As women’s soccer continues its growth and evolution, we checked in with NWSL Players Association President Yael Averbuch to talk about the recent folding of the Boston Breakers, league expansion, player development, and how fans can support the players.
Yael Averbuch is a veteran star of the National Women’s Soccer League. Her resume includes national championships at NCAA powerhouse North Carolina, 26 caps for the U.S. women’s national team, and stops in both Russia and Germany before establishing herself as one of the top midfielders in the women’s game. Less than a year ago, Averbuch was elected President of the NWSL Players Association, an unofficial group representing non-allocated players in the league (very roughly: players who are not national team regulars).
FiftyFive.One: It was announced that the Boston Breakers have folded, leaving the NWSL with just nine teams. But there have also been reports here and there about a last-ditch effort to save the team. Whether the team ends up being rescued for this season, it’s obviously a really tough situation for players. What’s the word when you talk to players out there and what would you hope to push for to mitigate the impacts of that situation?
Yael Averbuch: To be honest, we’ve been asked not to comment on this at the moment so I’m not going to specifically talk about the Boston situation. Although, yes, it’s a very unfortunate situation and sad. I will say, it’s been a really interesting offseason because for a long time not much has gone on with the league. And then you have the news of a new franchise in Utah coming in and FC Kansas City no longer existing, then you have the draft and a ton of trades and movement around the league, and now we have this news surrounding Boston. So, what’s been really interesting is things can always be smoother and better and many of these things are not things you want to see, but what I think what we are trying to, as players and a league, bring that focus to is the action that’s surrounding these things. For example, it’s really sad that FC Kansas City is no longer a team – that was my club and I was very very happy there – but now we have the Utah Royals backed by Real Salt Lake. I think it’s going to be a really special setup there that’s run extremely well and extremely professionally. So in that sense we’re adding a really strong franchise to the league. Likewise, whatever happens with Boston, the hope is that it will, in the long term, be a strengthening situation for the league – where the league is actually more sustainable as things move forward. But obviously the timing is pretty unfortunate right before the season.
Despite this setback, the future of @NWSL is bright! We appreciate the league-wide efforts to provide the Breakers roster with opportunities. If you’re looking for a way to support, buy season tix. If you don’t live near a team, pick a franchise & donate the tix back to the club.
— NWSLPA (@nwsl_players) January 28, 2018
And soccer fans in Minnesota are used to struggles with ownership and league changes so that doesn’t sound entirely foreign. One thing you’ve been very clear about is the need to strengthen the NWSL league front office and have things fully staffed and professionalized. Frankly, a more robust league office could be charged with handling situations like we’re seeing in Boston, among other things. What are the steps to getting to that fully built-out league office?
YA: I’m not 100 percent clear what the specific steps are to getting there, but that’s one thing we’ve been trying to be proactive about. With the draft and a couple teams moving this offseason it’s been a little crazy. But once things calm down our goal is to figure out those exact steps and hopefully have some type of seat at the table in these conversations. But it’s really as simple as step one, having an officially named commissioner. And that sounds like a simple thing but there may be more steps involved in that than I’m aware of. I do understand it’s more complex than we all probably think. It’s not as simple as just ‘name a commissioner’ but that’s an absolute must. You know, we played all of last season without an official commissioner of our league. I just think we need somebody who is officially in charge to make decisions on behalf of the league. And as you mentioned, then that person has a fully staffed team of people around them. It’s one thing to have a commissioner but if that person is not able to take action or execute on their decision because they don’t have the help necessary then that’s step two. One is absolutely having the commissioner. It would be assumed that that person would be Amanda Duffy. She’s already done a ton for the league and it seems like it would be a good fit. So our goal is to find out why it is that she hasn’t been named commissioner and help her and everyone take the steps necessary to do that. Then also, investigate what positions we need to fill so we have a front office–and we currently have a front office, but a lot of people there in dual roles with U.S. Soccer, who has been amazing in fundraising on behalf of this league for us–but it’s time to empower people who can be solely responsible for our league. And can make decisions about the league without going back to U.S. Soccer.
