May 28, 2024

Women’s sports are increasingly described as a “rocket ship” about to take off. Listen to an interview with National Women’s Soccer League commissioner Jessica Berman, and you’ll hear the phrase. All the progress being made in sponsorships, attendance, and media rights is part of the “fuel” for this metaphoric launch.

Before takeoff or even construction of this vessel, however, there needed to be a blueprint.

The NWSL kicked off just over a decade ago. When the league played its first game on April 13, 2013, at a high school stadium used for football and track in suburban Kansas City, it felt more like a horse and buggy just trying to get the wheels turning.

This was the start of a third and, many believed at the time, a final possible attempt to make women’s professional soccer work in the United States. With the U.S. Soccer Federation serving as league manager, eight ownership groups set forth with a frugal plan meant to learn from the lessons of the two previous leagues that had failed. The minimum player salary was $6,000 for a season, and many players felt lucky to make more than that. Investment in staff and infrastructure was lean, too.

“Looking back, I don’t know how we did it. I don’t know how we survived those first five, six years,” San Diego Wave assistant general manager Laura Doran tells ESPN now. Back then, Doran worked for the Boston Breakers. “It really does make it worth it when you see how far it’s come. A lot of these players have no idea what we went through. They don’t need to know.”

Today, the league has ownership groups lining up to pay $53 million expansion fees. A $100 million-plus stadium built specifically for an NWSL team will soon open in Kansas City as the new home of the Current. Last year, the league and its players’ association (which would not become a recognized union until almost six years after the NWSL’s launch) agreed to a first collective bargaining agreement that saw the minimum salary rise to $36,400 this year, with step-ups each year through 2026 and further guarantees like housing and medical insurance.

Doran is one of only a handful of people remaining in the league who were there when it all started. She has seen all ends of the spectrum, from humble beginnings with the Breakers, which folded in early 2018, to the Portland Thorns setting the standard in the league. Now, in several ways, the Wave represents a new standard-bearer in the NWSL as a 2022 expansion team.

There are countless untold stories of players and staff who did not stick around. The few remaining in the league, including a select few players from season one, are best positioned to add context to just how much better everything is now, and how hard it all was back then. There is no explosive growth in the league now without a lot of thankless work back in the league’s early days. These are some of their stories.

Early NWSL jobs meant everyone did everything

Jackie Maynard still remembers her first day of work as a 22-year-old with the Western New York Flash in 2013.

The Flash was, at the time, the gold standard in women’s soccer. Owner Joe Sahlen had bought into Women’s Professional Soccer, the NWSL’s predecessor bringing Marta, Christine Sinclair, and a rookie named Alex Morgan under one championship-winning roster. After WPS folded, the Flash kept playing semi-pro games in the 2012 gap year without a professional league before becoming a founding team in the NWSL.

Maynard, who grew up in the Rochester, New York area where the team played home games, had just finished graduate school. Her title was “communications and marketing manager” — although she remembers it being more of a mouthful than that at one point — and that narrow title could not encompass what she did to help a fledgling women’s professional soccer team with a small staff and frugal budget.

During the week, Sahlen’s Sports Park was the home of the NWSL team — players like Abby Wambach would walk through the public lobby like any other member of the public. On weekends, the facility would host youth soccer tournaments, and there Maynard would work at the front desk of the team store on Sundays during youth competitions in the NWSL offseason.

Maynard was one of only three or four full-time employees, as she remembers it. Her job was to get the team press coverage and facilitate marketing, but “if someone called and wanted to buy a ticket, I’d have to know how to sell them a ticket.” She would arrive at the stadium — 80 miles from the team’s training site — at around 11 a.m. on a gameday wearing gym clothes to help set up tents and unpack merchandise. Eventually, she’d change clothes — and figurative hats — to run the press box for a 7 p.m. game.

Doran can relate. The Breakers had seven or eight employees when the NWSL launched, she said. Doran’s title was director of operations, which encompassed everything from filming a game to washing the team’s laundry and booking flights.

For her first four years with the Breakers, Doran continued working in ticket operations for the Boston Red Sox, shuttling across town on game nights to sell tickets or work at will call at Fenway Park. Sometimes, she would run the scoreboard at adult-league soccer games for an easy $50 on a weeknight. She still only made it all work financially because her family lived in Boston and helped support her.

“People just understood that you couldn’t live off of what we were making,” Doran said. “It was just having those people around that understood and were going through the same thing. Together you just figured it out and asked for help when you needed it.”

