Commentary

Are U.S. women ready for another union fight?

By Paul Kennedy
(@pkedit)

This should have been a good week for the National Women's Soccer League.

The U.S. women's national team roster for the Olympics was announced on Tuesday and 17 of the 18 players selected play in the NWSL. Meghan Klingenberg and Christen Press were alternates in 2012 but later returned from Sweden, where they were playing, and joined teams in the NWSL, facilitating their spots on the national team.

Allie Long is the poster child for the NWSL, a player who has toiled in the league for four seasons. She didn't get a callup to the national team during its 2015 Women's World Cup championship but served notice with a Best XI season for the Portland Thorns (10 goals) and jumped into the mix when brought in for a friendly against Colombia in April. Without the NWSL, Long would have never made the Rio 18.

On Saturday, the Thorns drew 16,942 fans -- more than five MLS teams average -- for a game against FC Kansas City played in the rain and without national team players like Long away preparing for the Olympics.

But all that was overshadowed by the fiasco at Frontier Field, the Rochester baseball stadium where the Western New York Flash and Seattle Reign played on the baseball outfield with dimensions of 100 by 58. Reign coach Laura Harvey called the decision to play the game a "farce."

This wasn't the first time teams have played on a baseball or football field with narrow dimensions. The New York Generals once played a game at Yankee Stadium on a field with a width of 50 yards so as to, like the Flash and Reign, not play on the infield on which Mickey Mantle, by then a first baseman, played. San Jose's Spartan Stadium was so narrow and the field so close to the stands that Scotsman Willie Johnston, playing for the Vancouver Whitecaps, once took a swig of beer after being offered it as he set up to take a corner kick.

What is different today is NFL and MLB stadiums are now built with soccer dimensions in mind and soccer-specific stadium are built. That includes Rochester's Rhinos Stadium, opened a decade ago but unavailable on Saturday.

What is also different is the powerful voice of U.S. women's national team players who have the megaphone of social media to lash out at what they see is wrong. In Chicago for the friendly against South Africa, they piled on. Stars Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan and Carli Lloyd all ripped the NWSL for allowing the game to be played and disrespecting NWSL players.

The USWNT and NWSL is an uneasy partnership.

The NWSL, the third women's pro league in the last 15 years, would not exist without the support of U.S. Soccer, which subsidizes the league by paying for the salaries of national team players and league staff. And players like Klingenberg and Press (and even Long) might not have returned from Europe if playing in the NWSL was not important for their national team aspirations.

But all that comes at a price. The NWSL cleared its 2016 schedule for all FIFA windows -- as well as 25 days before, during and after the Olympics -- but national team players were unavailable last weekend and the weekend before that when they were brought into camp. MLS has many of the same issues with national team conflicts but isn't as reliant as the NWSL is on its U.S. stars, nor are the U.S, men, frankly, as popular.

The U.S. stars earn far more than other NWSL players. If you include national team bonuses and endorsements, the top players make at least several times the entire salary budget of $278,000 under which NWSL teams operate. Small rosters mean there are situations like what happened last weekend to the Houston Dash, which didn't have a backup keeper for its game at Sky Blue FC, or the Thorns and KC Kansas City, which both used amateur callups in their game in Portland. (One of them, Tiffany Weimer, has had a pro career dating back a decade.)

The U.S. stars have previously called out work conditions in the NWSL, notably last season when  the visiting hotel in Kansas City was found to have bed bugs. But until recently, other issues were not forcibly addressed. (The irony of the Frontier Stadium fiasco, of course, is that Rhinos Stadium, where the game was supposed to have been played, has artificial turf, so loathed by women's players.)

The USMNT operates under the terms of a collective bargaining agreement -- or rather a CBA and a memorandum of understanding that was recently litigated -- but the NWSL has no CBA. (After Saturday, Reign captain Keelin Winters suggested it was time for a union.) If you don't think that there are conflicting priorities, then consider that the agreement between U.S. Soccer and the women's players association calls for no national team player to make less than the highest-paid non-national team player in the NWSL.

Hope Solo says it's time for change -- the title of her blog in which she blasts the NWSL for some of the conditions on the road, from the practice fields to locker room facilities and water jugs to team hotels (she said one hotel in Portland featured a pornography convention where people dressed up like animals). All conditions far less than most players were used to in college.

It doesn't make the situation any better, but many of the same shortcomings Solo ticked off existed in the days of the old NASL. All of it underscores the good news and bad news of the NWSL in Year 4. The good news is that the NWSL is the longest-operating U.S. women's pro league; the bad news is that it's the longest-operating U.S. women's pro league. To survive, the NWSL started out as a bare-bones operation and it largely remains such.

The same disparity in pay between players like Solo, Rapinoe, Morgan and Lloyd and the NWSL rank and file exists between the average attendance of the NWSL teams operated by MLS teams and those teams independently owned. Portland is averaging 16,362 fans a game, more than four times each of the bottom six teams is averaging.

