Nov 20, 2021 - Sports

Player empowerment is key to the future of U.S. women's pro soccer

The Orlando Pride Starting XI prior to a game between NJ/NY Gotham City FC and Orlando Pride at Exploria Stadium on October 9, 2021

The Orlando Pride Starting XI prior to a game between NJ/NY Gotham City FC and Orlando Pride at Exploria Stadium on October 9, 2021 in Orlando, Florida. Photo: Roy K. Miller/ISI Photos/Getty Images

When the National Women's Soccer League erupted into controversy this season over a slew of assault allegations, the future of the league — and more broadly, U.S. women’s professional soccer — looked uncertain.

Why it matters: The U.S. has had three women's professional soccer leagues in two decades, with the first two each lasting just three seasons. But the NWSL may be on a different path, sports analysts and former players say. That is, if the league and its teams put players' demands and concerns front and center.

  • "The future is one in which the players help to shape decisions and play an active role in the growth," NJ/NY Gotham FC interim general manager and former professional soccer player Yael Averbuch West told Axios.

Catch-up quick: Multiple NWSL players this year detailed cases of harassment and abuse.

  • What followed was a league-wide reckoning, with games canceled, the league's commissioner stepping down and multiple coaches fired, including North Carolina's Paul Riley and Washington Spirit's Richie Burke.
  • Players across the league demanded more systemic change. "Burn it all down. Let all their heads roll," Megan Rapinoe tweeted about the abuse allegations.

Flashback: U.S. women's professional soccer has existed on precarious footing since the first league, the Women's United Soccer Association, formed in 2001.

  • The WUSA folded after just three seasons due to a $20 million shortfall, largely caused by a lack of corporate sponsorship. The Women's Professional Soccer league then began in 2009, also lasting just three seasons, folding largely over a legal dispute.

Then came the NWSL, which formed in 2013 and has lasted nine seasons.

  • Unlike its predecessors, it has a growing list of corporate sponsors and a devoted fanbase. But the failures of previous leagues still linger, Averbuch West said.
  • "It's actually caused me on many occasions to not hold NWSL to high enough standards, because it's always a fine balance of pushing things forward versus causing too much disruption to something we all desperately want to succeed."

Turning to the future, sports researchers say that to ensure a sustainable, viable NWSL, players must stand at the center of the league.

  • "To sustain any league it takes what has always been done for men's league," said Nicole LaVoi, senior lecturer on social and behavioral sciences of physical activity at the University of Minnesota.
  • "It takes investment, it takes commitment, it takes strong leadership, it takes industry partners and corporate sponsors to take seriously that women's sport is worth investing in, which I think is starting to happen."

The big picture: The NWSL reckoning comes as women athletes worldwide decry unfair treatment in sports.

  • "The idea that women athletes are expected to just be appreciative that they have an opportunity ... so you don't complain, you don't speak out ... that ship has sailed, we're past that point, as a culture and as sports," said Cheryl Cooky, professor at Purdue University and editor of the Sociology of Sports Journal.

What to watch: While the future of women's professional soccer remains unclear, there are many reasons to believe the NWSL will stick around.

  • The league is set to expand by two teams next season, and Kansas City's team owners announced plans to construct a $70 million stadium for the women's team.
  • The NWSL last month also agreed to meet all eight demands put forth by the players association, including increased transparency across the league.
  • The NWLS championship venue changed this year at the request of the players, who criticized the game's early kickoff time. The championship game between the Washington Spirit and Chicago Red Stars is now scheduled for Saturday at 12pm ET in Louisville, Kentucky.

The bottom line: "I think for the first time we can stop asking the question of if it's sustainable and start looking at the best way to make sure it is," Averbuch West said.

Go deeper:

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  4. Cindy Parlow Cone: “We’re on the same side” as USWNT on equal pay
  5. USWNT and USMNT fighting for equal pay in CBA negotiations
  6. Two NWSL teams searching for new head coaches after abuse allegations
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