Amateur status: Why are NWSL teams fielding unpaid players?

ISI Photos-Robin Alam

With small rosters and international call-ups, the NWSL is using unpaid amateurs to fill the gaps. Evan Davis explores the ethics of that, and the changes on the horizon.

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Alyssa Kleiner’s prospects to become a professional in the National Women’s Soccer League looked grim back in early 2015. The left back had a tough senior year at Santa Clara. She broke her foot early in the season, keeping her sidelined for the remainder of the Broncos’ campaign. She went undrafted the next January.

“I thought I had little to no chance of playing in the league,” Kleiner told FourFourTwo in an e-mail.

Kleiner did get two offers to join training camps as a non-roster invitee. The one she accepted, from the Portland Thorns, turned into an opportunity to be one of the team’s amateur reserves. The World Cup was going to keep national team players away for up to nine games, and the NWSL decided to fill in the roster spots by having each team name up to 10 players as reserves who would train with the team, be named to game-day rosters when necessary, but also be unpaid, barring team-specific expenses.

Kleiner became one of the lucky ones. Portland offered her a contract last August, and then traded her to the Washington Spirit, where she is currently the starting left back. Hard work and exposure led to realizing her dream of being a professional. Is her story the norm, or are more amateurs being left in the cold based on an illusory promise of turning pro?

Amateur reserves are in the spotlight once again this season, thanks to the Olympics taking players from the United States, Canada, Australia, Brazil, France and New Zealand. I talked to players, coaches, owners, and an agent to get a clearer picture of how the amateur system works, and how it’s actually affecting top-flight women’s professional soccer in the United States. Why are amateurs being used at all? If it is indeed practical for teams to do so, is it even ethical? To what standard must the NWSL and its clubs be held for the exploitation of their labor?

Reality in numbers

NWSL salaries range from $7,200 to $39,700 per six-month season. Teams are limited to 20 paid roster spots. Teams are also bound by a $278,000 salary cap. All of these rules conspire to make for some very difficult roster circumstances, including limited bench depth, players who can barely afford to live in the markets where their teams play, and finally, up to 10 players per team who have strict amateur status. That means even basic personal expenses, like gas and some food, can’t be covered by the teams, as the Oregonian’s Jamie Goldberg reported earlier this year.

Amateurs aren’t medically covered, either.

“You don’t get medical coverage through the team, which in a way is worse than not getting paid,” said Faudlin Pierre, an agent representing Whitney Engen, Becky Edwards, and numerous other NWSL athletes. “If you break down, you’re going on your own health insurance. The team isn’t covering that. You’re not going on worker’s comp. You can train your tail off and risk injury.”

People who work, who do the exact same things as professionals, should get paid for it. I think that’s un-American. You’re just going to work for free?"

- Faudlin Pierre, agent

These players continue to show up, however, thanks to the hope that they might get a shot at a contract and become professional. That’s what kept Kleiner in Portland last year, and it paid off.

“Signing as an amateur gave me an opportunity to get my foot in the door with the league,” she said. “[I] couldn't have been happier with any decision because it led to where I am today.”

Players have also used their time as an amateur to earn contracts overseas. Cami Privett, now with the Houston Dash, went undrafted after four years at UC-Irvine. She joined the Dash in 2015 as an amateur, appearing four times during the season, including two starts. The resulting footage of her performances made its way to Norway, where she signed with first-division club Kolbotn IL that July.

“Playing for the Dash led me to going to Europe,” she said. “Without that, I wouldn’t have an agent of any sort. I would have just stayed an amateur player.”

Kleiner emphasized her opportunities to coach thanks to the Thorns, which paid the bills while she trained and played as an amateur. The schedule was often a struggle, and all of her earnings went to cover living expenses, but she still viewed the experience as one that paid off in the end. To hear her describe it, the amateur reserve system almost sounds like a college internship.

ISI Photos-Tony Quinn

Alyssa Kleiner in action with Washington. (ISI Photos-Tony Quinn)

As with Kleiner and the Thorns, a combination of organizational support and outside employment helped defray the cost of living.  But even with paid appearance fees, Privett still faced challenges. She picked up a part-time job at a soccer apparel store in downtown Houston to help make ends meet. Her host family lived 45 minutes away from where the Dash trained, so in the end, all of her income went to gas and food.

Why, again, aren’t these players being paid?

Giving up on the dream

Allie Bailey scored the first amateur goal in NWSL history when she was with the Houston Dash. She had gone undrafted out of Texas A&M, but since she wasn’t graduating until December, she decided that she would be able to handle being an amateur, just to see if she could earn a contract for the following year. She worked in the Dash’s ticketing office to earn money. She wasn’t offered a contract in 2015, but she thought that she would earn one for the 2016 season. It didn’t happen, and she hasn’t played professionally since.