The crazy thing about the situation in Rochester is that the Flash was promoting Frontier Stadium as a "special place" -- the USL Rhinos used to play there, using the infield -- and Saturday's game drew the team's second largest crowd of the season -- even without players like Solo on hand.

The Flash dates back to 2008 when it started in Buffalo in the W-League and later played in Women's Professional Soccer and Women's Premier Soccer League Elite, winning titles in all three leagues, it should be said. What happened before and at Saturday's game against Seattle suggests the Flash might be in over its head but it is a survivor. How do you criticize the Sahlen family, owner of the Flash, when so many others have bailed so unceremoniously on women's soccer?

Solo says she and her national team players stand united and are using their platform to support their NWSL teammates. They created an “Equal Play Equal Pay” T-shirt to promote their fight for equal pay and are directing 100 percent of the proceeds to the NWSL Players Trust Fund.

That's all fine and good, but meaningful change will only come not at the bargaining table where Solo and her U.S. teammates are attempting to hammer out a new CBA with U.S. Soccer but if they use their leverage to help Winters and their other NWSL teammates unionize and have their own bargaining unit.
11 comments about "Are U.S. women ready for another union fight?".
  1. R2 Dad, July 12, 2016 at 10:45 p.m.

    This is a tough one. This is like the first couple of years of MLS where attendance was shaky, teams folded--it takes a while to get market traction. I think establishing a union is a good idea, but the low levels of pay in the first contract might not make the rank and file very happy. If California is such a huge market for fans and soccer talent, why no Galaxy or Earthquakes women's teams?

  2. Ric Fonseca, July 12, 2016 at 10:55 p.m.

    OK, folks, I am simply APPALLED at the conditions the ladies have to play in, the disrespect they get from not only their league head honchos, but by MLS and US Soccer! Having been at the beginning of college four-year competition back in the late '80s and into the '90's when Title IX was beginning to raise its head, and seeing how much more "respect" they've gotten at least from the college sides, and to now read just what the efff is going on, is in this old guys opinion, mind effing boggling!!! As to why "no Galaxy or Earthquakes women's teams???(sic)" Do Come on now R2Dad, do really HAVE to ask??? More on this later, I am sure!!!

  3. James e Chandler, July 13, 2016 at 9:06 a.m.

    The hotel alleged to have bed bugs is just on the other side of the George Brett Bridge from Truman Sports Complex wherein is Arrowhead and Kauffman Stadiums, and was originally built to accommodate MLB, and NFL visiting teams, and the night club included within was one of Kansas City's hottest night spots.
    Sad if mis-management allowed an infestation, but this is not just some flea bag flophouse.

    The other side of this story is not that the women are underpaid, but that incomes generated by professional sports are excessive, and it's supported by advertising dollars that indirectly puts the financial burden on not just patrons, but all consumers. . . . . .
    We have US Bank substitutions, and Verizon corner kicks. How much these company's pay is based on how many people mentioning their product reaches. . . . .
    Though the Thorns have a large support grout, also realize they're piggy-backing on the Timbers, a luxury not all NWSL teams have, so when you have your paid attendance is at best 3-4 thousand spectators the revenue generated is insufficient to support the kind of salaries players are hoping for. . . . . . As far as field conditions it's ridiculous to play on a short, narrow field, but the most important thing is being on a surface that doesn't put the players at risk.

  4. Bob Ashpole, July 13, 2016 at 7:07 p.m.

    Poorly paid doesn't mean the league is not a professional league. Attitude is what counts. Some of the teams have higher attendance than some of the MLS teams, but many of the teams play in tiny stadiums which limit the ticket sales and revenues. Unionizing is not going to increase payroll when a business is operating at a loss in a tiny stadium. Maybe part of the answer would be USSF defraying a proportion of expenses associated with the national team players in addition to paying their salaries.

  5. Bob Ashpole replied, July 13, 2016 at 7:19 p.m.

    In a very real sense the league is contributing to USSF's WNT success. Last year the WNT program had a $6 million profit off the victory tour, while the league ran a 20 game season to accommodate. Even $200k a team ($2 million) would make a significant difference where in comparison the player salary cap is $278K (not counting Mexico and US national team players).

  6. don Lamb replied, July 15, 2016 at 12:29 p.m.

    USSF DOES pay national team players' salaries...

  7. uffe gustafsson, July 13, 2016 at 7:23 p.m.

    Yes ric.
    Why don't earthquakes and galaxy have invested in a women's team.
    Especially galaxy with the hot bed of girls youth soccer talent in so cal.
    Even English big clubs now have women's team in their portfolio.
    I would go to see earthquakes women's team to play, and with a new stadium soccer specific.

