On March 2, 2017, Jeff Plush stepped down as commissioner of the National Women’s Soccer League.
The announcement came as a surprise—he’d held his annual meeting with reporters just weeks earlier at the NWSL Draft in Los Angeles and there had been no sign that such a move was looming. But if it was something of a shock, Plush leaving didn’t seem particularly noteworthy. He’d led the league through several seasons of steady growth, and had helped finalize a deal with A&E that provided for both a national television deal of significant scope (and financial reward) and a new, equity stake partner in the league. The pact was finalized just a month before he resigned.
As then-U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati put it at the time: “We will immediately explore candidates to succeed Jeff, who will leave as a friend and with great respect from all of us at U.S. Soccer and the NWSL.”
More than a year later, Gulati is gone. And whichever candidates U.S. Soccer explored evidently did not meet the criteria for the new gig. Amanda Duffy, the NWSL Managing Director, has taken on many of the typical ceremonial tasks of a commissioner. For a while, the operating assumption was that Duffy would eventually be given the title for the job she’d been unofficially doing since Plush left. That never happened, though, and as the months have passed, with the position now empty for over a year, the mystery has deepened. Why would a thriving league that’s looking to keep growing choose to operate without a leader?
“It’s still an active search,” Duffy said in January 2018, “And we continue to work with US Soccer and our owners and board to make sure we have that role defined and how we want to have it positioned going forward.”
But how much that extended search is costing the NWSL was raised anew last week when SheIs, a broad partnership of prominent women’s sports leagues geared toward promoting one another, announced its founding members. The WNBA, NWHL, USTA, CWHL, Women’s Pro Fastpitch League, and even WWE were among them. The NWSL is not. And the reason why was pretty simple, according to SheIs co-founder and Executive Director Caiti Donovan.
“Ultimately, the back and forth was on who their lead person would be,” Donovan said in a phone interview on May 4. “As you know, they don’t have a commissioner right now, and they didn’t feel comfortable going forward without a commissioner leading this.” Asked whether SheIs would have accepted Duffy as a leader and included NWSL as a founding member league, Donovan answered, “We would have accepted Amanda, of course.”
For their part, a NWSL spokesperson, after several days of what was described as attempting to reach Duffy, provided Deadspin with this statement: “We are supportive of the SheIS movement and excited to speak with the representatives soon to learn more about their plans and goals.”
But of course, Donovan explained that they had in fact already had those discussions, and that NWSL declined to participate. When told of this and asked to once again reach out to Duffy for why SheIs had been turned down, an NWSL spokesperson said he would, but has since offered no further clarification. A week later, asked again to provide any reasoning for turning down SheIs, an NWSL spokesperson said, “We do not have any additional information for you at this time.”
For their part, SheIs is eager to include NWSL, which is no surprise given the young league’s overall reach and success. In its sixth year, the NWSL continues to see attendance rise steadily, with more owners eager to invest deeper into franchises. Indeed, the lone team to fold since the league started, the Boston Breakers, largely did so because its ownership group was unable to keep up with the pace of the Portlands, Orlandos, and Utahs of the NWSL.
Missing out on a chance to reach beyond its core audience and further solidify itself in a year without either an Olympics or a World Cup to bring its best players further into the public consciousness sure seems like an own-goal by the NWSL, here, but it’s not just that. In light of that mistake, it seems fair to wonder just what else NWSL has missed out on by going leaderless for over a year. An NWSL spokesperson declined repeated opportunities to provide a timeframe, or any other updates, for filling the commissioner job.
Donovan wasn’t given any further information, either, and as such remains in a holding pattern for any partnership with the NWSL. “What we’ve discussed with them, is once they have a commissioner, then we’d get together and make a formal announcement,” Donovan said. For now, though, SheIs is moving forward. “Honestly, I’m so thrilled with the group we do have,” Donovan said. “And conversations we’ve just started with some Canadian soccer players, U.S. Soccer players are really promising. So right now, we’re focused on that.”
Donovan has done the work of involving those individual partners because she sees soccer a key part of the conversation that SheIs is trying to facilitate. But as the key figures in women’s sports leadership begin the hard work of promoting not just themselves but every participating league, there will be no visits to Sky Blue FC from WNBA president Lisa Borders, no attention-grabbing visits to Dallas Wings games by million-dollar softball star Monica Abbott. Nor will the NWSL play a part in shaping where the group goes from here. If this is a conversation they want to be in, they have done nothing much to show it.
But the real issue extends beyond a single missed partnership opportunity. For the large majority of NWSL players, the league itself is not a source of much money: team salary caps are set at $350,000 this season, with a minimum salary of $15,750 and a maximum of $44,000 for non-national team players. This is an implicit bargain: players are playing for relatively little money today because they want to see progress for the league in the future. This is an act of self-sacrifice in some senses, but it’s not just that—it’s a bet on the good faith of the people in charge of the league, and an implicit statement of trust on the players’ part that they believe the NWSL is doing all it can to grow as fast as possible. The SheIs misstep is not a fatal blow by any stretch, but it’s another reason to wonder if the NWSL is willing or able to hold up its end of the deal.
Howard Megdal is the co-founder of TheIXNewsletter and editor-in-chief at HighPostHoops. He’s the author of the books The Cardinals Way and Wilpon’s Folly and a freelance writer with an emphasis on women’s sports.