CHICAGO — The path ahead for the National Women’s Soccer League is poised to shift as U.S. Soccer’s involvement in operating the league may change again.
The U.S. Soccer Federation’s board of directors declined Saturday in a closed-door session to approve a plan proposed by NWSL owners that would see the league become independent but receive a major funding boost from U.S. Soccer, multiple sources tell Yahoo Sports. Instead, in a surprise move, U.S. Soccer offered to keep managing the league for another year while negotiations continue.
NWSL owners had asked for U.S. Soccer to end its management agreement overseeing the league but fund NWSL operations through 2028, allocating $7 million in 2020 and $5 million every year after that, sources say. U.S. Soccer founded the NWSL in 2013 and has operated the league’s front office ever since, but NWSL owners have been eager to transition it into an independent league, a move U.S. Soccer also wants long term.
Instead, U.S. Soccer offered a counterproposal that the two sides had not discussed beforehand: U.S. Soccer would extend its agreement to run the league for another year while the two sides worked toward a concrete resolution by 2021. U.S. Soccer sent an email to the NWSL’s negotiation committee after Saturday's meeting adjourned explaining the board’s proposal, according to sources.
U.S. Soccer’s offer does include additional annual funding for the NWSL of up to $1 million for specific expenditures that the federation must approve beforehand. That would be on top of the almost $1 million the federation would continue to spend running the NWSL’s front office operations and around $1.7 million in non-negotiable salaries for U.S. women’s national team players as set by the USWNT collective bargaining agreement.
Sources spoke on the condition of anonymity because the board’s discussion in executive session is not supposed to be made public. U.S. Soccer’s current management agreement to run the NWSL is set to expire on Dec. 31.
Part of the concern from U.S. Soccer's board is that the NWSL's funding request of around $47 million over nine years far exceeds the NWSL’s funding level to date, sources say. In the NWSL’s first seven seasons through the end of this year, U.S. Soccer has spent around $20 million total in combined operational costs and USWNT salaries.
A day before the board rejected the NWSL’s funding plan, U.S. Soccer officials presented a budget that would see the federation’s reserves drop rapidly over the next five years to fund strategic growth, as well as defend several lawsuits.
But the more pressing concern raised Saturday is the federation's perception that NWSL owners aren’t aligned in their vision for the future of the league, and there is no commissioner in place to guide them. The federation, sources say, has been asking the NWSL owners to appoint a strong commissioner for more than a year. The NWSL’s last commissioner, Jeff Plush, stepped down before the 2017 season and hasn’t been replaced.
A commissioner search now is underway, and sources tell Yahoo Sports that current NWSL president Amanda Duffy is a candidate for the job. League sources also say an early hurdle in the selection process was building a consensus among all of the NWSL’s nine team owners on what exactly the commissioner’s role should look like.
Last month, the NWSL announced new compensation rules for 2020 that included an almost 20% increase to the spending cap, up to $650,000 per team, and the rules raised the minimum and maximum player salaries to $20,000 and $50,000, respectively.
More importantly, the compensation reforms introduced a new spending mechanism called allocation money, which would allow teams to buy up to $300,000 in extra money beyond the salary cap to spend on players who meet criteria to ensure they are high-quality players.
The new rules were a step toward the NWSL raising its own standards and becoming more competitive globally — and NWSL owners hoped it would show U.S. Soccer the league is serious about growth. But from U.S. Soccer’s perspective, the NWSL clubs are asking the federation to pay for the new rules without doing any of the heavy lifting themselves.
Sources say the NWSL discussion was a lengthy part of Saturday’s closed-door meetings in Chicago, and board members “agonized” about finding a way to support the league while balancing the federation’s other priorities. And despite ongoing concerns, the federation has been pleased with the continued progress the NWSL has made in attracting record crowds, recruiting new expansion teams, and raising standards.
For now, U.S. Soccer officials and NWSL owners have different ideas about what the federation’s involvement in the league will look like – but with Dec. 31 rapidly approaching, they need to find more common ground soon.
(NWSL owners on the committee negotiating with U.S. Soccer declined comment or did not respond to Yahoo Sports’ requests Sunday.)
Caitlin Murray is a contributor to Yahoo Sports and her book about the U.S. women’s national team, The National Team: The Inside Story of the Women Who Changed Soccer, is out now. Follow her on Twitter @caitlinmurr.
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