When Kati Jo “KJ” Spisak played professional soccer, women didn't have agents – “except Abby Wambach,” she jokes.
So Spisak pretended to have one. She negotiated contracts and conducted other business using a different email.
That did not help when in May of the 2010 Women’s Professional Soccer season, Saint Louis Athletica announced it was folding immediately.
“That was my ‘aha!’ moment,” Spisak recalls. “I thought, ‘Why don’t we have people who can fight for us?’”
Female soccer players now have agents – and advocates.
One of them is Spisak herself. The most decorated woman’s soccer player at Texas A&M University, former national team U-21 and U-23 and pro athlete, coach and front office executive founded SPISAK two years ago. Based in Washington, D.C. – where Spisak played, coached and scouted for the National Women’s Soccer League's Spirit — the agency handles legal issues, social media, branding, partnerships and other opportunities for 15 female pros.
Soccer is in Spisak’s blood. Her uncle, Steve Pecher, earned 17 caps with the U.S. men’s national team, and was 1976 North American Soccer League Rookie of the Year with the Dallas Tornado.
Another relative, Dent McSkimming, was a noted St. Louis sportswriter (and the only American journalist at the 1950 World Cup in Brazil). He paid his own way, and reported from Belo Horizonte when the U.S. stunned England 1-0.
Pecher coached Spisak when she was young. Needing a goalkeeper, he converted her from the field. She did not like the position then. Today, though, she says, “I wasn’t fast or skilled, so it was perfect for me. I could wait for the ball while other people played it.”
When the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA) began in 2001, Spisak was inspired. “I could play soccer as a job!” she realized.
But when the league imploded two years later, “our hearts were ripped out of our chests. The WUSA helped women dream. Then it was taken away.”
Spisak signed with the Washington Freedom of the WPS. It was a “talented, fun” team. Finally, after moving to St. Louis and seeing that league fold too, Spisak got a “real job” teaching in a Maryland private school.
Then along came the NWSL. Spisak was tempted. Yet – by then also associate athletic director – she wondered how she could give up her career and salary to join a “questionable league, after two breakups.”
She chose “stability.”
But the Washington Spirit asked her to serve as an assistant coach. She kept her teaching job, and arranged for the team to use her school’s facilities.
Rising to new roles as head coach of the reserve team and director of scouting, Spisak had an inside view of signings, trades and salary negotiations. “What players were making was different than what they should have been making,” she says. “It was basically ‘take it or leave it.’ No one fought for them.”
A little more than two years ago, she left the Spirit. She founded her agency, to fight for players throughout the league.
KJ Spisak with Washington Spirit midfielder Tori Huster (left), who also serves as President of the NWSL Players Association.
Change comes slowly. The collective bargaining agreement between U.S. Soccer and the women’s national team covers just “the top sliver of talent” in the country, Spisak notes. It does not impact “all the women making $40,000 a year in the NWSL.”
The NWSL’s CBA has pushed the game forward. There are better benefits and working conditions; maternity leave was added, and revenue-sharing expanded.
Yet female soccer players still need help finding sponsors, networking, and preparing for careers after retirement.
Plenty of agencies focus on male players. SPISAK is a rarity: specializing in females. The owner is bullish on the future. “Women’s soccer is in a very healthy space,” Spisak says. “Ownership, clubs, facilities are strong. It all trickles down.”
However, she adds, one “massive opportunity” is overlooked: connecting pro leagues with the college and youth games. “We have something no other country has,” she says, referring to those younger age groups. “If we bring them all together, we’ll be so strong no one else can compete with us.
“So far we’ve relied on ‘bigger, better, stronger.’ Now we have to strengthen those relationships, to create the best league and national team. There are huge opportunities for player development.”
When the next generation of players comes through, they’ll know where to turn for advice. One women-only full-service agency is waiting to help.
She seems to have her hands full in the US, but there is an international opportunity for an agent to link UEFA clubs w NWSL and A-League clubs to maximize player utility and development. Clubs do this already to an extent, but an agent would best represent player interests.
Thanks Dan for highlighting another important stakeholder in the growth of women's soccer. I am in the camp that also believes, "... one 'massive opportunity' is overlooked: connecting pro leagues with the college and youth game. 'We have something no other country has,' she says, referring to those younger age groups. 'If we bring them all together, we'll be so strong no one else can compete with us.'" The same quantity argument exists for the men's side, but the women's side has the quality piece, too, as the women's college game was one of only a few premier elite player development platforms worldwide for the past 30 years. Yes, that will change as the rest of the world pours resources into their domestic leagues, but we still have a "massive" head start to combine college with NWSL, USL, WPSL, etc. The next step, for both the women's and men's college game, may be to get the NCAA to rewrite their amateurism bylaws and allow a student-athlete to have five years to play four anywhere, any level post age 18, regardless of prior professional/amateur status.