And for some context for the readers, the NWSL is obviously a young league, but the NWSL Players Association for the non-national team players is even younger. It was started less than a year ago as a way so those players were able to have a voice who could speak to those players’ needs. From Minnesota’s perspective, now that MN United is in MLS, you do hear a little more talk and discussion about when they might get their USL affiliate up and running and when they might even get an NWSL team. That sort of fits into the broader discussion across NWSL about whether the focus should be on partnering with more MLS teams to take advantage of those efficiencies in the front office, facilities, etc. Is that something in particular that you focus on?
YA: The goal is to have women’s clubs at very strong organizations. We’re still at the point, and we will be for a while, where this is not a money-making endeavor for these franchises. If you look at it in an ideal world, we’d get all the franchises to the point where the Portland Thorns are. They’re doing by far the best in terms of whatever financial metric you’d choose to measure by. But I think that the easiest route to that is obviously to combine with clubs that already have an infrastructure in place. Whether it’s facilities or staff like you mentioned, you take advantage of those resources and then it’s so much easier to expand and hire staff and partner up on those things rather than create a whole new front office and organization for just a women’s team. That doesn’t mean that can’t be done and can’t be done really successfully in some cases. But I think what we’ve seen around the league is that the most stable teams and the best run teams, at this point, are the ones who are associated with MLS franchises. We use Portland as the example. If everyone could get to a version of what Portland is doing but in their own market in a way that makes sense, then we’ve made massive progress. There are still really well-run organizations that have done a good job that are not associated with men’s teams, but moving forward it makes sense logistics-wise.
Right. And that partnership model exists in multiple sports, and not just across men’s and women’s sports. Minnesota has a fantastic example of how that model can work in the Lynx, who have been wildly successful in the WNBA and are obviously partnered with the Timberwolves in the NBA. In Toronto, the Raptors are owned by the same organization that owns the Maple Leafs in the NHL and made fans buy Raptors tickets in order to get a better chance at Maple Leaf tickets. Even in soccer specifically, you see those partnerships all over the world and especially in Europe, right?
YA: Exactly. It’s shown to be hugely successful in Europe. Obviously part of it is you have these men’s clubs that have been around for hundreds of years and have massive budgets so we’re talking about a different scope—the equivalent of a few sports teams combined here. But it’s the same concept and that’s the route forward. It makes sense to align as a sporting club. You look at FC Barcelona. They have a men’s soccer team, a women’s soccer team, a basketball team, so the structure here is a little different but that makes sense business wise. You have the club and the club supports teams that are competing in different leagues, including a women’s soccer team. That’s not the only way to do it, but logistically it makes the most sense and there’s the most support that way. Which is really what we need at this point. We need that support and we need sustainability.
Happy I got to meet the @rcnjwsoccer team tonight! Another college program using the @technefutbol app this offseason to own their development/improvement. We discussed everything from how we allocate our energy, to habit-forming, to offseason training, to business strategy ???? pic.twitter.com/zwO5uFQ1iP
— Yael Averbuch West (@Yael_Averbuch) January 27, 2018
The other thing you’ve really focused on is that from the player perspective the next big step is being able to make some kind of living by playing professional soccer. From your perspective, is it more about bringing up those minimum salaries, raising the maximum salaries, raising the salary cap, or something else entirely? Right now the minimum is $15,000 and the salary cap is $325,000 per team.
YA: We’re at the point where eventually it needs to be both. We did just have a huge raise in the minimum, which isn’t saying much because as you said it’s still very low, but it was almost doubled before last season. So, there has been progress there. Everyone is aware. No faction of the league disagrees that those things need to go up. From the fans showing up, to the front office of the league, to team staff, to national team players, non allocated players, everyone knows those numbers have to go up. So what we’re focused on right now as a players association is to create a better and more sustainable experience for our players assuming those things don’t go up anytime soon or just very slowly progress. Because we’re all aware that that is going to be the result of a lot of other pieces of the league. For those numbers to go up, realistically, we need to continue to expand our viewership. We need to make the marketing better. We need to get more people in the seats. There’s a lot of things that go into it. We need to get bigger corporate sponsors. Individual teams need more local sponsors. So as those things improve, we would hope and assume that we would see improvements in the salaries and it would become a more livable wage. In the meantime, we are trying to support the players in one: making sure the experience is at least a positive one. So if you’re not making as much money as you hope in the NWSL, can you be playing for a team where you feel like you’re getting better as a player, you’re being treated professionally on and off the field, and you enjoy what you do everyday. Can we make sure players are looked out for in the case of trades and relocation situations? Can those things be covered better and can it be clear that players shouldn’t be spending out of pocket to endure those type of changes in their career? Things like offering coaching education to current players. Something that’s of monetary value. Can we subsidize that or make it free so they can get their coaching licenses while playing? Different things like that and even internship and other work opportunities. So, that’s where our focus lies: creative solutions that will, essentially, give us a little bit of fortitude so we can withstand these low salaries so can continue to play and enjoy what we do. Then, when the time is right, we will obviously fight to ensure everyone is paid fairly and gets a livable wage. Realistically, we all know it will take some time to get there.
