Women’s soccer: Show me the money!

How much should soccer players be paid?

It’s a question that can’t be answered in a vacuum, at least not without a government that centrally plans every bit of the economy. “Should” (which philosophers would call a “normative” question because philosophers like inventing words) doesn’t make much sense in a context in which no one has demonstrated that soccer players can be paid any more than they are now. As an ethical question, you’d get much more mileage out of asking “How much should CEOs be paid, particularly after their business dumps a whole mess into a river and loses a lot of money for its stockholders along with some government handouts?”

In my idealized world, soccer players are paid enough to pursue their sport at a legitimately professional level. That means they’re either full-time players or have small part-time jobs (the Volkswagen/Wolfsburg model) that don’t impinge on their training time.

But my idealized world extends these part-time jobs (with benefits, either through the company or government) to anyone who has a talent and a passion. Violinists. Rock drummers. Curling teams. Even (ahem) freelance journalists.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in that idealized world. Nor can we look at Europe and project that vision of women’s soccer as an ideal. A month ago, Deadspin picked up one-time WPS player Alison McCann’s Howler magazine story singing the praises of Swedish powerhouse Tyresö and the stability of Swedish women’s soccer:

The women of the Damallsvenskan are thriving. And a little part of that, a small reason, might be the fact that in Sweden they don’t have to worry about how to sell more tickets or carve out more time for appearances. They don’t have to worry if they’ll have jobs come next season. The Damallsvenskan will still be there.

A couple of weeks later, Tyresö revealed it was near bankruptcy, and an emergency municipal loan request had been turned down. So much for not worrying about jobs.

Earlier in McCann’s piece is a stronger demonstration of stability, from an email exchange with Malmö coach Jonas Eidevall.

Damallsvenskan can never fold as a league. If one club would fold, another one would be promoted. Maybe not all clubs would be professional, but the league would always live on.

The harsh reality is that no one has managed to make fully professional women’s soccer work for an extended period of time. England has gone in fits and starts. Germany, Sweden and France have a couple of clubs who should be close to making it work, at least on a low level. In general, I think (or hope) we’re getting there.

In the NWSL model, everyone is “professional.” But “professional” is a technical FIFA distinction moreso than economic reality. It’s especially important in the USA because college-eligible players can’t play alongside “professional” players. (They can play against them, pursuant to a careful read of the NCAA’s labyrinthine rule books.)

So as we all know, NWSL salaries range from the good (for U.S. national team players) to the not-so good (Canadian national team players) to the so-so (for top players not on national teams) to the pittance (for everyone else). No one’s getting rich on professional salaries, and most people aren’t making a living wage.

FiveThirtyEight, the latest ramping-up of Nate Silver’s data-journalism revolution, takes a look today at one of the side effects of these salaries. Coincidentally, the writer is once again Alison McCann.

The point is that the salaries force the league to skew young and inexperienced. They don’t have specific data to show causation, but it’s a sensible if not obvious point — a 27-year-old tired of being subsidized by parents, second jobs or host families is less likely to be in the NWSL than a 22-year-old still hoping for a big future in the sport. Case in point: Kia McNeill’s decision to skip the 2014 Boston Breakers season.

McCann writes:

For most players, and people in general, there are only so many years you can do the thing you love on a $15,000 annual salary before you have to move on.

Longtime MLS fans can sympathize. Mike Fisher, the No. 2 pick in the 1997 MLS Draft, opted to go to medical school instead. Tampa Bay Mutiny defender R.T. Moore left the team in the middle of the 1999 season to go to dental school. Scott Garlick abruptly retired in 2007 to go into commercial real estate.

So it’s easy enough to demonstrate that older players are likely to move on if the money’s not there. Is this a bad thing? I asked on Twitter and got this:

And that’s a good point. If a league can afford to have a mix of younger and older players, it certainly should.

Over time, MLS has strengthened and is better able to offer players decent money. We can hope this happens with the NWSL as well.

The danger here is in moving back to that normative “should” question. Somewhere along the way, an editor at FiveThirtyEight has done just that, picking up McCann’s description of NWSL salaries as “preposterously low” and running with that as the home-page headline for the story — “The Preposterously Low Salaries of the National Women’s Soccer League.” The story-page headline, “Low Pay Limits Player Experience in National Women’s Soccer League,” is less misleading.

In calling the salaries “preposterously low,” we have to ask: “Compared to what?” Women’s hockey players in the CWHL also have “preposterously low” salaries — basically, nil. Same for most European soccer players who aren’t part of the fortunate few at Tyresö or Lyon.

The underlying question here is this: Who’s paying? If you’re talking about the Ultimate Fighting Championship, you’re talking about people who have made fortunes in the sport they’re promoting. In MLS and a lot of pro team sports, you’re talking about people who made fortunes elsewhere and may or may not be making any money on their team ownership.

In the WUSA, you were talking about companies who thought they were going to make immediate money and pulled out when they didn’t. In WPS, you were talking about some people who thought they’d make money and some who were willing to spend a lot on an affectation. In the NWSL, you’re talking about people who are willing to endure small losses or at least a small amount of risk.

The FiveThirtyEight piece shows us what we get for that amount of spending. What it can’t show us is whether the owners’ and players’ faith in the league will pay off in a league that can spend a little more or find other creative ways to fill in the gaps in the center of that chart.

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2 Responses to Women’s soccer: Show me the money!

  1. Joshua (the name of my cat, not me) says:

    Well, Tyreso did play in the first round of the Quarterfinals of the 2014 Champions League on 3/23/2014 so somehow they are carrying on, bankrupt or not.

    When I think of NWSL, the first thing that comes to mind is the NBA Development League, not the WNBA, WTA, or LPGA. The NWSL s/b to the USWNT what the NBA D-league is to the NBA. However, there might some financial and/or legal constraints that might not make this viable.

    Possibly related or unrelated, the Los Angeles Times ran an article dated March 23, 2014 on the Los Angeles Derby Dolls, a local girls/women’s roller derby team. It was the “local” section of the newspaper, not the sports section. L.A. Times reserves that for the local NBA and MLB teams and the NFL despite the fact there is no NFL team closer than San Diego.

    A quotation:

    “The league has gotten dozens of offers for reality shows and documentaries, but Ninburg, a.k.a. Demolicious, said they’ll continue to turn them down unless they get the final cut. Television creates drama and tries to sex up the sport, she said, and that’s not what they’re about. They’re serious athletes.

    “We’re not going to compromise who we are,” she said. “The objectification doesn’t exist here. We control it. If you wanna wear makeup, wear makeup. If you don’t, don’t. If you want to look sexy, look sexy. If you don’t, don’t. Nobody cares. Just get out there and play a good game.”

  2. Diane says:

    “Should” is relative. I “should” make about $50K a year, but the market will not pay that. Players should be paid what the market will bear and fans and supporters get to decide that. It’s a big responsibility, but a point that isn’t made very often. Supporting women’s sports is a culture unto itself. The more we can spread that culture, the more all players will earn.

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