  8. Ric Fonseca replied, July 13, 2016 at 11:40 p.m.

    Kudos Uffe!!! Indeed, being very familiar with the Carson Galaxy, and the surrounding playing facilities, it sure a hell boggles the minds why this club and the "Quakes don't pull their heads out of the sand. In 1972 I was a faculty member of Cal St Dominguez Hills where the Carson Galaxy sits) the campus was in the throes of construction and expansion and they had a small field with a running track around it. Eight years later in 1980 I took my CSUN team to play the CSUDH team, on the very same field, so imagine my surprise when I learned of the huge soccer complex in the 21st Century, women's soccer was really taking off, and the number of girls/womens teams grew almost and virtually exponentionally! And yet, they don't deem it fit to field a women's pro team, dab smack in the middle of their midst? Sad.

  9. Ronnie Grant, July 15, 2016 at 4:23 p.m.

    Why should Los Angeles Galaxy have a women's team? Just because SoCal is a/the hot-bed for women's talent doesn't make it so.

    In today's market-place you're just delusional. Blame the sports-viewing/attending general public, not a men's professional team.

    Garber has said half the MLS teams could/would have a women's side. This would be good for women's professional soccer in the U.S. Much like MLS's investment in USL reserve sides is good for USL.

    Can we stop bashing MLS since it truly has a positive impact on American soccer (one caveat, if in fact half of it's teams field a women's team in the future).

    But why does any particular MLS side have/need to field a NWSL team?

    The USWNT is the best in the world, yet the NWSL has averaged 4137 (2014), 5046 (2015), and 5586 (currently in 2016) the past three seasons.

    Those are NASL numbers. NWSL total revenue probably doesn't match NASL. And the league has some of it's expenses paid by US Soccer (Canadian and Mexican federations, too) which probably allows many of the NWSL sides to come close to breaking even.

    Otherwise there is no money to increase salaries from the $360-2,000 per game the players currently receive. Unless the WNT players want to kick in some cash.

    TV ratings last season were a far cry from what the Women's World Cup drew (comparing bacon and eggs here, but there is a correlation).

    With Olympic gold, attendance (you could bet on it) and TV numbers (maybe) will increase in 2016.

    Long-term (10-15 years) I could see a 20-24 team league, attendance at 7500/game, TV viewers in the 150,000 range, and salaries in the $75,000 range.

  10. Ric Fonseca, July 17, 2016 at 6:18 p.m.

    Ronnie, you seem to have a handle opn things of this genre. Let's look at the Professional Women's Basketball teams, in this case the Sparks, that call Staples Center home. Are the Lakers and Clippers helping any? Hell not they aint!!!Why not? Answer this please. So does the Carson Galaxy and MLS making it a mandatory factor for them to continue playing? Nope. Why not? Are teams in Liga MX fielding women's teams or is the FMF footing some of their expenses? Nope. So the question conti- ues to beg an answer, and it looks like your comment above swims around it but doesn't make sense. In fact, it sure as hell reminds me back in the '70s when I was getting my feet wet, and the times I signed up to officiate high school soccer, when girls teams in the various LA based high school systems, private, parichial and public, tried to get some playing time, and the AD's standard answer was similar to your comment, that why should we have a girls soccer team, or basketball, etc., an answer that held until Title IX came and smacked them along side their ugly and negative thinking and reasoning that it all comes down to the usual ugly-bottom line$.

  11. Ronnie Grant, July 18, 2016 at 11:52 a.m.

    I guess you missed that the WNBA was started by the NBA, with the Sparks being founded by Buss and the LA Lakers. Though, if memory serves the league was set up as a single-entity (like MLS) essentially making the NBA the sole owner. Basketball is much more popular than soccer in this country, which is why the NBA and it's owners invested/started the WNBA. They figured they could make money (as usual, men continuing to exploit women) and that it would take years. There was no other reason they did it. Your comment of "ugly-bottom line$" means you agree with that.

    That you feel a professional sports team should be benevolent and start a women's brand is irrational. We are not talking about NCAA institutions and their government subsidies which allowed the mandate (correctly so) of Title IX. Men's college sports wasn't making money from the, I don't know, 1860s until around the 1980s. Only FBS and men's D1 basketball make money now. You can say they didn't have women's teams because they were sexist, which is what you're implying in your comments. But it certainly wasn't because they were greedy.

    That said, much like MLS (which was owned by what, four guys?) the WNBA has started to make money and now has multiple owners/ownership groups. MLS is not in the position where the NBA was financially twenty years ago. MLS, and most of its teams, can't fund a women's league/teams. In fact, financially MLS is most likely where the WNBA currently is. Finally making money; which, thankfully, is going into their reserve/USL team (for some MLS teams) and their youth teams (other NYC).

    In your world MLS teams should risk losing money and slowing the growth of MLS by funding/operating women's team or league. Garber has said MLS teams will get into the business of funding women's soccer, but they I'm assuming they will follow their business plan. Not yours.

    Bottom line, you're correct. MLS (or individual MLS teams) is looking at their bottom-line. Yes they're being "greedy" and looking out for their best interest and, as said, I agree with you. You can't, however, say they won't fund the NWSL because they're sexist.

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