In women's soccer, going pro isn't as glamorous as it seems and more are retiring early
Jazmine Reeves was surprised to see her name splashed across major news outlets. “Why a pro athlete retired early to work for Amazon,” the headline from ABC News read. “A 22-year-old rising women's soccer star is retiring to take a job at Amazon,” the one from Sports Illustrated said.
Reeves, a promising third-round draft pick and rookie from Virginia Tech, had played for the Boston Breakers for one season in 2014, finishing as the team’s second-best goal-scorer. But after that campaign, the NWSL’s second season, she retired for an area manager job with Amazon. The story is one that has been familiar in women’s soccer, but becomes more jarring as U.S. national team players continue to rise to fame: Being a professional athlete isn’t all that glamorous if you’re a female soccer player and some players can only do it for so long.
“I’m not huge fan of taking lots of risks,” Reeves told FOX Sports in a phone interview. “When playing that first season, it ended up going very well, but I knew I had this job opportunity and I didn’t know if it would be waiting for me if I continued playing soccer. I was nervous to pass it up when I wasn’t sure what I could get in return for continuing to play soccer.”
Reeves still works at Amazon, having been promoted earlier this year to a recruiter position. She knows she made the right career decision, but she admits now and then she misses her playing days.
“I do think it about sometimes,” she said. “I’ve considered it – can I make it somehow, doing both?”
Being a soccer player alone wasn't enough for Reeves – and it hasn’t been enough for some other players who have retired young. As a rookie, Reeves was paid $2,000 per month and, since the NWSL season is a relatively short one, that meant she earned no more than $12,000 for a full year. That was offset by living with a host family – she didn’t have to pay any bills which she admits was good because she “couldn’t afford to have any bills” – and she speaks positively of the experience. But she ultimately faced the choice of giving up soccer or feeling like she had to rely on other people to get by.
“I didn’t think I was going to be making the national team anytime soon, so trying to get more out of what I was putting in day-to-day was important to me,” she said. “Having a great opportunity job-wise and something I could see doing long-term that would give a lot back to me professionally and personally was important in my decision.”
When Keelin Winters scored in September at Memorial Stadium, there was a palpable sense there in Seattle that radiated through the free livestream that the NWSL provides of games. This was a special moment for 27-year-old Winters, who had just announced plans to retire from the Seattle Reign after the 2016 season the day before.
She knew it would be her last professional game in Seattle, unless somehow the Seattle Reign made the playoffs, which they didn't. The goal was the perfect goodbye.
“I really had no words,” Winters told FOX Sports. “If you watch the replay, as soon as I struck the ball, I knew it was going in. My arms shot up in the air and I sprinted over to the bench. I’m going to remember that for the rest of my life.”
Winters knew she needed to move on from soccer to build the life she wanted but, like Reeves, the impetus to retire came from a job offer. Winters had been training to become a firefighter, the first thing that excited her as much as soccer had, and she knew being a soccer player was an untenable financial situation for her.
“I still love soccer, I’m still fit and I feel like I’m at the top of my game, so I think I could play a couple more years if honestly I were being paid, like, six figures,” she said. “I could be saving for my future and then I’d probably keep playing.”
It’s not just about the money. Winters didn’t want to be pushed out or leave the game in injury. But like Reeves and like other players who have made the decision to retire at a young age, money played a big role.
Winters has been called up for national team camps, but for whatever reason, the holding midfielder never broke through. If she had, it could’ve been a very different situation for her. Per collective bargaining agreements documents released in legal filings, USWNT players are paid $56,000 salaries by U.S. Soccer to play in the NWSL, which is $16,300 more than the maximum salary for non-national team players in the league. On top of that, USWNT players are paid a steady federation salary ranging from $36,000 to $72,000.
In men’s soccer, playing for your club is a job while playing for your country is an honor, but it doesn’t work like that on the women’s side. Many players in the NWSL are there hoping to get seen by Jill Ellis, the head of the national team. If the national team is the job, then the NWSL is more like an internship.
“I don’t think very many young girls are like, ‘Oh, I want to play professional soccer,’” Winters said. “Playing professional soccer for a lot of athletes right now is a stepping stone to the national team.”
The number of players who have retired in their primes is still relatively small compared to the amount of players in the league as a whole, and there’s no way to calculate how many have left specifically to start different career paths. According to an NWSL spokesman, about 50 players have decided not to continue playing for one reason or another since the league started. Some players leave for other reasons, such as to start a family and battles with injury, but it’s hard to imagine salary isn't a factor.
