After winning their fourth Women's World Cup title and the hearts of millions of fans, the USWNT returned stateside to a heroes' welcome on Monday. Cue the Good Morning America appearance, the long-awaited boozy flight home content, the heartfelt letters and tweets of appreciation from players and supporters alike.
Also cue, waiting for the team at Newark Airport, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, calling for the USWNT players to be paid equally to their male counterparts.
That sound you heard was a record scratch, followed by the anguished screams of all of NWSL Twitter. You see, it seems that Governor Phil Murphy has forgotten that he is the owner of an NWSL team called Sky Blue FC, a club that is currently trying to pull itself out of a particularly deep hole.
You remember Sky Blue, right? The one with the grimy locker room and the weird, awful host family situations that their top draft picks turned down? The one whose determined supporters have been begging the front office and the league to Do Better? They had a rough start to the season and recently offloaded Savannah McCaskill and canned coach Denise Reddy. There are signs not all hope is lost in New Jersey, including the ouster of Tony Novo, introduction of Alyse LaHue. impressive performances from Kailen Sheridan and Imani Dorsey and, most recently, their first two consecutive wins in, well, a long time. But the investment needed to improve the situation at Sky Blue is hefty, and if Phil Murphy wants to champion the cause of #EqualPay in women's professional soccer, he would do well to better compensate the players and staff of the team he actually owns, and encouraging the rest of the league to do the same.
The World Cup aftermath is a strange and wonderful and deeply frustrating time to support women's soccer in America. We're elated over the victories; the talent of Rose Lavelle; the unapologetic, effortless queer joy of Megan Rapinoe and Kelley O'Hara; the lurking on Instagram waiting for new content to emerge. We're excited to see our friends and casual fans starting to catch up – supporter groups like the Spirit Squadron and Chicago Local 134 are already kicking efforts into high gear to turn out casual USWNT supporters for their local side when the '19ers return.
We want to believe things are getting better, that the World Cup bump will be for real for real this time, that fans are interested and brands are interested and this is good! The NWSL finally announced a television deal with ESPN. Budweiser, walking the walk on their advertising during the Final urging fans to support the NWSL, announced a multi-year sponsorship of the league this week, its first official beer sponsor (of course, this sponsorship is in collaboration with the sucking behemoths that are U.S. Soccer and Soccer United Marketing, so).
But the frustration of NWSL fans is understandable when they see the USWNT watch party crowds at Kansas City's Power and Light and wonder if all those people know that Becky Sauerbrunn and Kelley O'Hara used to play on a formidable team there. It's understandable when local prestige media outlets finger-wag at readers for not knowing these world-class players play in the NWSL when they don't have dedicated, paid beat writers or staffers covering the NWSL. It's understandable when the owner of the league's most publicly-battered side goes to bat for the National Team but not his own.
It's understandable when big brands like Secret and LUNA Bar step up to give the USWNT money to close the pay gap, and it's absolutely merited, but it would be even better if those major brands became monetary sponsors of the NWSL to continue to grow and support the league full-time.
It's understandable when you look at a player like Jessica McDonald, whose incredible journey to a World Cup title has been well documented throughout tournament coverage, and you think about all the economic barriers to a dream like this, and how such a gifted player almost retired multiple times because sustaining yourself on an NWSL salary is hard enough, let alone raising a child, and you think about how many talented, driven Jessica McDonalds never get their shot because they can't make a living in this league. Everyone, including world-class professional athletes, should be able to afford childcare. JMac deserves every dollar she makes from this World Cup, and every player like her deserves a chance to play in a league where they are properly supported.
Fans of the league were hyped to get their beloved team members back, to get to see Alyssa Naeher and Rose Lavelle and Crystal Dunn re-don the home colors. Some clubs are doing large marketing pushes and offering comp tickets for welcome-back matches to try to build that audience.
And then, U.S. Soccer announced the Victory Tour. Just weeks after returning to league play and in the middle of a pivotal NWSL weekend, the USWNT will play a friendly exhibition at the Rose Bowl against Ireland, the first of several victory tour matches. This team has just played an entire-ass tournament, still has league play to take care of, and now are being whisked off for friendlies, and they're probably exhausted. (Aside: I personally reserve no judgment on all the partying that happened for the days following the match, but how do you have the energy? It's astounding! I needed a nap just watching the plane content.)
It is entirely reasonable that U.S. Soccer would want to take advantage of this success, and these players deserve every dollar they make. Go and get this bread, as the kids say! And it could be argued it's a way to spread the gospel of WoSo to cities like Los Angeles that don't have a team at the moment. But just as fans of the USWNT were upset at FIFA for scheduling three tournament finals on the same day, dividing attention and media and resources, so we should be too at U.S. Soccer taking the possibility of growing the domestic league after the World Cup and shooting it in the foot.
Not only will the Victory Tour directly conflict with and therefore drive attention and media and resources away from the NWSL, but as people who are much smarter than me have pointed out, the NWSL is not part of U.S. Soccer's contract with Soccer United Marketing. So, while the NWSL as an entity won't see any revenue from this tour (though individual clubs may through dual ownership), Major League Soccer will. And the league and its owners should be held accountable for their role in investing and growing the fanbase, too. While post-World Cup crowds have increased and this is to be commended, it's a little defeating to see an attendance of 5,300 in a 22,000-seat stadium being touted as "a sellout."
U.S. Soccer, the owners, the entire North American footballing infrastructure has to ask itself: does it want women's soccer to succeed in America or not? Does it want a women's domestic league to succeed in America or not? Because if it does, it needs to learn how to be supportive while knowing when to get out of the way.
And pay the National Team what they're owed.