Is professional women’s soccer an oxymoron? A blueprint to make sure it’s not

ASSOCIATED PRESS, Phelan M. Ebenhack

Women’s soccer, in recent years, has been a feel-good fix around the world. The public sees stellar play from top-notch athletes, an exploding fan base, and a powerful march toward equity.   

But, if you haven’t been paying attention, there’s a dark new narrative in the NWSL, the U.S. women’s professional league, where multiple teams have become engulfed in scandal. Players are speaking out about emotionally and sexually abusive coaches, poor working conditions, club and league mismanagement, and a striking lack of female representation in management and on coaching staffs. The stain is spreading; similar accusations are emerging from Australia to Venezuela, many predict college soccer will be next. 

It’s a #me-too-and-then-some moment for women’s soccer. 

Multiple coaches and the commissioner have been forced out, and there’s a worrying sense that this league, which undergirds the stellar US national team and the best system of women’s soccer in the world, may be less a powerhouse than a house of cards.

But for those of us inside, what’s happening is not a surprise. This third attempt at a U.S. women’s soccer league is still run like an old boy’s club — or, more accurately, a warped paternalistic ownership model that’s part charity and part hobby. It holds the players hostage, effectively, with low pay and almost no leverage to speak up or control their fate. 

And it’s no better for female staff. As an assistant coach, and a front office executive, I watched as unqualified men — who have since been accused of abusing staff — moved into jobs above me. This system of punting and promoting is outrageous, very much like the practice the Catholic church employed to shield abusive priests. 

It’s hard to overstate how powerless and angry women in the league feel. One of my players put it best when she said, “I’m a professional women’s soccer player. Most days, that feels like an oxymoron.”

It’s time for women’s soccer, for this league, to get truly professional. Owners, the league, and the players need to harness this moment to create lasting change. Here’s a blueprint:

The players have kicked this moment off, using their voices to incredible effect in recent months. That should continue. Their input into management must become routine.  

Owners, the league and the players’ association have to find a way to protect players, adopt rules that govern behavior in the league and offer a clear recourse when things don’t go well. The players association is negotiating its first contract, but the league and clubs need to step up on basic safety measures. It’s stunning that the league only created an anti-harassment policy earlier this year, after the players demanded it. 

Female coaches, staff, executives and owners have to become the norm. I’ve heard the excuse that “it’s impossible to find qualified female (fill in the blank)” so often I sometimes wonder if the league somehow got stuck in the 1970s. Debate about whether a woman might be qualified to serve in any position in this league is absurd on its face. 

Beyond recognizing what’s bad or abusive, the sport needs standards for healthy coaching, and, though seldom referenced, they exist. Dr. Sheila Ohlsson Walker’s cutting-edge focus on the effect good – and bad – coaching can have on athletes’ performance and mental health provides an excellent starting point.

As part of an effort to ensure reputable management, clubs should be required to have an HR rep (many clubs don’t have one) and access to trusted sports psychologists who are required to keep private conversations confidential.  

Some might argue that becoming “professional” is too expensive, a goal too lofty for this league right now. Not so. A Deloitte study recently predicted that broadcast and sponsorship revenue for women’s sports will soon exceed $1 billion globally. CBS and Twitch aren’t latching on to women’s soccer games out of kindness. Ratings increased by almost 500 percent in 2020, and the trend continues this year. 

There must be an overt, long-term plan to pay players a reasonable wage, one that makes professional soccer a true career move, rather than a part-time job. At the moment, being a “professional” means earning as little as $22,000 (or $35,000 for veterans.) Clubs and the league should explore giving players an ownership stake in clubs so they might benefit from the same potential investors see.  

The real danger, at the moment, isn’t the chaos. The danger is that once the chaos passes — after a few people are fired, and a few empty promises are made — the league will revert to the status quo. Let’s use this moment as an accelerator instead. Our so-called liabilities can be assets. Unlike major male sports franchises, for example, the league is nimble, and can shake off bad habits and create healthy ones based on new research and best practices. 

The sport has a stellar brand, kick-ass talent, and the national imagination. Now let’s focus on finally getting professional, and, in the process, getting the league’s integrity back, and role-modeling for the world what excellence in soccer really means. 

Kati Jo “KJ” Spisak is a former professional soccer player, coach and front office executive, who founded SPISAK, an agency representing female soccer players. She is the most decorated female soccer player in the history of Texas A&M University. A goalkeeper in the Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) league and the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), Spisak also played internationally for the United States U21 and U23 Women’s National team.