This year, the minimum salary in the NWSL is up to $15,000, but far below the league minimum of $53,000 in MLS. As a result, having to find viable ways to stay in women’s professional soccer is the norm for players who aren’t on the U.S. or Canadian national teams.

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When Keelin Pattillo played her first season with the Seattle Reign of the National Women’s Soccer League in 2013, she lived by herself in an apartment on the Eastside. Pattillo coached some on the side but, thanks to her contract with the U.S. national team, she didn’t work because she needed the money. She just enjoyed coaching.

But prior to Pattillo’s second season with the Reign, she lost her national-team contract, meaning a lot was about to change, she said. Pattillo began living with two teammates in Lake City. She continued coaching, but now she needed that extra money.

At the time, the minimum salary in the NWSL was $6,600 and the maximum was $31,500 for players who weren’t on the U.S., Canadian or Mexican national teams. Those federations paid for the league salaries of national-team players.

“Suddenly I realized that I needed another income to be stable,” said Pattillo, who played as Keelin Winters.

After the 2016 season, Pattillo, who had been a captain for the Reign for four years and said she made around $30,000, chose to retire from the sport, partially because she wanted more stability in her life. She was thinking about getting married, starting a family and buying a house. The job she had as a professional soccer player wasn’t enough to afford that.

This year, the minimum salary in the NWSL is up to $15,000, more than double that of last year but far below the league minimum of $53,000 in MLS. As a result, having to find viable ways to stay in women’s professional soccer is the norm for players who aren’t on the U.S. or Canadian national teams. (For the first three seasons, Mexico’s soccer federation also allocated players but has not done so the last two years.)

“At this point, I think in women’s professional soccer, you have more than one job,” said Reign midfielder Christine Nairn, who also coaches.

Through a Reign spokesperson, head coach and general manager Laura Harvey declined to comment for this story, and owners Bill and Teresa Predmore were not available for comment. A spokesman for the NWSL also declined to comment.

Athletes who have played for the Reign in the last five years often live with host families or with other teammates to make it work. They know the last two women’s professional soccer leagues have folded, so they try to create an on-field product that will drive in revenue, keeping this league afloat.

And they do it all in Seattle, a city where Pattillo said “it’s only going to get harder,” due to the rising cost of living. According to a Seattle Times report from earlier this year, the average renter is paying $1,749 a month, or an extra $635 compared to 2011.

“Insofar as we want the league to be sustainable, players have to be able to sustain themselves,” said Reign forward Megan Rapinoe, a member of the U.S. national team. “That’s something that I think obviously has to get better. And I think owners and players alike feel the same that that has to be better.”

Salary cap is $315,000 for whole team

Since the league began, the minimum salary, the maximum salary and team salary cap have increased each year, according to data from the NWSL.

This season, the salary cap for NWSL teams is $315,000. That pool of money is the maximum amount that can go to the salaries of non-allocated players, though a league spokesman noted the salary cap is a base number and factors such as injuries can make that total flexible.

The Reign has two federation players — Rapinoe of the U.S. national team and Diana Matheson of Canada, who is out for the season due to injury — and 19 non-federation players. The salaries of federation players are not required to follow the league minimum of $15,000 or the league maximum of $41,700. Canada Soccer declined to release salary information for allocated players, and U.S. Soccer did not respond to a request.

In May, non-allocated players formed the NWSL Players Association with the hopes of eventually unionizing.

“What I’ve noticed in the NWSL is that salaries have gradually increased, even if by a little bit,” said Kendall Fletcher, who played for the Reign from 2014 until 2016. “Even if they started slower, they’re heading in the right direction.”

But most professional women’s soccer players still need an extra source of income or at least a way to cut down on expenses, usually through housing.

When looking for a part-time job, most bosses aren’t going to eagerly accommodate last-minute schedule changes if a coach decides to move practice, Pattillo said. And how many workplaces would permit an employee to travel out of town for multiple days more than 10 times each season? So for a second job, choices are limited.

That’s where coaching comes in. Coaching is flexible with hours, and clubs welcome professional athletes for part-time work, Pattillo said. Still, it’s not the perfect solution.

“As a professional athlete, part of your job is to train really hard and to be really fit,” Pattillo said. “But the other part of your job is to get off your legs, stay rested, be ready to go, especially for games. … But obviously coaching is the opposite of staying off your feet.”

Rachel Corsie, a defender for the Reign, doesn’t have another job. She said she wants to embrace her soccer career and give herself time to rest. Corsie can do that because for the last three years, she has lived with a host family. Food is essentially her only expense, and even with that, she said she sometimes eats with the family.

