On the job for 25 years, Lesle Gallimore, head coach of the University of Washington’s Women’s Soccer Team, is the longest-serving coach in the Pac-12. Alumni of her program, including former Seattle Reign and women’s national soccer team star Hope Solo, have gone on to the upper echelons of the sport, trouncing other teams in international arenas and garnering acclaim on par with or superseding that of their male counterparts.
Gallimore is also a pragmatist when it comes to a player’s choice to go pro.
“You have to have a backup — a sugar daddy, sugar momma, parents that are understanding or a trust fund to survive as a professional player,” Gallimore said.
“That’s how I prep them,” Gallimore continued. “I tell them the truth.”
It’s no secret that the wages of players on the U.S. women’s national team — where players are unionized — and the National Women’s Soccer League — which does not yet have a union — lag far behind that of male players. The issue was pushed into the spotlight in 2016 when members of the national team filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and again as the union began negotiations with the league to boost player pay.
Those efforts were successful. According to a 2017 article in The New York Times, players on the national team saw pay increases of approximately 30 percent, although the complaint to the EEOC claimed that the women’s team players made roughly 40 percent of what was paid to their male counterparts.
That complaint is still ongoing. Attorney Jeffrey Kessler told Real Change in an email that the EEOC was still investigating the matter and that he and his clients are “hoping for a resolution in the next few months.”
The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), which represents professional women’s teams outside of the national squad, also saw gains this year, increasing the player salary cap and boosting the minimum salary to $15,750, according to The Oregonian newspaper.
That’s a third of what Gallimore’s players could make straight out of college in another field, Gallimore said.
“Our players are great students for a reason,” Gallimore said. “From a financial standpoint, being a professional women’s soccer player, you have to be in the top 1 percent.”
That’s in part because there hasn’t been the same stable route into major league soccer for women as there has been for men.
The NWSL is the longest-lived national women’s league at six years old. It’s the third attempt at a women’s professional league in the United States. In her book “Under the Lights and In the Dark,” journalist and former professional soccer player Gwendolyn Oxenham wrote that the effect of such instability was to force women to consider other lines of work or to leave the country to play for women’s teams abroad, rather than stay home to play the game they loved.
“Male professional soccer players don’t often go on to have second careers outside of the game,” Oxenham wrote. “But women at the top of the game are in a constant state of hatching plans and pursuing alternative lives — ready at any moment to shape-shift and become someone else.”
In 2017, women players founded the NWSL Player’s Association, a network of professional women soccer players in clubs across the country who are advocating for a seat at the table and improved conditions. But previous experience watching first the Women’s United Soccer Association and then the Women’s Professional Soccer leagues fold informs the moves the NWSL Player’s Association makes and how hard they want to push.
“Because the primary objective of our league is sustainability at the moment, above literally anything else, our approach to things is different than other labor relations may go,” said Yael Averbuch, a defender with the Seattle Reign and spokesperson for the NWSL. “We as players are on board with that primary objective. We want this league to be here for many, many years.”
Although players recognize pay as a problem — Averbuch makes a fifth of what she did when she started — the goal is to work with management and owners to build the league up and establish clear lines of communication along the way.
Averbuch doesn’t blame the Reign owners for the existing pay structure. Bill and Teresa Predmore have been open, honest and supportive of their players, promoting a team culture in which the players feel comfortable speaking out, she said.
Several of the women who filed the EEOC complaint on the national team, including Megan Rapinoe and Solo, are or have been involved with the Reign.
“The two things that you would think that players are demanding higher salaries and better working conditions,” Averbuch said. “Everybody wants those to improve. The owners wish they could pay more, and front office of the league wishes the salaries are higher.”
The organizing work that the women are doing now is similar to what the Men’s League Soccer (MLS) players did almost a decade ago when the league didn’t carry the same weight and international star power that it does now.
They have been helpful in the women’s effort, lending their expertise and helping with founding documents like bylaws, Averbuch said.
One critical element of the Player’s Association’s work is securing a seat at the table for players and open lines of communication with league officials to express concerns through formal channels. This came to a head when players began sharing complaints about conditions on social media, lacking another way to get issues recognized by management.
To that end, the Player’s Association has consistent calls with NWSL Managing Director Amanda Duffy, Averbuch said.
Other immediate goals include helping players to expand their opportunities in other directions, such as securing coaching licenses.
Although the Player’s Association is working to improve conditions now, the players who are pushing forward are looking to the future, when talented newbies fresh out of college will have a place to land and grow.
“I hope I will be able to look out and say, ‘They don’t know they have it so good,’” Averbuch said. “That would be one of the one of the best feelings.”
Low pay and lack of recognition are not problems confined to the United States when it comes to women’s soccer, and they extend beyond the world of the players, but things are changing.
Women in Football, an organization based in London, works to improve representation and participation in all levels of the sport, such as achieving gender balance on boards and committees and fighting back against misogyny and sexual harassment.
According to the organization, nearly two-thirds of women in the industry report witnessing sexism in the workplace.
In New Zealand, players for the men’s and women’s national teams banded together to demand equity in pay, prize money, image rights and travel conditions, a first in international soccer.
Averbuch and Gallimore believe that when the women’s professional league here has been built up and secured the same attention and sponsors as the men’s, the NWSL will make progress toward pay equity.
In the meantime, Averbuch has a suggestion to fans who want to make that day a reality:
“Buy season tickets,” she said.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC https://twitter.com/AshleyA_RC
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