This past weekend, most of the US Soccer presidential candidates spoke at the United Soccer Coaches convention. I was able to sit in on several of their panels and ask them specifically about the future of NWSL and what they think US Soccer’s involvement with the league should look like in coming years.
Unfortunately, due to other obligations and the scheduling of the candidates’ panels, I was not able to ask questions of all of them, but presented here are the responses from Kyle Martino, Eric Wynalda, and Steve Gans on what they think NWSL should look like five years from now, and how US Soccer’s involvement with the league should evolve. Please keep in mind this does not mean the other candidates do not have opinions on the league; this is simply what some of the candidates think. You can also find a write-up summarizing each candidate’s panel here. The answers below have been lightly edited for clarity and length.
What should NWSL look like five years from now?
Hopefully sooner than five years, NWSL should be a self-sustaining league, and a league that allows players to make their careers in it. Obviously it doesn’t pay enough right now for so many players to live full-time. And that in some ways is the definition of a full professional league. So US Soccer should - [it has] given support obviously, it’s in my platform - we’re going to give them more support to NWSL, whether from operating funds, or the surplus, or part of the A&E money. It’s my understanding there’s a small number of millions sitting in the bank, [due] to the A&E deal. So that’s going to be devoted to the NWSL for sure.
We need to make sure it’s the top league where people want to play, all over this world. And they want to come here. Now we have the opposite, we have players leaving, at least for part of the year. So we’ve got to make sure this is the number one league in the world.
What timeline is a good one for the federation to eventually divest from its obligation to NWSL?
Again, you have to actually look into the numbers. I believe in soccer in this country. You have what’s called the Santayana Rule, because those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it, and it happens over and over again in soccer. We know in the women’s league that there have been two failures fairly recently. So the idea that the costs be, not contained, but that they be reasonable so the league doesn’t fail, that’s a noble thought. The problem is this is maybe too modest in effort. So I could say, snap your fingers, and make everyone being 150, 200 thousand dollars, but it’s got to be done rationally. Because the real important thing is that there’s a league. We’ve had from 1985 to 1996, we had no men’s division one league in this country, and it really held back the game.
In terms of the timeline, it’s something that we have to be smart about. I know that we have to commit more right now, clearly, because it has to be at a higher level. But we have to do it fiscally responsibly. So I can’t tell you right now when the subsidization will stop, but we have to move in that direction right away.
What should NWSL look like five years from now?
I have four daughters, for one, and most of the conversations that I’ve had in regard to the NWSL – and this is why the federation needs to be a better partner, I kind of mentioned it on the stage and we didn’t get enough questions about the women’s game today which is unfortunate but - I think the the interest level, it’s at a stage now where all of the teams need to be functioning on their own. Even though they’re getting help from the federation, the federation needs to be a better partner in a different way. And I think the international television rights is something that – this is a business that I’ve been in for the last 16 years and I understand that component of it – it brings in an element of not just visibility but also the dollars that they’re going to be able to need to grow. You’ve got to think of it this way: the NWSL should be the best league in the world. That’s the mentality we need to have. I don’t know if Major League Soccer has that opportunity, but I certainly think the NWSL does. So being a better partner from the federation standpoint, creating visibility through an international television deal. Very similar to the NHL to a certain extent, where we have the best and people outside of us, outside the United States, outside of our borders, will pay to watch that. That’s a property that I think is going to dictate a big number.
What does being a better partner mean?
[US Soccer pays WNT players in NWSL] about 2.3 million dollars. And I think what that means is that it helps with some of the salaries for the players but what the league certainly needs is boots on the ground. We can’t sell a product if we don’t have anybody to sell it. It’s very difficult for our players to become a bigger part of their communities or maybe they get more recognition if we don’t have a partner through the federation, which is allowing them to do better work on the marketing side. Some of the markets are self contained. I think Portland is fantastic. I think Salt Lake’s going to be a different level as well. But the real question is how do we have an outreach program that’s going to reach more of the fanbase in some of the other markets that will take some pressure of some of our owners and allow the game to grow appropriately. Because it’s definitely there. It’s definitely there. Just not a lot of people know. And when they know and they get that opportunity to see high quality soccer, they’ll want to come back.
What should NWSL look like five years from now?
Because of our resources, because of our attention to women’s sports before others, we became the Spain, the Germany, the Brazil of the women’s game and we’re vanguards, we’re pace-setters. And other countries have invested in their professional leagues, have invested in many ways, and caught, and surpassed our women’s game. So our professional league is crucial to the development of players. Also the carrot for young girls to say, I’ve got somewhere to go. I didn’t have a professional league to play in when I was little, to aspire to, and that came in the mid-90’s, and now all of a sudden, it became real. It was tangible. I knew that the top for me was not a good college career... We need young girls out there to see their heroes, their stars, playing in stadiums professionally in their country, domestically. So the way that we’ve gone about it recently, and I give Dan Flynn and Sunil Gulati a lot of credit for putting focus on making sure you create a sustainable league through subsidizing some of the costs....
But in order to grow, we need more teams. And you can’t have a female player thinking that college is the end and retiring in her prime, around 22, 23. And how you do that is...you say we’re going to grow more opportunity here by creating some incentives. Major League Soccer had a similar problem. I mean Major League Soccer in the middle of the 2000’s was close to completely collapsing. And I give Don Garber and Sunil Gulati and others a lot of credit for coming up with Soccer United Marketing. And one aspect they did was they wanted the English broadcasting rights so that they get the World Cup in this country. Also created a leveraged package of, you want US Soccer, you gotta have MLS, you want MLS, you gotta have US Soccer. There are ways that we can do that with NWSL, but also there are ways to create a model where, just like we asked a few owners back in the mid 2000’s for MLS, just believe that we’ll get over the hump. Just believe that investment now can lead to long-term gains and stability. And that’s given us a thriving first division for men’s soccer. The same is true for the women’s game where if, you link it to expansion, if right now you’re coming into the professional league for Major League Soccer, one of the prerequisites is that you have to fund a women’s league and have affiliate women's league that you will subsidize, that’s one mechanism that can make the short term losses, you can mitigate that. You make it more attractive for some owners to say we want to of course grow the women’s game here. To say okay, I see that mitigating my risk based on combining it with another franchise is a way to get over a hump, where we finally can disconnect the federation, take that umbilical cord off and let our professional league thrive, because our women are world class players....
I think for sure that we need to not be dependent on US Soccer funding salaries. We need the clubs to step up and pay soccer players to have a career, a career that’s exclusively in our league, growing into other markets. So we need twice as many teams as we have. So for sure the goal should be to double the markets. The next goal is to try and figure out - we’re early on this one with ECNL and the DA, we’re not really sure since it’s so new, where that’s going to leave the development phase of the women’s game. But the affiliation with Major League Soccer clubs, and credit to...NYCFC and other organizations, have created a very low-cost, high level of training for young players. It has to happen on the women’s side too. And we’re just not in enough markets. And so of course expansion is something that needs to be done slowly, but the goal should be absolutely in five years to double amount of teams in the league.