The Reign helps facilitate the matching of host families with players who need a rent-free place to live. Lynnette Frank, whose family hosted Fletcher for three years, said her family received four Reign season tickets as the primary form of compensation for allowing a player to live with them.

Arranged by the Reign, Nairn lives in a house with three other players, one of the ways she said the team helps alleviate some of the players’ financial burden. Housing and auto expenses are two areas in which a team is permitted to spend additional money to assist players, according to the NWSL.

“The cost of (housing) is what really causes you to determine whether you’re going to be able to make that salary work,” Fletcher said.

Salaries for women’s players have also been an issue on the national-team level, though the salaries of women and men don’t necessarily make for a fair comparison, Rapinoe said.

“We understand that there are two different sports,” Rapinoe said. “And I don’t think you can just slice them up the exact same way.”

Last year, the U.S. national team received widespread attention after five players, including Rapinoe, filed a federal complaint for wage discrimination. The passion, she said, was not the result of earning less than their male counterparts. It was the reaction of being “pissed off that we didn’t think that we were being paid fair” and wanting an income that was “a little bit more representative of the money that we brought in,” Rapinoe said.

The 2016 complaint filed to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission pointed out the pay gap between the men’s and women’s national teams, according to The New York Times. If both national teams played the minimum of 20 friendlies a year, the women could have earned a maximum of $99,000 per year, compared to the men’s $263,320 if they won every game.

In April, U.S. Soccer and the U.S. Women’s National Team Players Association announced a collective-bargaining agreement through 2021, which, according to The New York Times, increased base pay by 30 percent and raised match bonuses.

Players don’t want league to fail

Before this season, Lifetime signed a three-year deal with the NWSL to become an official sponsor and broadcast partner. While NWSL teams are speckled with national-team players who can attract millions of viewers for international play — the 2015 Women’s World Cup final was watched by 23 million people, the most-watched soccer game in U.S. history — the league is still waiting for a popularity surge.

Both previous leagues, the Women’s United Soccer Association and Women’s Professional Soccer, lasted only three years before folding in 2003 and 2012, respectively.

The NWSL has outlived both, but the reverberations of the past leagues failing can still be felt. When the players push for more, they are wary to ask for too much, Pattillo said. They don’t want the league to fail, and they feel responsible to help prevent that.

“You want to keep demanding more because you deserve more, but you also don’t want to contribute to the instability of the league,” Pattillo said. “It’s a hard issue.”

One of the initial goals of the NWSL Players Association is to ensure that there are communication channels between the players and the NWSL front office, said Yael Averbuch, who plays for FC Kansas City and had a key role in the players assocation development.

The association doesn’t exist so it can “go after the league” in an aggressive way, Averbuch said, but it does serve as an “interim step” for ultimately creating a players’ union.

“It’s pretty much acknowledged not only among the players but among the front office, the owners and teams, everyone knows that the salaries need to increase,” Averbuch said. “Because you’re going to start to lose players because of that.”

How to ensure that those salaries continue to increase is a complex issue, but it can also boil down to supply and demand. The more people who watch women’s soccer, the higher the league’s revenue will be. The higher the revenue becomes, the more the salaries will grow.

With that logic, Fletcher said the focus should be to enhance the on-field product that the players create.

“We have to build something that is actually worth investing in, and we have to be a part of that,” Fletcher said. “We can’t just say, ‘Invest in us and we’re going to make this great.’ That’s not how it works.”

NWSL players are aware of the league’s reality. The NWSL is still young, and any improvement is a good sign. In Seattle, where the Reign competes with multiple other professional teams, an average of 3,500 fans have come to home games at Memorial Stadium this year. Overall, teams are averaging close to 5,000 spectators per game, down from about 5,500 last year.

The salaries are low but are gradually heading up, causing players to hope that even if they don’t get to personally reap the financial benefits, maybe those who play in the future will.

“We’re trying to grow,” Fletcher said. “It’s unrealistic to think you’re going to be making the big bucks at the moment, but I’m happy to do that because I wanted to be a part of developing this league.”

NWSL’s salary structure
A typical NWSL team carries a minimum of 18 players and a maximum of 20 on its active roster. Some of the players are allocated by the U.S. and Canadian soccer federations, who pay their players’ salaries. The non-allocated players fall under a league salary structure and count against the league’s salary cap. The Reign currently has 19 non-allocated players and one allocated player — Megan Rapinoe, who plays for the U.S. national team. How the salary structure has changed since the NWSL started in 2013:
Year Minimum salary Maximum salary Salary cap
2017 $15,000 $41,700 $315,000
2016 $7,200 $39,700 $278,000
2015 $6,842 $37,800 $265,000
2014 $6,600 $31,500 $220,000
2013 $6,000 $30,000 $200,000