“When I was told that it wasn’t going to work out, I didn’t want to play on a team unless I was professional,” Bailey said. “I was a college graduate. I had already gone through that amateur process. I didn’t feel like I was in a place in my life where I should be working for free.”

One hundred thirteen players have suited up as amateurs in the NWSL’s four-year history. For every Cami Privett or Alyssa Kleiner, there are many more Allie Baileys. If you aren’t getting paid, or even seeing the field during games, you can start to feel exploited.

“People who work, who do the exact same things as professionals, should get paid for it,” Pierre said. “I think that’s un-American. You’re just going to work for free? At the end of the day, if you’re going to use me as a practice player, I should be entitled to some wage. It may not be the wage that a rostered person is getting. It doesn’t mean that you should work for free, just because teams haven’t worked out a system that’s economically sound.”

Ownership groups, for their part, appears to be aware of the problem. Thorns owner Merritt Paulson went so far as to say that his marketplace demands full professionalism. But his position is not necessarily commonly held.

Chicago Red Stars owner Arnim Whisler believes that the process of expanding roster sizes and significantly increasing the salary cap should be done more slowly and carefully.

“You can probably increase competitiveness simply by increasing roster size, but it is a bigger cost,” Whisler told FourFourTwo. “The salary cap would go up, and there would perhaps be less money to go around per player. Plus, if you carry a 25-person roster every game, half aren’t playing.

“I try and design the league for the median team,” he said, speaking from Chicago's point of view. “Not for Portland, which is a completely different, very successful stand-alone business; not for our weakest teams, which may have other challenges which are preventing them from succeeding. I try to think that we should be designing the league for the average team. As long as the average team is doing well, we’re going to be fine. If we push too far and too fast, and the average team is under duress that could cause them to fail, then we’re not building a sustainable league that I know I set out to do.

“Of course we want to raise the salary cap. Of course we want to expand the roster. But we have to continue to see if, for the average team, it’s the right thing to do and we can afford it.”

Changes expected soon

One of the things that owners, coaches, agents and players all brought up is the idea of an intermediary salary system, one which would allow amateurs to at least earn some form of short-term contract. The idea is to allow players to be compensated when they’re called up to appear in gameday squads.

Both Whisler and Paulson seem reasonably confident that changes could be made for next season. “Can we make changes to allow for some number of players to have partial-season contracts? I think we can find a way to do this,” Whisler said. Paulson said something practically identical in a now-deleted tweet last week which stated that he expects changes next season.

Given the league’s very measured rate of growth, what are amateurs’ realistic chances of turning professional? And what responsibility do coaches and organizations have to those players?

Ownership groups like Whisler’s strongly feel the effects of past leagues. Whisler joined up with the Red Stars during the tumultuous three years of Women’s Professional Soccer, which folded after heavy spending and frequent mismanagement. The NWSL’s business model was designed to prevent that, with strict salary caps, roster sizes, and the U.S. Soccer Federation paying the wages of its biggest stars, the members of the U.S. women’s national team. With a record-setting fourth year now almost in the books, there are voices who wonder if a change is required.

Everyone publicly acknowledges that amateurism is not an ideal way to roster a team. Western New York’s Paul Riley, when he was head coach of the Thorns last season, said something similar. Dash head coach Randy Waldrum also voiced similar sentiments recently. “I think a lot of us on the technical side would like larger rosters and more contracts and more pay [for players],” Spirit head coach and general manager Jim Gabarra said. Team attendance and revenues are up across the board, according to Whisler. If the league proves itself to be sustainable, then it should become a priority to expand rosters and increase the salary cap.

So if the coaches want it and many of the owners want it, what’s it going to take to actually move the needle? Paulson isn’t the only one who thinks that the league could make a big leap forward next year.

“Every year in NWSL, we have raised the salary cap,” Arnim Whisler said. “Every year, we’ve raised the minimum pay. I like to think that will continue, and I like to think we could raise that somewhat dramatically next year.”

Pierre is more pointed. “You’ve reached year four, and that’s fine. Now is the time to make the system a whole lot more transparent, more fair.”  It remains to be seen whether the NWSL can pay players like Bailey, who, despite everything, still looks back fondly on her time as an amateur.

“It’s an experience I’ll never forget,” she says. “I scored a goal in a professional soccer match. That’s something no one can take away from me.

“If a player asked me if she should become an amateur, I’d tell them to try it out for a season and go from there. Work as hard as you can so you have no regrets. You never know what can happen. If that’s what you want, keep chasing your dream.”

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