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The NWSL confronts a looming obstacle: its Americanness

Jan 12, 2023; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; A general view of an NWSL sign at the Pennsylvania Convention Center during the NWSL Draft. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports
The NWSL's intensely American structure — with a draft, tight salary cap and various rules that restrict player agency — conflicts with soccer's global marketplace. (Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports)

The race to the top of women’s club soccer began as a struggle for survival.

Long before the age of exponential growth and salivating investors, it was a battle to exist; to remain relevant and alive. It was a fight that felled two iterations of American pro leagues earlier this century. It shaped the third try, the National Women’s Soccer League, and informed the nascent NWSL’s every move. It demanded financial support from the U.S. Soccer Federation. It required a tight salary cap, restrictions on player agency and a bevy of franchise-friendly rules that have helped dozens of American sports leagues — men’s and women’s, fútbol and football — get off the ground.

It called for an intensely American structure, which contributed to power imbalances with horrific human consequences; but which became the foundation for a success story. On the eve of its 11th season, which begins Saturday, the NWSL now stands on its own two feet, as the most commercially viable domestic property in women’s soccer. It is implementing systemic reforms, and learning from prior failures, and blooming. The initial battle, it seems, has been won.

But as the league moves “from a mentality of surviving to thriving,” as commissioner Jessica Berman said this week, that very same structure has become an obstacle in the NWSL’s next crusade.

Its club valuations are booming. Sponsors are congregating. Investment is accelerating. The league is expanding. And yet, for a variety of reasons, the vast majority of the sport’s superstars don’t want to play here.

The NWSL wants them, and arguably needs them; its leaders speak about “claiming our space as the best league in the world." But internally, they can’t quite agree on how to do that. They like the salary cap, which controls costs and competitive balance; but they also know it prevents them from matching contract offers from European superclubs. They like their spring-to-fall season, which allows them to take advantage of warm weather and lean months on the American sports calendar; but they know it clashes with the rest of the world and deters international talent.

Some believe there is urgency; that these obstacles must be removed soon; that this is a moment, perhaps the moment in which the race for club supremacy will ultimately be lost or won. In most men’s sports, that subjective “best league in the world” title is firmly entrenched, already engraved by an irreversible cycle of investment, revenue and talent; in women’s soccer, on the other hand, it is very much up for grabs.

But grabbing it will likely require an evolution — in everything from rules to thinking.

“Our goal is to be the English Premier League of the women's game,” says Jill Ellis, the former U.S. national team coach who now runs the NWSL’s San Diego Wave. “And that means you can't just look internally or domestically. You gotta look globally.

“We just can't be static,” Ellis adds. “And that means, yes, you've gotta look at levers you can pull. … We're obviously getting there with things like free agency [which was introduced on a limited basis this offseason after bargaining with players]. We've gotta look at cap. We've gotta look at how we make player movement and player retention a priority.”

NWSL's salary cap an impediment for signing 'top-tier players'

On Floor 3 of the double-doored office building at 292 Madison Avenue, inside the NWSL’s new Manhattan headquarters, conversations around roster rules and spending limits are unlike others in sports. The league exists in a U.S. ecosystem of salary caps and quasi-cartels; but also in a global market that many of its American brethren don’t have to contend with. The NBA and NFL can suppress their respective labor markets because their sport’s top athletes don’t have realistic alternatives to consider; but in soccer, they do.

In soccer, there are dozens of European clubs that make hundreds of millions of dollars annually — and over the past decade, some have begun investing in their women’s teams. They operate largely without regulation, so they can pay the game’s biggest stars, such as Sam Kerr, far beyond many of the NWSL’s highest earners.

Soccer Football - Women's Super League - Chelsea v Manchester United - Kingsmeadow, London, Britain - March 12, 2023 Chelsea's Sam Kerr celebrates scoring their first goal Action Images via Reuters/Paul Childs

Each NWSL club, meanwhile, is constrained by a $1.375 million salary cap, plus $600,000 in allocation money, for an absolute max roster spend of just under $2 million, which they must spread across two dozen players, with an individual minimum salary of $36,400.

“Competing with everybody to get [players] here, in a strong European market, is very hard,” says Chicago Red Stars general manager Michelle Lomnicki. She and her peers are also limited to five international players per team. “So it limits your ability to bring top-tier players in from all over the world,” she says.