You mentioned player movement and that made me think of the draft. I’ve always been curious about the fact that there are four rounds when there are so few roster spots open on any given team in any given year. It almost seems like it’s designed to be a bit over-sized. But is that to make sure teams can get rights to certain players who may end up overseas, or just to generally cast a really wide net? From a player perspective, does it seem to be set up well?
YA: We’re at an interesting point in the league, because realistically there’s a deep player pool in the U.S.; players coming out of college who could potentially play professionally. We want to make things exciting as possible for as many players as possible and invite as many of those players to have a chance at the NWSL. At the same time, we do have a limited number of teams like you said. And, like you said, the roster sizes are small, which is a financial decision and it’s also a quality control decision. At this point, if we want this league to be a place where our national team players prepare to win a World Cup or Olympics, we are kind of best served to keep the number of teams and roster size on the smaller end and make sure we have enough spots for international team players and national team caliber players, is how I would say it. Because we have a lot of players in this country I would consider national team caliber players. It doesn’t mean they’re all on the national team. So the more we can fill our league with those national team caliber players and not dilute it too much further, the better the quality of play will be, the better the product will be to watch, the better it will prepare our national team to compete at the highest level. That being said, obviously as we’re able to expand and continue with that same quality, it will be important to do so. We want more opportunities for more players. But this goes back too to salary caps, minimum salary, and things like that. I think we have more chance of raising those things if the league is kept smaller. This still includes players coming out of college. There will be players who come out of the draft and certainly get offered contracts and roster spots, it’s just not guaranteed. Even if you’re a first round draft pick, it’s not guaranteed that you’ll have a contract spot. You’ll be invited to preseason where you’re drafted, but it’s hard to get a contract in this league. We have excellent, excellent players who could play in a lot of other countries overseas who can’t get a contract here in the NWSL, which is good and bad. The goal should be to keep the quality as high as we can and to pay everyone who is able to play at that level more as we go. Then, as we go, hopefully we’ll be able to expand that at the same time to create more opportunities.
With that thought of being intentional about how you expand and not expanding too quickly, has there been any thought to creating an NWSL specific reserve league – even if it was unpaid or paid very little – to offer a little more opportunity for development while the league is still fairly small? Or do the existing minor leagues like the W League and WPSL serve that purpose?
YA: A lot of the teams do have W League or WPSL teams that are affiliated with them. Then those teams are filled with reserves from the pro teams and also college players. So a lot of the clubs provide something like that for their players or they’ll have a certain number of training players who are training every day and they’re around the team so if someone gets hurt or someone is called up to international duty those reserves are ready to be called in for a weekend. I think to be really honest, that needs to happen, we need to have a reserve league, but that isn’t so much a priority because we need to make sure the main league is sorted out. But at some point I think that’s very important so you can get the training necessary for more players to make that jump.
Right. Because now it seems like some of that development happens overseas. Several recent U of M graduates for example have gone on to play overseas in various leagues. But it seems like that is enough of a grind that a lot of top college players are deterred from trying it at all or that players who do go down that road have a pretty hard time to transition out of the game into the workplace too. The coaching training you talked about earlier seems to address that kind of challenge directly. Can you talk about the kind of commitment it takes to grind out a professional career at this stage in the women’s game?