Today, Doran and Maynard have support they could not have imagined in those early days. Staffing, they both say, is the most recognizable difference in the league today. A league front office that once employed only a handful of people is on a hiring spree after relocating to New York. There are now several dozen employees of the NWSL.

Maynard is the senior director of communications for the NWSL’s Orlando Pride and MLS’s Orlando City. She manages a staff of people dedicated to individual roles that were once dumped on a single person. Now, she can arrive at the stadium around 3 p.m. for a 7 p.m. kickoff and focus solely on her job.

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Doran first experienced life beyond the Boston grind in 2018. The Breakers folded in January 2018 only days after the NWSL Draft. Doran was fortunate to land an operations job with the Portland Thorns, the crown jewel of the NWSL from Day 1 for its investments and league-leading crowds.

“When I got to Portland I was like, oh this is it,” Doran said of the jarring change.

The next opportunity would truly open her eyes. The San Diego Wave was gearing up to kick off its inaugural season in 2022 and brought in Doran as head of team administration. She was promoted to assistant general manager earlier this year and received staffing help of her own.

Dominique Hernandez is the Wave’s “player experience specialist” tasked with taking care of everything about players’ lives off the field, from housing to networking that will help them set up a career after soccer. Doran calls that position “literally a game-changer” that she has not had at another club. San Diego, Doran says, is about “plus one” in every staff department to the Thorns, who already historically carried a larger staff than most teams.

Increasing investment and mitigating ‘soul-crushing’ setbacks

Laura Harvey knows about expansion teams pushing the league to new limits.

Harvey was the coach of the Seattle Reign when the team kicked off in 2013. She oversaw arguably the best team in league history in 2014, a squad featuring Kim Little, Megan Rapinoe and Jess Fishlock that went 16 games unbeaten to win the NWSL Shield and make it to the NWSL Championship. There, just like the following year in 2015, the Reign lost to FC Kansas City.

By late 2017, FC Kansas City folded and a new team in Utah, backed by MLS ownership, effectively stepped in as a replacement. Utah Royals owner Dell Loy Hansen rushed the construction of dedicated spaces for the new NWSL team in the stadium originally built for MLS’s Real Salt Lake. He wanted a proven coach, too, and Harvey was his targeted hire.

Harvey, who is now the coach of the Reign again and has coached in at least some part of every NWSL regular season, immediately saw the benefit of infrastructure she didn’t know existed.

“I think the big eye-opener for me individually was when I left the club and went to Utah, because Utah had way better facilities, arguably much more investment at the time,” Harvey said. “The amount of staff we had at Utah was dramatically more. Our ability to be able to have the resources around the players that we didn’t have at the Reign at the time, that’s what opened my eyes to, there’s a lot more out there that you can have.”

As a player, Angela Salem experienced similar changes. Like Doran, Salem found her way to Portland after the Breakers folded. Salem was a gritty defensive midfielder who played every NWSL season up until 2022, when she immediately shifted to her current role as Washington Spirit assistant coach. Salem remembers doing her own laundry for her training clothes at times in Boston. She remembers the temporary buildings the team used as locker rooms when it moved to the field adjacent to Harvard Stadium, one that largely featured bleacher seating.

Then the Breakers folded. Officially, that news came seven days after the league’s 2018 draft that they participated in, but the somber mood on draft day was indicative of a staff that already knew its fate. Salem remembers fielding a call from a player the team had just drafted. Salem didn’t know the player, and the player was trying to figure out what she should do as a rookie drafted to a team that suddenly didn’t exist. Salem and teammates already in Boston had their own scramble with preseason about to start.

“That was the first introduction to the possible reality that women’s soccer possibly could not be sustainable in the U.S.,” said Salem, who had endured a similarly timed demise of WPS in early 2012 after that league’s ill-fated draft.

Salem landed in Portland through the dispersal draft. There, she experienced a home crowd that averaged around 17,000 fans per game — over five times the average Breakers crowd. She and her teammates had a dedicated locker room with a consistent training setup.

Today, Salem is at another of the NWSL’s progressive clubs. Michele Kang bought the Spirit for $35 million in early 2022, setting a record for a team sale that was 10 times the valuation of the Reign’s sale just over two years prior. Since then, Kang has doubled down on her investment by hiring a robust front office and technical staff.

As Salem rattles off all the individual roles of people she works with, from medical staff to team analysts, she is in awe of the progress from only a few years ago.

“I feel like I probably appreciate some of these things on a deeper level than some, just because I came from not having many resources to seeing what Michele and the staff have provided,” Salem said. “Sometimes you just reflect like, wow if I had this as a player, I wonder how this would have helped me in my career. It’s really exciting that players coming in will fulfill their potential quicker and hopefully have a lengthier career because of all these resources.”

