Imagine if Lebron James decided to leave whatever team he’s on this month to play for an entirely different league. That is essentially what is happening in women’s soccer—or as I like to call it, “soccer”—right now.
Sam Kerr—Australian national, attacker for the Chicago Red Stars, lead goal scorer and MVP for the 2019 NWSL season—announced earlier this month that she would be leaving the Red Stars to explore options in Europe. The three-time Golden Boot winner has now signed a two-an-a-half year contract with Chelsea FC, marking a huge step forward for the women’s English Premier League.
The loss of the 26-year-old phenom to the Brits is a huge blow to the U.S soccer program on several levels. The Chicago Red Stars finished second overall in NWSL standings this season (there are nine teams total) in large part thanks to Kerr, who scored 19 goals this season. While the Red Stars still have big-name players, like Alyssa Naher and Julie Ertz, Sam Kerr’s exit could signal the beginning of a significant exodus of younger talent.
While it can be argued that Chelsea FC is not as prestigious a team as Chicag—Chelsea did not qualify for its season’s Champions League while the Red Stars played in the final game of the NWSL Championships—the real draw for any footballer to go abroad is money. Kerr’s new contract with Chelsea is “reportedly worth $600,000 a season.” The NWSL and U.S Soccer Federation are notorious for underpaying their players in comparison to players who operate under the MLS (men’s soccer) or players in European leagues. This is why U.S Soccer is being sued by its own players. The average annual income for a player on the Chicago Red Stars is $37,144, slightly higher for top tier players. But if you look at the male counterpart to this team, the Chicago Fire, their lowest paid player, made just over $56,000.
Allow me to widen the lens a bit. The highest-paid NWSL player this year was Carli Lloyd (Sky Blue FC), who made $295,000. This doesn’t include any endorsement money or money earned from being on the US Women’s National Team. The highest-paid MLS player this year was Zlatan Ibrahimovic (LA Galaxy), who had a base salary of $7 million. But of course, that seven million must look like peanuts compared to the several hundred million Lionel Messi makes playing in La Liga.
Like any other athlete, soccer players also have to rely on sponsorship deals to make extra money outside of playing time. When you consider that NWSL games are rarely televised to any audience outside of those of us watching Yahoo Sports and game attendance is low during the regular season, it’s no wonder that most female players are barely making ends meet.
Not only was Sam Kerr playing a full regular NWSL season, but she additionally played in Australia’s W-League, where she was also this year’s top goal scorer. Kerr didn’t have an offseason because she literally couldn’t afford to have one. Playing year-round sounds cool when you’re 26, but what does this mean for her long-term career? Soccer is fucking grueling. The risk for concussion amongst soccer players is actually higher than that of football players. One lousy knee injury caused by strain and overplaying can end an entire career before it even takes off. Yet playing in the US and playing abroad during off-seasons is something plenty of female athletes do across multiple sports to maintain their revenue streams. This move is most prevalent in women’s basketball, where anyone who wants to make any sort of money will play for years in other countries before committing to long-term WNBA contracts.
I’ve often thought that pro athletes made way too much money. I mean, after all, most of them just move a ball up and down a rectangle, and that’s their contribution to society. But when I think about how much time I spend watching sports, watching analysis, and how many times I’ve cried during dramatic Nike commercials, it makes sense. It’s insulting to think that women like Sam Kerr, or Carli Lloyd, or Rose Lavelle are being paid the sports equivalent of pennies for killing themselves for my entertainment.
I will say that the only bright side of Sam Kerr no longer playing in the NWSL is that my beloved Sky Blue FC may now have a better chance of not being almost the worst team in the entire league.