BALTIMORE — As the National Women’s Soccer League’s new players donned scarfs, posed for photos and talked to the crowd and gathered reporters Thursday at the league’s annual draft, some questions about the league’s future were answered, while others became a bit more clouded.
One item that remains uncertain is exactly how the league’s new pool of allocation money works. While some displayed mastery in spending, trading and acquiring allocation money, concerns remain on how it can be used and why the league isn’t being more transparent about the amounts being dealt.
During a press conference held after the draft’s third round, Chicago Red Stars’ owner Arnim Whisler attempted to provide some clarity on the league’s newest exchangeable asset.
“I think there’s a misunderstanding that it can only be used, for instance, for player salaries,” Whisler said. “There’s no doubt it will often be used for player salaries, but there are also mechanisms that you can use it in other ways to support the operator or the team,”
“And it’s not going to be obvious when that money is pulled down or used by the team or other things,” Whisler continued. “We’re not going to announce those things, either. So, if you’re counting on a certain transparency that the amount is at this, you may not know when it goes to zero. You may not always know. Because there are ways to use it other than trades. It’s a very complex thing. It’s not something that’s like opening everyone’s accounting system.”
Complex, indeed. Allocation money was tossed around without care Thursday and was used in many of the trades that occurred on draft day.
Most notably, the Red Stars acquired the second and third overall picks in the draft from Sky Blue FC for the fourth and fifth picks and allocation money. Chicago then traded the No. 2 pick to Portland for a pair of second-round picks and allocation money, then flipped the No. 3 pick to Orlando for Rachel Hill, the No. 19 pick, a 2021 pick and allocation money.
“I think the allocation money has a lot of different uses,” Red Stars head coach Rory Dames said. “There’s no secret there’s at least one expansion team coming next year. We have a lot of allocated players at this point, so we want to be able to protect them… You can obviously use it internally to reward some players you’ve had. And most importantly, we have a pretty good collection, so that when May and June comes around and a lot of these players are coming out of contract overseas.”
Chicago made the first trade in league history with allocation money, acquiring an undisclosed sum from the Utah Royals for the No. 8 overall pick a few days before the draft began. The Royals spent it on N.C. State product Tziarra King.
“This is a reflection of why we needed the allocation money, because we needed more assets and we needed more opportunity to get things moving,” Utah general manager Stephanie Lee said Thursday. “So, we used it a way that we wanted to see it be used from a league perspective as well.”
However, not everyone in the league holds the same opinion as Lee, Dames and Whisler when it comes to allocation money. North Carolina Courage head coach Paul Riley is among those who have concerns.
“My biggest worry about allocation is some teams buying first and second picks every year,” Riley said. “That’s going to change the league completely, and I think that can happen. I don’t want that in the future for the league. I think that’s bad, that teams can buy it, just like the (MLB’s New York Yankees) can buy it. I don’t want that. I think it hurts the league a lot.
“I’m not sure if the rule has been looked at that deeply and closely, but maybe after the draft everyone will take a look and come out with another version of it,” Riley said. “Allocation is good to keep the better players here, if it’s used for the right thing. I’m not sure we should be using allocation to buy draft picks with, me personally.”
Owners not worried about potential conflict of interest with Duffy, Orlando
While the understanding and use of allocation money is still evolving, one thing that became clear is that the league’s owners are not worried about Amanda Duffy’s new job with the Orlando Pride and any potential conflicts of interest.
Duffy became the league’s president in January 2019, but will resign from her post on Feb. 15 to become the executive vice president of one of the league’s clubs, the Orlando Pride.
Under Duffy’s watch, the league’s attendance grew by 22 percent, deals with ESPN and Budweiser were reached, and a new club in Louisville is on track to join in 2021.
While a new job for Duffy looms, the league is continuing its search for a new commissioner and also negotiating broadcasting and other deals for the upcoming season.
Duffy is confident that her new role with the Pride won’t impact her current duties as league president for the next month, and Whisler – seemingly speaking on behalf of all owners – isn’t worried about any potential conflict of interest, referring to Duffy several times as a “pro.”
“There’s not actually overlap of responsibility,” Duffy said, pointing out she is the NWSL President until Feb. 15 and starts her tenure with the Pride on Feb. 16. “I feel very comfortable and confident fulfilling the responsibilities I have now as league president for the remainder of my period of time. In the event there were circumstances where it would be necessary for me to recuse myself, I certainly would do that.”
Added Whisler: “We have zero concern about Amanda and her ethics. She’s a pro. She’s all-in for women’s soccer. We’ve talked about transition and areas where there might be a conflict, but there aren’t any. She’s not in any acting capacity for Orlando… Until (Feb. 16), she’s all-in on what we’re doing.”
As league grows, more players could leave school early
This year’s draft saw two players – Stanford’s Sophia Smith and UCLA’s Ashley Sanchez – leave school early to pursue professional careers. Smith was drafted No. 1 overall by the Portland Thorns and Sanchez was taken fourth by the Washington Spirit.
The NWSL hopes that the decisions of Smith and Sanchez become a trend. They follow in the footsteps of Tierna Davidson, who left school early to go to the Chicago Red Stars last season, and Mallory Pugh and Lindsey Horan, two U.S. national team players who skipped college altogether.
“Knowing that people have done it before me helped my decision a lot,” Smith said. “Me doing this, Ashley Sanchez doing this, it just sets the standards for a lot of girls.”
As the league continues to grow – and more money becomes available – players leaving school early for a chance at earning a paycheck will become more likely.
This past offseason, the NWSL raised its minimum salary from $20,000 to $50,000. While that pales in comparison to other professional sports leagues, it is a step in the right direction, and it opens the door for more young women to make the choice that so many of their male counterparts have. There’s also more money available in potential endorsements, and even more if a player is a U.S. federation player.
“I think what we all collectively want is for women to have the same chances as men and I think in every men’s league there are a variety of rules for entry,” Whisler said Thursday. “Sometimes you send too many college players and it gets rolled back. We just want them to have the same chance, and as the salaries go up — which they will — and compensation and security of the career goes up, I would expect that we’ll have more people that say, ‘That’s what I want to do. I don’t want to miss this Olympic cycle or this World Cup cycle.’”