YA: It’s interesting. This is where I think there’s some misconception about being a professional soccer player on the women’s side. I think – and I’ve told players this coming out of college – if you are somewhere close to the quality of being professional as an elite college player and you want to make a professional career for yourself you can. That may mean going somewhere you never thought you’d live for a couple years. I’ve heard of players going to play in Kazakhstan, going to play in Korea. There are ones that might seem a little shocking but there are wonderful leagues and second leagues in Sweden, Germany, Japan, Iceland, Norway, Holland, you could name a lot of professional leagues. We have Americans who have gone overseas and had long term professional careers in some of these countries. And maybe they thought they were going to come back but they loved it playing there. The quality of everything is very professional and it can be a very enjoyable experience. Even for a player who gets a contract their first year coming out of college in the NWSL, it may be the same problem. It may be a grind. Maybe you’re not playing the position you want. Maybe you’re not starting. Maybe you’re playing less. Maybe it’s better for you to go play in Europe and get minutes on a team. Maybe you find a great situation and have a solid spot with an NWSL team. Our emphasis on “you make it and you’re drafted and you get a contract or you’re not a professional”, that’s not realistically how it works at this point. And I’ve seen it a ton of times. I’ve seen it with top, top college players. They can come out of college and end up not doing so well in NWSL even though they have a contract. Then I’ve seen players who aren’t drafted so maybe they decide to go overseas for a couple years, make a really nice career for themselves, and then come back to the U.S and kind of carve out a role for themselves and have a long, long career. So if players coming out are wanting to be professionals and if they truly have the grit to find a path for themselves, they can be very successful players. It’s just a matter of what someone has in their mind about what their professional career should or could be like and maybe expanding that to include something different than what they might have expected.
Let’s go back to something you mentioned earlier about the fact that expanding the league and improving pay will rely on things like marketing, sponsorships, and the TV deal. What’s gone well on those ends of things so far and what could be improved?
The more sustainable the league becomes and the more the players are signed to longer term contracts—in this league right now, most contracts are structured as a one year contract with a one year option after that—but when you can get a three-year, a five-year deal, that will keep players in a market and keep the same team from year to year. Obviously our national team has a lot of visibility and brings in fans to the seats and they have great social media presence to let people know about NWSL games. But can we add, each season, four or five or six or ten non-national team players to that group that’s that recognizable. That should be the goal of the league. Can each team have a couple non-national team players that become staples of the club. Some of the clubs have done a great job with this and are starting to do that. The more we have recognizable players and sponsors feel a connection to them, the rest of it will naturally grow. But like anything, it takes a lot of time and a lot of work building the foundation for what eventually, hopefully, will be a super successful and visible league with tons of deals. I think we’re on a good path when it comes to that. The Lifetime TV deal is huge for us in terms of not just the games on TV but also the marketing, the branding, and the stories they’re able to tell using some of the NWSL players who fans maybe wouldn’t have known about so well. There are so many pieces that go into that but I think it’s about pushing forward as quickly as we can and aggressively as we can and also understanding that we need to be patient. Even at its very best, that kind of growth takes time.
For fans and readers who are interested in supporting the women’s game, what are some of the ways they can support the league?
YA: People always say, ‘oh if there’s anything I can do…’ and I always say ‘yes, buy season tickets.’ Even if you don’t live in a market, buy some season tickets. Call the Seattle Reign and buy season tickets and donate them to the Boys and Girls Club or some other charity. That’s a very real tangible thing. For everybody who says ‘oh I wish this club still existed’, I hope nobody in that city that lost their club are saying that and didn’t have season tickets. To me, that’s the biggest thing you can do. Buy season tickets, show up at the games, watch the games whether they’re on the Go90 app or on Lifetime, tune in and tell your friends to tune in. Those are real things that you can do. Set your games to record. Make sure you watch them. Those are very tangible things. So we so appreciate the season ticket holders at these clubs. Those are the people who make sure the club comes back year in and year out. We can’t do it without the season ticket holders. Becoming a fan of a club, honestly, is the best thing someone can do to support our league and support us individually as players. One other small thing, as a players association, we’re going to reinvigorate this campaign in the preseason. We had these little wrist bands created and it comes with two, so you can wear one and share one, and it says ‘Together We Are Stronger’. And half of the proceeds go to the NWSL Players Association. It’s going to be a really big fundraiser for us and it’s a very easy way for fans to show support from them and their friends.
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