Danielle Foxhoven, a teammate of Winters’ in Seattle, retired at the start of this season. Money wasn’t the only reason – managing her Crohn’s disease as an athlete had been difficult and her role with the Reign had changed. At 26, however, she still had plenty to offer soccer but soccer just didn’t have enough to offer her anymore. She retired to pursue a career in her college major, business marketing and management.
“If I could continue to play soccer, honestly I would,” Foxhoven told FOX Sports earlier this year. “But the amount of time that I put in and the money I make is not worth the emotional and physical stress to play everyday. When I was 22, 23, I was OK living like that, living out of a bag for six months at a time. But to be perfectly honest, I'm just kind of tired of that.”
While paying players more is an obvious solution, it’s not an easy one. Previous women’s soccer leagues folded due to overspending and budget problems, and the NWSL has made an effort to start with a much leaner operation that expands slowly. To that end, the NWSL has increased compensation for players every season, but it’s still a shocking disparity to the earnings available in men’s soccer.
NWSL salary caps have increased by nearly 40 percent since the league was founded in 2013, going from a team cap of $200,000 to $278,000 this year. Minimum salaries started at $6,000 and are now $7,200 (a 20 percent increase) while maximum salaries are up to $39,700 from $30,000 (a 32 percent increase).
The NWSL is only in its fourth year of existence and 20-year-old MLS, the comparable men’s counterpart to the NWSL, grew slowly too, albeit with a higher initial ceiling. While MLS will have a minimum salary of more than $70,000 for non-reserve players by 2019, the league started in 1996 with a minimum salary around $24,000, which it stuck with for many years. The NWSL does not have a players union, something that MLS does, for instance.
Jeff Plush, the commissioner of the NWSL, declined to say if that current trends of salary caps increases are expected to continue, but said the league’s record of addressing player compensation is clear.
“I wouldn’t want to say categorically what we’re going to do before we’ve gone through the budget process, but I think we’ve demonstrated year after year that we know we need to invest in our product,” Plush told FOX Sports in a phone interview. “We’ll look to invest prudently every year, as well as making sure we’re driving revenue forward, always with a long-term view.”
He added: “The players are first and foremost in our thinking as we’ve done each year. We’ve increased salaries each year and we’ll continue to try and do that.”
Asked if he is concerned about some players choosing to retire young and its effect on the player pool, Plush said: “I wouldn't use the word concerned. I would say it’s more something we’re focused on. It’s clear we want players to play in the league as long as they possibly can, but to the extent that they need to make different decisions in their lives, we want to be supportive of that as well.”
The league tries to help players find opportunities to coach in the offseason and earn money, for instance, he added.
Of course, paying modest salaries is probably exactly what the NWSL should be doing – Winters and Reeves both agree on that. Overspending killed both the Women’s United Soccer Association and Women’s Professional Soccer, which ended up millions of dollars in the red. The NWSL’s slow growth means it has already outlasted both leagues.
“Ultimately, what I want is the long-term success of the league, which means you’re going to have to pay players less and its probably going to be a shorter season,” Winters said. “I do think the NWSL has a pretty good foothold, at least better than the previous leagues.”
There are still ways to keep young players from retiring beyond compensation, Winters said. If female professional soccer players earned the sort of recognition and treatment that tends to be reserved for the women’s national team players or male club players, she thinks more of her colleagues would stick with it.
Reeves, in a separate interview without being asked specifically about it, said the same thing: “If we all felt like we were in the NBA or the NFL, we would probably keep playing. Who doesn’t want to say that they’re full-time job is playing soccer?”
That includes the attention from fans and the media, but more so it’s about what clubs provide the players to succeed: the training facilities, the staff and the overall environment. While MLS-backed clubs like the Portland Thorns, the Houston Dash and the Orlando Pride can offer much of these amenities because they already have them, others can’t necessarily do the same.
“It’s funny, for the girls coming from the big (soccer) schools, often times it feels like a demotion,” Winters said of rookies who were drafted, “because they’re going from locker rooms that are glorious and all these services at their fingertips to a league where you don’t know what your locker room's going to look like, but it’s definitely not going to look like it did at their colleges.”
Plush, asked about how the league can continue to attract and retain talent, said the league will continue to look at salaries, but also mentioned raising minimum standards.
“We’re always looking to enhance the playing environment for the players, whether that’s salaries, training environments, coaching and technical assistance,” he said. “We’re always trying to get better in every area.”
The problem is, such improvements represent higher costs for clubs, just like higher salaries would. The NWSL and its clubs are deadlocked in a delicate balance of trying to keep budgets tight and grow the league organically, something even retired players understand.
Players like Reeves, Winters and others don’t begrudge their experience in the NWSL. The league is making strides and they want to see it succeed – even if they won’t be around to be apart of it.
“I do think the future looks bright,” Winters said. The future just won't include her.