This season was the first that the Spirit played every home match at Audi Field, allowing for a more consistent, professional experience for players and fans. Venues have improved drastically across the league, in part thanks to the addition of Angel City FC in Los Angeles and the Wave in San Diego, but also because legacy teams have upgraded to better settings or been removed from the league.

Harvey’s Reign now plays full-time at Lumen Field in downtown Seattle. It is cavernous at times and the field is artificial turf, but it is lightyears ahead of some of the team’s other prior venues, including its recent years at a baseball stadium in Tacoma.

Harvey was the visiting coach for arguably the league’s most infamous on-field moment: a July 2016 game at a baseball stadium in Rochester, New York. The soccer field, which was barely legal size at approximately 100 x 58 yards, was squeezed into the outfield of a minor-league baseball stadium. Harvey, along with players across the league, were irate. The incident attracted global headlines.

For Harvey, that was the “ultimate low.” Six years later, she insists that she can still talk anyone through every minute of the days leading up to the game. “It was an absolute disaster,” she said. One thing is for sure, Harvey said: it will never happen again.

“That’s the thing that I feel people don’t know if they weren’t living through it,” Harvey said. “People go, ‘Oh, I remember that baseball game. It was hilarious. How did that get played?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah it was hilarious to you because you weren’t part of it. Being part of it was absolutely soul-destroying.’ How is this allowed to happen? It’s so wrong in every way. I feel like we have to go through all of this heartache and all of these moments to get ourselves through it.”

Reckoning, turning points and moving forward

Everyone who spoke to ESPN this story agreed about the obvious: 2021 was a turning point for the NWSL.

That was the start of a year of reckoning, one that saw the eventual firing of six head coaches for various misconduct or alleged abuse, including horrifying stories of sexual coercion and abuse of players in the league. Two yearlong investigations eventually produced further details about enablers within the NWSL and forced the sale of the Chicago Red Stars (sold last month) and the Portland Thorns (still in the process of being sold, the NWSL says).

“There’s no doubt in my mind that the catalyst of real change came in 2021,” said Harvey, who returned to the Reign to replace Farid Benstiti, a coach who was asked to resign over allegedly abusive comments to a player. “For me, there’s no doubt. The league is unrecognizable to me in regards to how we approach things, how we deal with on- and off-the-field issues, how players have a voice that is truly listened to around the league.”

For Doran, there is still a simple truth about the league: it is still here 10 years later. That was hard to imagine in 2013. WPS and the Women’s United Soccer Association, which launched in 2001, each only lasted three seasons. Getting past that point was progress. Each new marker of longevity is still worth celebrating for those who know what came before the glory days.

“I didn’t think much about it until I hit my 100th game,” said Salem, who celebrated that feat in late 2017. “I was kind of like, ‘Oh my God. Players have the opportunity.’ It was more of a sign that the league has been around long enough to hit this mark. It’s growing in a direction where players want to stay in the league.”

Salem and Harvey have seen everything from the perspectives of players and coaches. Harvey admits that many of her reflections about the league at large are tied to the emotions of her teams. Losing the 2015 NWSL Championship, for example, remains a low point for Harvey. She was disappointed that the Reign did not execute the game plan.

Doran and Maynard, meanwhile, have seen the league’s growth away from the cameras and the field of play. In her role interacting with the press, Maynard has uniquely seen the external challenges of a media ecosystem struggling through layoffs and budget cuts. Orlando once had a dedicated soccer writer at the city’s newspaper. That has not been the case for the past two years.

Maynard looks around at the investments being made by some teams and knows that it must continue. Doran sees the “how” of that through the logistical lens of an operations person. Hire more staff at a league level with expertise in a specific field to optimize each area of the league, she says. One of the most pressing examples is the schedule, Doran says.

“Change is difficult because you’re never going to please everyone,” Doran said. “Are we going to have those leaders that come in and be knowledgeable, get the correct information, go to the resources, do your research to be able to make impactful change and keep growing?”

Harvey credits those owners who laid the foundation for the NWSL’s success, but she sees a “narrative shift” going forward. The blueprints for the league were sketched out by a group that took it to a certain point. Now, a group of additional investors have picked up the plan and joined those still remaining to start fully building the ship.

“Do I think that people that have been in and around the sport and investing in women’s sports, do they actually see something in this league that wasn’t seen before,” Harvey asked. “Yes, I actually believe that they do.”


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