Compensation is the simplest and biggest impediment at the top of rosters. Multiple club executives told Yahoo Sports that they’ve lost out on players whose salary demands didn’t fit within their cap-enforced wage structures. Agents and club execs clarified that middle-of-the-roster salaries are comparable in Europe, and floors at smaller clubs can be much lower; but for “the top, top talents,” as agent Guillermo Zamarripa says, ceilings are significantly higher overseas.

Zamarripa represents Deyna Castellanos, a 23-year-old Venezuelan attacker who last summer signed with Manchester City, and whom he cites as an example. “Deyna had opportunities to come to the NWSL,” he says. “And at the end of the day, she decided to go elsewhere because there's more money. Same reason why she decided to go from Florida State to Atlético [Madrid in 2020, after her junior year of college] — because there was more money, and she could control her freedom.”

Other young stars, and even American ones, have begun to bypass the NWSL and go abroad — to choose where they begin their careers, rather than let a team choose them. Catarina Macario left Stanford to sign with Lyon in 2021. Mia Fishel passed up the NWSL’s Orlando Pride to sign with Tigres in Mexico in 2022.

But the trend is broader. Of the top 60 on The Guardian’s list of the world’s best women’s footballers in 2022, one plays in Mexico; six play in the NWSL; and 53 in Europe.

There is a rough consensus that the NWSL should covet some of those 53; that stars drive interest and ultimately revenue, especially today. "Fandom has changed,” says Julie Uhrman, co-founder and president of the NWSL’s Los Angeles club, Angel City. “You follow players first, not teams or leagues. And we're seeing that more and more, as female athletes lean into and leverage their social media to build their own presence, to build their own brand, and to build their own following."

There is disagreement, though, even within the league’s boardroom, over how much and how quickly to raise the cap.

There is a case for slow, steady growth that often hinges on two core tenets, parity and sustainability. Some proponents of this path point across the pond at a counterexample. While the European Champions League has become the pinnacle of the women’s club game, the lack of a cap has enabled extreme inequality domestically. Even in England’s 12-team Women’s Super League, the most competitive of the bunch, five teams have won more than half their games this season, while six teams have lost more than half. In the NWSL, by comparison, no team won more than half its games in 2022, and only one lost more than half.

“The WSL is growing, and they're attracting very big talent there now,” Casey Stoney, the British head coach of the NWSL’s Wave, said on a panel at the United Soccer Coaches Convention in January. “But this is the most competitive league in the world. You don't get big scorelines; you get very even games [in the NWSL]. The game is fast here, a lot faster than it is in the WSL.”

And some believe the salary cap is a key guardian of that evenness.

Then there is the business case for the cap, one made more so by the clubs still focused on surviving. “We know that the salary cap serves an important purpose because it creates some cost certainty,” Berman said this week. It ensures that even the league’s penny-pinchers can compete for titles, all while staying within their means. As salaries increase, Berman explained, the league must be confident “that our revenues are equally situated to be able to increase to support that.”

But there is a rising tide of teams that want to accelerate their outlays; that foresee sizable returns on their most important expenditure, on players, if only they were allowed to spend more freely. They think parity is overrated. They believe that, even if casual fans aren’t currently aware of foreign stars, they’ll soon realize what they're missing. Sources mentioned San Diego, Angel City and Kansas City as clubs with owners on the front foot — and many expect Boston and San Francisco, two soon-to-be announced franchises reportedly paying $50 million expansion fees, to join them.

“The emerging trend is investment,” says Meghann Burke, the executive director of the NWSL Players’ Association, who naturally believes the cap is too low. “That is a complete flip of the script from where we were when these rules were written. So it's time to revisit the rules.”

It's not just about the money, however

Many across the NWSL and outside the league are quick to point out that attracting stars requires more than just compensation. “For the players that we represent, the equation is not as simple,” Zamarripa says. “Yes, the money's important, but it's also about structure, commercial potential, being close to home, level of play — there's a lot of different factors.” And in many of those areas, the NWSL is both best-in-class and rapidly improving. In lieu of unrestricted salaries, owners are pouring money into facilities, staffs and all aspects of the player experience.

“Everything you do from a facility standpoint, to a player care standpoint, to housing — whatever it is that you do in your market — matters in order for you to bring international players in,” Lomnicki says.

Some also cherish the chance to play for clubs that are self-sufficient, that prioritize women and exist exclusively to build women’s soccer — rather than for women’s teams forced to play second-fiddle within their own European or Latin American clubs.

And they’re drawn to America, the sport’s standard-bearer. “I mean, culturally, in our country, it's so accepted,” Ellis says — far more so than elsewhere.

