As a former goalkeeper for the National Women's Soccer League, Caroline Stanley knows that the financial status of pro women soccer players is far different than many other professional athletes, especially men.
In 2015, when she left the University of Southern California early to play professionally for Seattle Reign FC, now known as OL Reign, Stanley says she relied heavily on her scholarship stipend from college to make ends meet. At the time, she says the league had a team salary cap that only allowed them to pay two goalkeepers, which meant that as a third-string goalkeeper she was unpaid. Later that year when the first-string and second-string goalkeepers got injured, Stanley stepped in to play and was given a prorated contract. But even then, she says, the pay was less than a livable wage.
"I know for a fact I wasn't making close to $10,000 because I didn't have to pay taxes," she tells CNBC Make It. "I obviously reported everything and it's like, 'Oh, you're not making any money.'"
To bring awareness to these low salaries, which have forced many players to pick up side jobs, the National Women's Soccer League Players Association recently launched the #NoMoreSideHustles campaign. The campaign, which comes at a time when the players association is negotiating its first collective bargaining agreement, aims to highlight the need for fair and livable wages for players so that they don't have to juggle multiple jobs as professional athletes.
Currently, the minimum player salary for the 2021 NWSL season is $22,000 and the maximum player salary is $52,500, a 10% and 5% increase, respectively, from the 2020 season. By comparison, the average player in Major League Soccer earns $398,725 for the 2021 season.
"The continued raising of standards of the NWSL is a priority and that includes elevating the player experience in all aspects, including continuing to increase compensation," an NWSL spokesperson told CNBC Make It. "NWSL player salaries and total compensation have increased every year of the league's existence, including during the pandemic."
The NWSL says that 4% of its players have a total compensation of less than $30,000, which is down from 73% in 2019. However, Burke and the NWSLPA estimate that number to be much higher, explaining that team salary caps are $682,500, which is to be divided by the average number of 24 players on a team. By NWSLPA estimates, a third of their player association members make the league's minimum salary and about 75% make $31,000 or less.
Stanley, who played for multiple NWSL teams during her three years in the league, says her salary was so low that she had to work odd jobs as a babysitter and coach while playing soccer professionally. She also lived with a host family for part of her career because she couldn't afford an apartment on her own.
"That was very common for NWSL players to live with host families," she says. "I think that's gotten a little better because a lot of teams now provide apartments, but when I was in the league I was not provided an apartment."
Though living arrangements may have improved since she retired in 2018, Stanley says the scenario of players working extra jobs to earn a livable wage remains the same.
In response to the NWSLPA #NoMoreSideHustles campaign many current and former players expressed on Twitter how they've had to work two, and sometimes three jobs, due to their low pay.
Jessica McDonald, a player for the North Carolina Courage of the NWSL, shared that as a player she's "worked at Amazon packing boxes during 10 hour days" while also raising her son. And Kat Williamson, a former defender for the team Portland Thorns FC, said she has "cleaned homes for extra money and worked at a dental office as a receptionist."
"We know that the U.S. women's soccer team have filed an equal pay suit and we certainly support what they're doing in elevating the national conversation around equal pay," says NWSLPA Executive Director Meghann Burke. "And now, we want to tie that into what is happening right here at home."
As a former player herself, Burke said she "donated plasma to buy groceries and scrubbed toilets and delivered pizza" when she was playing in the league. Now, as head of the players association, the league's first official union, she said she wants to ensure that current and future players have a different experience.
"We're in the third iteration of women's professional soccer so it's fair to say that there's some cautiousness around controlling the expenses," she says, referring to the Women's United Soccer Association that lasted from 2000-2003 and the Women's Professional Soccer league that lasted from 2009 to roughly 2012.
"So this business launched with an eye towards survival on the backs of poverty wages," Burke adds. But now, as the NWSL sits in its ninth season with 10 teams and two expansion teams scheduled for 2022, she says the NWSL is "in a very strong position" to ask for more for its players.
In addition to garnering more than 650,000 viewers for its Challenge Cup Final, NWSL has CBS as a broadcast partner and sponsors like Nationwide, Budweiser, Ally Bank and Secret, Burke emphasizes.
"So now feels like the time to pivot...we are in a strong position to pay these players a fair wage," she says. "And more than a fair wage, it's time to respect the dignity of work and the autonomy of women."
While Burke said she can't disclose the exact salary and terms that the NWSLPA is negotiating with the league for its first CBA deal, she says the goal is to reach an agreement where players don't have to work multiple jobs to make a living.
"We saw Liz Shuler from the AFL-CIO comment on social media that one job should be enough and I think that's absolutely right," says Burke.
Sign up now: Get smarter about your money and career with our weekly newsletter