With all of the business decisions that continue to take place in the Women's Professional Soccer offseason, it is easy to forget about the players. The past few months in women's soccer have been wild. The U.S. Women's national team was the last team to qualify for the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup after losing to Mexico in CONCACAF qualifying and barely beating Italy in a playoff. On top of that, WPS recently spent two weeks in limbo as teams scrambled to secure finances for the 2011 season.
FC Gold Pride, the 2010 WPS champion, officially folded earlier in November. The Washington Freedom was saved by a last-minute miracle investor and questions still circle around the Chicago Red Stars, whose owners have until Dec. 15 to find additional investors.
However, now that the immediate future of WPS has been determined, serious attention must be given to how these events will affect player salaries and roster spots.
The average WPS player salary in 2010 was about $27,000, with U.S. Women's national team players and top internationals earning around double that. To the average person, that sounds like a modest wage. In most cities it is barely livable. Yet players and team owners could be facing a standoff in this free agency period.
Clearly concessions need to be made by both parties. The biggest line item in a team's budget is player salaries and as teams continue to search for ways to shave costs, salaries will be impacted. Sky Blue FC President and CEO Thomas Hofstetter said that while WPS players "deserve much more than they get," the bottom line is these clubs are still businesses.
"If you want to make this league sustainable in the long-term and re-establish this league as a league that can survive and grow it has to work financially," Hofstetter said in a state of the league conference call Nov. 17. "We have to continue to run -- I can't emphasize it enough -- we have to run this league, especially in the early stages, like a business. And the fact that the player costs are the biggest line item forces us to have to look at that."
However, players will collectively pushing back via the WPS Players Union. Collective bargaining is yet to begin, but it is clear the players want to influence league decisions, including the salary cap.
Kristen Graczyk played with FC Gold Pride in 2009 and 2010 and was one the leading figures in founding the players union that officially formed in September. Like everyone involved in the league, the players want to see WPS succeed in the long term -- but that does not mean they are ready to take major pay cuts.
"Players are willing to do what it takes to make this league work," Graczyk said. "In saying that, this is a professional league and it needs to be treated as professional. Once you start treating players like semipro it is questionable. I think there are a lot of things that go into team budgets and player salaries aren't the only thing."
In other words, there is a lot of back and forth that will need to take place between players and owners. There are currently 82 free agents searching for employment this offseason, many of whom are former all-stars. That's over half the number of available roster spots in 2011.
There's no question that U.S. national team players and top internationals will be signed -- after all, they're the reason WPS can call itself the best league in the world. However, the average, middle-of-the-roster player -- like Graczyk, for example -- will be forced to play in other leagues or retire from professional soccer all together. A stagnant number of roster spots make for fiercer competition in a growing talent pool.
The fully professional status of WPS is truly still a rarity in women's soccer. Compared to even its strongest competitors like the Frauen-Bundesliga, WPS players, on average, earn far more money than players in any other league. Players in most of the better European leagues work additional jobs in the offseason (and even during the season_ to make the dream of playing top-flight soccer come true. Some might call that semiprofessional status, but Europeans see it is a viable business model (many clubs also have the backing of men's teams -- see the recent rise of Olympique Lyonnais).
But what the European leagues do not do is splash money. That is what makes them sustainable. WPS players absolutely deserve more than they currently get -- from media coverage to attendance. But when it comes to compensation, some type of middle ground has to be found between the players and owners in order to make WPS viable.
If you think Brazil superstar Marta's $500,000 salary was not a huge burden on the now defunct FC Gold Pride, think again. That figure is clearly an outlier -- WPS' version of a designated player -- but team owners will be looking to get everything they can out of free agent signings, especially in a World Cup year where top internationals will miss significant time for international duty. There has even been some talk of factoring those absences into contracts, which the players union cannot be happy about.
Pushing players at the bottom of the depth charts out of WPS and into the second tier WPSL and W-League could actually benefit women's soccer by creating a stronger pyramid underneath the top flight. The bottom line is that talent pool has outgrown the number of opportunities available in WPS. Will that large selection of free agents give teams the power to drive down wages or will players stand firm? Either way, many players face a change in scenery in 2011.