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NWSL shows up Women's Bundesliga on and off the pitch

Milan Gagnon San Diego
September 29, 2022

Every match will determine a playoff slot as the US National Women's Soccer League heads into the final weekend of its 10th season. The NWSL is the third attempt to launch a women's league in the US — and it's working.

Alex Morgan in action for San Diego Wave
Alex Morgan and many US players enjoy better conditions than most female footballersImage: Kelvin Kuo/USA TODAY Network/IMAGO

Attendance was announced at a record 32,000 and soccer-starved Southern Californians were stoked when the San Diego Wave and Los Angeles' Angel City FC — the two 2022 expansion teams in the National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) — opened the world's newest football ground in San Diego in September. Adding the Wave and Angel City, who play within 130 miles (215 kilometers), of each other has given the NWSL not just its first real derby, but also a long-overdue presence in a region home to 20 million people, from Tijuana to Los Angeles. 

"To see soccer in California not exist before this season for many years, to see San Diego embracing us as a women's professional soccer team so quickly in the way that they did — it was just a great moment," Wave striker Alex Morgan, the 2019 World Cup silver boot and an NWSL original since 2013, said in a post-match press conference.  "It felt like we were home and had 32,000 fans behind us from the first minute."

As the Wave and Angel City set a new attendance record in their first season and the NWSL's 10th, Bundesliga stalwarts Eintracht (formerly 1. FFC) Frankfurt battled Bayern Munich to 0-0 before a new-high 23,200 supporters in Deutsche Bank Park to open the German association's 33rd. It has been a year of records for women's football. In April, Barcelona hosted Wolfsburg before 91,648 fans in the first leg of a Champion's League semifinal. The European Championships shattered the marks for average, overall and individual crowds — from 68,881 people at the opening match to 87,192 at Wembley Stadium to witness Germany fall to England in the final. 

Bayern Munich players applaud the traveling fans in Frankfurt
Bayern Munich's trip to Frankfurt set a new benchmark for the BundesligaImage: Alex Grimm/Getty Images

"Women's football is doing a lot right," said Nadine Angerer, who won two World Cups as a goalkeeper with Germany and played 16 seasons in the Bundesliga before ending her on-field career with the NWSL's Portland Thorns. "More spectators, more interest, generate more money," she said, "which can then be invested back."  

'Professionalization of football'

Indeed, players, former players and fans want the fervor for women's football to not just justify the existence of the game, but to improve conditions for the players who make their living at it. Things seem to be going in that direction — in the United States, at least. 

While Germany continues to struggle to build an infrastructure for women's football in the Bundesliga's fourth decade, investors and sponsors in the US are forking out to attach their names and logos to the NWSL. San Diego billionaire Ronald Burkle launched the Wave while Angel City's stakeholders read like a marquee, with Natalie Portman as a founder and a long list of investors that includes the pop star Christina Aguilera and US football legend Mia Hamm. 

"You're seeing really invested investors come in across the league, as well as companies that want to invest, so the worth of women's sports across the board is showing its face," said Saskia Webber, an Angel City investor and goalkeeper on the pioneering 1990s US national teams. "With that trickle-down comes higher salary and higher pay — for players, for coaches, for staff, for general managers."

Equal pay in football- just a crazy dream?

In January the NWSL Players Association ratified the league's first collective bargaining agreement, setting a $35,000 base wage — perhaps a lower income than that of the fans who pay $15.50 for a beer at the stadium, but enough to keep players from taking second jobs to subsidize their careers. Even in the top two divisions in Germany, players are still fighting for a minimum salary. And, though incentives from Wolfsburg and the national team might push the annual income of gold medalist striker Alexandra Popp to an estimated €140,000, the average salary is closer to €40,000, far below the NWSL's $54,000.

Many Bundesliga players take side jobs to be make ends meet, which can wear them down physically and personally, sabotaging the perception of women's football in Germany. "It's a vicious circle when you don't make enough money in your career as a football player and you have to work a cash register or wherever," said Kerstin Neumann, who handles women's football for the VDV, the 1,400-member union for professional players.

"You can't completely concentrate on football because you are getting up early for work and then going straight to training, and so the ability to perform is diminished," Neumann said. "And you also can't establish a competitive league because, with teams like Wolfsburg, Frankfurt and Bayern, the players are all on professional contracts and don't need to work on the side and so are able to concentrate on football and can perform much better. And so the league just is less competitive."

Players have sought more sustainable working conditions abroad. "There are a lot of countries that are further along in the professionalization of football," Neumann said. England, France and Spain, she said, "have made great steps in recent years that, for players currently in the Bundesliga, are clearly attractive." Of course, she said, the more top players who go abroad, the more the professionalization of the Bundesliga is undermined.

Germans in NWSL 

Angerer, who stayed on as the Thorns' goalkeeping coach after ending her playing career in 2015, is one of fewer than 10 Germans who have played in the NWSL. There are two active this season, fellow German international keeper Almuth Schult and midfielder Marleen Schimmer. 

Almuth Schult in goal for Germany
Almuth Schult is one of the few Germans to have moved to the NWSLImage: Beautiful Sports/imago images

"It is much faster," said Schimmer, the Wave's No. 2 pick in the NWSL draft in December and the No. 9 overall. "The tempo is higher. The technical and tactical are more in the background." The combination of competition and compensation might just entice more Germans. "I increasingly hear from players that they want to come here to play in college or just to try it out," Schimmer said. 

It's too soon to make projections as the Bundesliga enters the third weekend of its 33rd season, but surprises are in short supply. Wolfsburg, winners for seven of the past 10 years (with Bayern taking the other three), are in first place at 2-0-0 and with a goal difference of five. 

In contrast, it's anyone's season on this final weekend of the NWSL's 10th year. Angerer's Thorns are in first place for now, with 38 points, but — at 37, 36 and 35, respectively — the OL Reign from Seattle, Kansas City Current and San Diego Wave are all in range. The Houston Dash, North Carolina Courage, Chicago Red Stars and Angel City are all competing for the last two playoff spots, with the Red Stars and Angel City meeting near Chicago on Sunday in a match that could determine the final slot. And the fans will be there.

Edited by: Matt Pearson