In shadow of USWNT's wage dispute, NWSL set for historic fourth season

The NWSL enters uncharted territories as a fourth-year women's pro league in the U.S. -- just as pay controversy heats up for U.S. Soccer. Howard Megdal explores...

Even though NWSL commissioner Jeff Plush held court on a conference call Wednesday to preview the circuit's fourth season, the most important individual on the call was Becky Sauerbrunn.

The FC Kansas City defender is one of the faces of the complaint brought by members of the U.S. women's national team against U.S. Soccer. The prospect of an Olympic boycott has been raised, leading to serious questions about how players whose NWSL salaries are subsidized by U.S. Soccer would treat their participation in the fledgling league, which kicks off on Saturday.

Sauerbrunn quickly and forcefully put those concerns to rest Wednesday, allowing the NWSL to avoid the twin nightmares of playing without its most recognizable, marketable stars and forcing the rest of the league to choose between loyalty to their fellow players and employment that exists outside of the union representing national team members.

“The complaint that we filed is with U.S. Soccer and NWSL is a separate thing,” Sauerbrunn said. “We’re committed to playing in the league and everything else, that deals with the national team and U.S. Soccer. We’re just excited for NWSL to start.”

Still, how that could work remains unclear, and the NWSL season itself is not without its challenges, though exactly what nature they take will have a great deal to do with circumstances beyond the league's control.

For instance, should the players boycott Rio, a huge audience for the team and attendant publicity, something which propelled the NWSL to significant increases in attendance following the 2015 World Cup victory, would be missing.

Then again, any number of league officials and coaches will tell you how distracting the post-World Cup victory tour was, limiting focus on the NWSL and keeping stars away from their teams.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Sauerbrunn says USWNT committed to NWSL. (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

It is within this nether region that the nascent league exists, but there are some signs that the permanance of the league alone has paid dividends.

The NWSL did not announce a television deal until June 30 last year, well into the season, and did so late in the World Cup cycle. So the league's announcement on Thursday that three regular-season games in September and all three playoff games will air on FS1 puts the league ahead of last year's news cycle, although the matches are several months away. All the league's games are streamed on YouTube, but the difference between existing on an app individuals need to know about and seek out, and on a national television channel anyone can stumble upon, is enormous.

To that end, Plush described the Fox deal as a floor, not a ceiling, and indicated that further games beyond those the league expected to announce within “a day or so” would be possible.

NWSL PAY SCALE

  • Player minimum salary: $7,200
  • Player maximum salary: $39,700
  • 20-player salary cap per team: $278,000
  • Federation players (USA, Canada) paid by feds outside of cap

“We always are in conversations and exploring other ways to get our product more broadly distributed,” Plush said. “Whether that’s through linear and over the top strategy there’s a handful of different conversations that we’re engaged in and clearly you’d always want things to wrap up before the season starts, but I’ll tell you we’re pleased with where those conversations are going and we’ll let them run their course over the next weeks and months. No it’s not exclusive, no. I want to be very clear in speaking about how excited and proud we are about our FOX relationship but there is other conversations going on certainly.”

The league's sponsorship situation has been a puzzling one for some time as well. Despite a boom in commercial opportunities following the World Cup for the league's biggest stars—Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan and others—the league has maintained sponsorship deals with Nike, Coppertone and the National Mango Board, but hasn't added to them. Plush has talked about how long it takes to ink such deals in the past, but made pursuit of them sound shorter-term on Wednesday.

“We need to show growth in all revenue streams,” Plush said. “So that would be more people in more buildings. Certainly we need to show growth in sponsorship and while we have shown growth year over year with Nike and National Mango Board and Coppertone have all come back and all have increased their investment, we need more sponsors. We are in very significant negotiations in a couple fronts that we hope to able to share more information in the next handful of weeks.”

That influx of money should help the league's efforts to keep increasing salaries, something Plush said they've done each season, but with a current salary structure that leaves most players making well short of a livable annual wage, more needs to be done.

“We know that there’s certainly more to be done, especially at the lower end of the pay scale,” Plush said.

He continued: “One in particular that’s come up that we’ve in concert with some of our players that have expressed interest is around coaching and around coaching courses and licenses and where the league would be willing to underwrite those cost of those education classes. We fully acknowledge that there’s always more to be done and we’re ambitious to do more and we’ll continue to work toward that end year over year.”

In the meantime, there's also a season to play. The league added a 10th team this offseason, the Orlando Pride. The Pride is owned by the same group which owns MLS side Orlando City SC, and has already made substantial inroads within the community, something familiar to Pride midfielder Becky Edwards.

“Yeah, I mean coming here to Orlando, the interest from the people of Orlando, and the passion of the people of Orlando, it almost reminds me of playing in Portland in 2013,” said Edwards, who is set to play on her fourth team in four seasons. “It's special to be a part of it, and I'm really happy to be a part of it.”

And that's the sad part of the U.S. women’s national team complaint—to a certain extent, it obscures the vibrant and improving league entering its season, and gives an excuse to many outlets to cover the complaint itself while ignoring the way those players reached a status that made the EEOC move possible.

Sauerbrunn's statement would seem to indicate that NWSL games will feature a handful of those epic stars, along with no shortage of other talented, fascinating players, while parity ensures consistent competition.

“I think the quality has gotten better,” FC Kansas City coach Vlatko Andonovski said on the call. “And I think every team has gotten better last year to this year. One thing that I really enjoy about this league—everywherewe go, it is a competition.”

That's a pretty compelling thing for Plush and the NWSL to sell, a reason Plush says he's having productive conversations on expansion with Major League Soccer teams and entities outside MLS. And so he and the league plan to focus on what they can control—and the EEOC complaint certainly isn't that.

“We’re not parties to everything that is going on,” Plush said. “We have the 24 players in our league and certainly a great, very close relationship with the federation, I have all the confidence that they’ll continue to manage that and come out of it with their resolution. We will continue to do what we’re doing and that’s working really hard on our 10 clubs and 200 players and the federation partners and the season that’s about to embark. We’re continuing to stay focused on what we’re in control of and remain excited about what we’re trying to do and ambitious about what we need to continue to do.”

More features on FourFourTwo.com/us/  |  More NWSL

Howard Megdal is the editorial director of Excelle Sports. Follow him @HowardMegdal.