Selected seventh overall by the North Carolina Courage in 2017, Darian Jenkins did not pocket an enormous signing bonus or command the sort of life-changing contract most associate with a first-round draft pick in professional sports.
In her first season in the National Women’s Soccer League, Jenkins earned less than $18,000.
In fact, since entering the league out of UCLA — she now plays for KC NWSL in Kansas City — she’s held a side job, or several, just to make ends meet.
The low pay that’s been the standard in the world’s premier women’s pro soccer league was a shock, even if some UCLA alumni and players on the U.S. national team had warned her ahead of time that her NWSL compensation wouldn’t be great.
“I kind of knew it was going be tight,” she said. “Did I expect that tight my rookie year? Absolutely not.”
At one point, while trying to nurture her career as a young soccer pro, she was also coaching youth soccer teams, working a 5-11 a.m. gig at a CycleBar fitness studio and officiating indoor leagues for gas money. After paying for such basic necessities, she had no money left for physical therapy, massages or a personal technical coach.
Struggling to simply keep the lights on, she could not focus solely on her sport and be at her best physically and mentally.
“It’s a struggle and it’s tough, especially entering (the league) and this is your taste of being a pro,” Jenkins said.
When Yael Averbuch West was cut from the U.S. Women’s National Team after the 2014 season, becoming a free agent, she was offered a $16,000 contract. The pay cut was so steep that she questioned whether she should even sign it. But sign she did, latching on with FC Kansas City from 2015-17.
Making regular appearances with the USWNT was exciting for Averbuch West early in her career, but it also gave her a false sense of what being a women’s soccer player was really like. As an allocation player from 2009-14, she was paid by the U.S. Soccer federation. She considered that compensation pretty good money — at least enough to be comfortable.
In the last several seasons of her 10-year playing career, however, Averbuch West never made more than $21,000 annually.
The NWSL currently has a minimum player salary of $22,000 per year. According to the players’ union, the NWSL Players Association (NWSLPA), a third of its members make the league minimum.
And 75% make $31,000 or less.
Last week, the union, which Averbuch West founded in 2017, kicked off an awareness campaign called #NoMoreSideHustles. Players across the league shared stories similar to those related by Jenkins and Averbuch West, who started her own business and remains an entrepreneur.
Averbuch West launched Techne Futbol, a training app, while she was still playing. She figured she could work from the comfort of her couch after she was done training for the day. Like many of her peers, she had previously turned to coaching side-gigs to make money. But coaching enough hours to make enough money was nearly impossible. It was exhausting.
The physical toll of coaching, of waking up at 5 a.m. to work or officiate games in order to supplement a meager league salary, is challenging enough. But Averbuch West said there’s an emotional toll, too, and while this aspect is less tangible, not knowing whether you can make your rent payment, wondering how you’ll pay for groceries, not having a savings account to fall back on is — these things, in many ways, are even more stressful, Averbuch West said.
“Other professional athletes in other fields, whether they’re men or in other sports, do some fun things on the side: They invest in companies, they start side-projects,” she said. “But it’s all that fun extra work; it’s not out of necessity. So I think there’s the emotional toll of the need to, and the desperation to figure out that other part of your life and make sure you’re taken care of. That’s even more detrimental to your ability to just focus on your craft and perform than the early wake-up and the actual physical output.”
That emotional toll is a burden for many players. Jenkins said she struggled with her own mental health at the beginning of this season, but now that she can finally afford a sports psychologist she’s more confident and focused. The last time she had that kind of mental health support, she said, was at UCLA.
In college, Jenkins struggled with an eating disorder. But the school provided resources to help her pull through.
Once she turned pro, she said, those resources were not affordable.
“Every year I played in the league, I think it would have helped me immensely to overcome just trials of not playing, (being) stressed about money, things going on at home,” Jenkins said of having a sports psychologist. “I hope we can get to a point where each (NWSL) team is supplemented with a sport psychologist or just a counselor or something where people can talk about their mental health in a really safe space. That’s just going to help them on and off the field.”
The #NoMoreSideHustles campaign comes during negotiations toward the first collective bargaining agreement between the league and the union. When Averbuch West started the NWSLPA four years ago, she was just aiming for better communication between the players and league, she said. She became the NWSLPA’s executive director in 2019, a position how held by Meghann Burke.
The implications of finalizing the league’s first CBA should be significant. Since its inception in 2012, all NWSL decisions have been made unilaterally by the league. Averbuch West recognizes that this was necessary at first — the league was still trying to find its footing.
Now, with the NWSL growing in stature and opportunities increasing each year, the CBA will enable players to have a say in, take part in and benefit from the progress the league is enjoying.
Ensuring adequate salary and safe, acceptable playing conditions are key discussion points as the CBA negotiations grind on, but so is job security, player treatment during trades and simply having the sort of baseline guarantees that are typically extended to pro athletes in other leagues.
Jenkins said the CBA will help advocate for players in situations and spaces where they might otherwise be too uncomfortable to speak up alone.
“You never want to say something that sounds like you’re not appreciative of what you have,” she said, “but you know that at the baseline of being an athlete professional athlete, you should have these set, fundamental resources to be the best you can be on the field.”
At a website called NoMoreSideHustles.com, the NWSLPA is soliciting signatures in support of its efforts to end the need for side jobs: “The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) is in its ninth season,” the site reads, “with 10 teams and two expansion teams scheduled for 2022. NWSLPA will not wait another decade to achieve fair contracts, equal pay, professional playing conditions. Our goal is to set the global standard and ensure that a career in NWSL becomes a viable professional career choice in the years ahead.”
Averbuch West said players and the league have traditionally been reluctant to make wage data public. Her own past salary, she said, was not something she “felt proud of. It did not allow her “to live in a way that was healthy or good,” she said.
“I used to never share that because it seemed embarrassing,” she said. “It’s very important, I think. When people hear the term equal pay, or you talk about NWSL players and they don’t make as much as an MLS player ... What does that actually mean? I think it puts it in perspective.
“We’re not talking about making a good wage … or just wanting to be compensated better. We’re literally talking about sometimes not making enough money to live. It’s important to give context to the conversation surrounding women’s sports in general. It’s not just soccer.”