Within a period of five days earlier this month, two women’s soccer players—Catarina Macario and Trinity Rodman—announced their respective decisions to forego the balance of their collegiate eligibility and turn pro. The news was eye-catching, given that historically speaking, few female soccer players have left school early (Mallory Pugh and Sophie Smith are among the exceptions). But a conversation with sports economist David Berri (Professor of Economics, Southern Utah University) suggested that as interest and investment in the women’s game continues to grow, the number of athletes who declare for the pros before their collegiate eligibility expires will too. “Women’s sports are only going to get bigger and bigger, so the financial [incentive to leave early] will only get bigger and bigger,” he said.
Our Take: To be clear, while it’s unusual for female athletes participating in a team sports to declare early, tennis players, swimmers, gymnasts and figure skaters have been doing it for years. We don’t see women’s basketball players leave early because WNBA bylaws prevent prospects under the age of 22 from entering the draft (and few underclassmen are 22 years old). As for women’s soccer players, turning pro early has really only become a viable option over the last couple of years. Prior to that, there was no stable domestic league to play in; at least not one with the momentum the NWSL now maintains.
It’s important to note the circumstances surrounding Macario and Rodman’s decisions are vastly different. Macario, who played three seasons at Stanford, would have exhausted her collegiate eligibility had the Pac-12 conference played soccer last fall. The Brazilian-American, one of the best prospects to come up through the collegiate ranks in decades, recently made her first USWNT appearance and has inked a deal to play for French powerhouse Lyon next season. Financial terms of Macario’s 2.5-year contract have not been disclosed. But Dr. Carlos Gomez (Post-Doctorate Research Fellow, University of Zurich) said the club has some international stars that earn “between 300,000 and 400,000 euros yearly.” As a pro, Macario will also be able to profit from her participation on the USWNT.
Rodman, a forward currently on the U-20 national team, is a top prospect in her own right, but thanks to COVID-19 forcing the postponement of Washington State’s fall season, the freshman never suited up for an NCAA game. Washington State University Head Coach Todd Shulenberger said the uncertainty brought on by the pandemic influenced the player’s decision to leave early. “The instability of the conference [season] and NCAA Tournament made her think now is the right time to leave,” he said. The opportunity to become the youngest female soccer player ever drafted into the NWSL and Rodman’s realization that “college just was not for her” also played in. The daughter of basketball Hall of Famer Dennis Rodman and Michelle Moyer, Trinity Rodman was selected by the Washington Spirit with the second overall pick in last week’s draft. For reference, the NWSL’s maximum salary is $50,000/year, but Shulenberger suggested it would be feasible for the player to earn six figures in her rookie season after accounting for incentive-based endorsement deals and national team appearances.
Despite the differences in circumstances, Berri views the recent announcements by Macario and Rodman—along with Smith last year—as the beginning of an emerging trend. “[Players leave school early] in sports where there is revenue to be earned. And what we’re seeing in women’s soccer is, with the development of women’s sports and soccer leagues around the world, [player] incomes are going up.” Shulenberger didn’t dispute that trend line is seemingly leaning toward more players leaving early. But he was reluctant to say it is going to become the norm. It remains to be seen how the ability to earn endorsement money while playing in college (assuming NIL legislation eventually passes) will impact future decisions.
Unlike NWSL clubs, which are independently owned, many of the high-profile “professional teams around the world are part of larger organizations with clubs in multiple sports leagues,” Berri explained. And since the 2019 WWC, several of those organizations have devoted more resources to strengthening their respective women’s soccer programs. While that is undeniably good news for young players, it’s unclear what it means for the NWSL’s standing as the premier women’s soccer league in the world. If there is significantly more money to be made in Europe, the NWSL may struggle to keep the top American players stateside. In fact, should the pay gap grow, Berri predicts we will see a “flight of American soccer players [abroad].”
I’m not convinced. Women’s basketball players can earn north of $500,000/year playing overseas, and yet we haven’t seen underclassmen chase those dollars. Dr. Karen Weaver (Graduate Faculty, University of Pennsylvania) said she also gets the sense the bulk of American players feel “if [they] abandon the NWSL, then [they’ll] never have a league to stay home and play in.” It should be noted, players can both play abroad and for an NWSL club (assuming the seasons don’t overlap). They don’t necessarily need to choose one or the other.