2001, after the U.S. Women’s National Team had won the second of their three World Cup titles.
At that point, Major League Soccer was beginning its fifth season, and it would outlast WUSA, which closed operations after only three seasons. Women’s soccer carried on with the second-tier W-League and Women’s Professional Soccer League providing opportunities to play at the semi-pro level, until 2013 saw the beginning of the National Women’s Soccer League.
America’s premier women’s soccer competition, NWSL is beginning its unprecedented fifth season this year, and the comparisons to MLS’s fifth year are stark. The total team salary cap for a women’s team is $315,000 for a roster size of 18-20 players, with a minimum salary of $15,000 and a maximum of $41,700. An 18-man roster in MLS in 2001, by comparison, had a cap of $1,750,000, with a minimum salary of $20,000 and a max of $267,500.
Today the gap is even bigger, with 16 more years of MLS having been played, and the league enjoying its highest levels of success and growth. The USWNT has added a third World Cup win in the intervening time, but the popularity and support of the women’s game at a club level still has a long way to go. In some ways it’s a strange situation: Americans love winners, and our women have been far more successful at the international level than our men, but a women’s league has yet to capture a post-World Cup fever and keep it in a bottle the way MLS did.
The signs are promising that NWSL will be able to make it stick this time around. The league has been much more careful about how it is organized, and has resisted the impulse to expand recklessly, similar to the approach MLS took in its early days. The league minimum of $15,000, while still somewhat embarrassingly small for a professional athlete, is double what it was in 2016, and the league has a new television deal with the Lifetime channel for weekly national broadcasts of a featured match. Still, there’s a lot of room for improvement in the standard for players, many of whom live as guests of local residents wherever they play as even a max-level player would struggle to afford their own living arrangements.
The recent announcement of a players association that will represent the non-Federation players in the league will help to start moving things in a better direction. While members of the US, Canadian, and Mexican national teams are paid by their federations, often significantly higher than their teammates, the remaining ladies in the league have previously had no representation in the league. As the league grows through increased attendance, television and sponsorship deals, and eventual expansion to new markets, the players will have a unified voice in negotiations to earn a respectable wage as professional players.
In the state of Utah, the highest level of soccer is currently played in United Women’s Soccer, a league that just started its second season this past weekend. Real Salt Lake Women SC was originally formed as Sparta United Women in 2008, competing in WPSL for the first eight seasons of its existence. The team changed its name to Salt Lake United in 2012, matching colors with RSL before officially taking on the RSL Women name in 2013 in a partnership with the organization. RSL owner Dell Loy Hansen has expressed his desire to have the team become a NWSL expansion franchise in the future, giving the RSL Family a presence in the top tier of both men’s and women’s soccer in North America. Until that time, the team continues to be successful in league play, establishing the foundation to enhance the growth of women’s soccer in Utah, and around the world.
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