But there are also other deterrents. There is the lack of full free agency. And then there’s the calendar.

Several sources directed conversations away from the salary cap and roster rules, and toward the league’s calendar, to say that it has a far greater impact on the NWSL’s ability to woo foreign stars than many outsiders realize. Whereas most European leagues align with men’s leagues and the FIFA calendar, playing fall-to-spring, the NWSL opens in March or April and crowns a champion in October or November. It plays through major international tournaments like the World Cup, Euros, Copa America and Olympics. Historically, it has not paused for so-called FIFA windows, when clubs worldwide are required to release their players to national teams.

So it leaves top-flight players with too few professional games. The lack of alignment also means that their European contracts expire at inconvenient junctures, in June. “The time to sign players — well, unfortunately, that's right in the middle of our season,” Ellis says. They often no longer fit into budgets or beneath the salary cap. And if the player then goes to a World Cup or Euros soon after signing, the club only benefits for a couple months of her first season.

There are benefits to the current rhythm — namely, avoiding competition for programming and eyeballs with American football and men’s basketball entities — but the drawbacks have been hefty enough to spark widespread and ongoing talks with stakeholders and within the league office. Tatjana Haenni, the NWSL’s new chief sporting director, confirmed in an interview that the league has been discussing potential modifications to its calendar and schedule footprint; and that, while no decision is imminent, she and others have been working through the decision-making process “very intensively.”

FILE - Portland Thorns forward Sophia Smith holds the MVP trophy after the team's NWSL championship soccer match against the Kansas City Current, Oct. 29, 2022, in Washington. At left is NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman. Alyssa Thompson was the top pick in the NWSL draft by Angel City on Thursday, Jan. 12, becoming the first high school player to be selected in the history of the league. In the hours before the draft, Berman spoke to reporters at length about the state of the 12-team league. (AP Photo/Nick Wass, File)
Sophia Smith holds the MVP trophy after helping the Portland Thorns win the NWSL championship on Oct. 29, 2022, in Washington. At left is NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman. (AP Photo/Nick Wass, File)

'There's really nothing that's off the table'

Haenni, a longtime women’s soccer honcho at FIFA and UEFA, and in her native Switzerland, was hired by the NWSL this offseason to help it navigate all of these murky waters. And while she doesn’t have answers — she has spent the past few months on a listening tour, visiting teams, speaking with players and GMs, learning about her new home — she arrived in America with a global perspective and decades of experience.

And with ideas. The salary cap, for example, isn’t hers to raise or restrain, but when asked how the league could attract international stars with the cap still in place, she mentioned the possibility of a designated player rule similar to the one that allows clubs in MLS to exceed the cap in pursuit of certain players. (Haenni did not indicate that such a rule is currently being considered, only that it could be.)

She also spoke about trying to replicate the allure of the Champions League, yet another factor that pulls players to Europe. For now, there is no pan-American equivalent — and still no firm plans for a Women’s Club World Cup, despite years of FIFA promises — but Haenni called the creation of an intercontinental competition “a high priority.” It has been part of the calendar conversations. One league source mentioned the possibility of working directly with top European leagues, Liga MX in Mexico, and perhaps the Brasileirão Feminino in Brazil to organize their own eight-team tournament.

The league’s broad message, with respect to everything from the calendar to the future of the draft, is that “there's really nothing that's off the table,” as Berman said this week. “And one of the exciting things about being part of a challenger league, and a challenger property, is that, unlike some of the other leagues where I've worked [such as the NHL], we don't have 100 years of history that we need to work against to be able to think about redefining how we do things, and to infuse innovation into the league and our operations.”

But amid all the talk of evolution and innovation, no matter one’s opinion on the urgency or need for change, there’s also an acknowledgement that, you know, all of this is pretty darn cool.

“We're in an incredible moment in time,” Uhrman says, “where there is so much growth and attention to women's football, that the conversation isn't, 'Is the league going to be stable, is the league going to be around in a year?' It's, 'The league is growing. These expansion teams are killing it. Now, how do we get all of the best players in the world playing in this league for our fans?' ”

And even if they can’t, in the immediate-term, agree on the answer to that question, they are not imperiled. “NWSL is gonna continue to lose a few [players],” Zamarripa says. “But it's not to a point where it's alarming or something needs to drastically change.”

“There's no need to freak out,” Haenni said after yet another long day on her listening tour. “We're in a really good position.”