Last week, U.S. Soccer approved Division I sanctioning for the USL Super League, a new professional women’s league set to join the NWSL atop the U.S. pyramid.
On Tuesday, USL Super League president Amanda Vandervort held a press conference to give more details on the league’s upcoming August 2024 launch. Here’s what we know so far about the launch of USLSL.
What is the USL Super League?
USL Super League is a new fully professional women’s soccer league. The league has been in the works for several years and was announced in 2021, but only recently received Division I sanctioning from US Soccer after deciding not to pursue DII sanctioning as originally planned.
Division I teams operate at the highest level of U.S. Soccer sanctioning and also have the most stringent requirements to qualify, including minimums for population (750,000 in 75% of markets), stadium seating (5,000), operational budget (enough to operate for three years), and ownership net worth ($25 million).
Can they compete with the NWSL?
Currently, the USLSL seems to be operating under the assumption of coexistence rather than outright head-to-head competition. The league is framing their plans as adding to the women’s soccer landscape rather than creating a schism.
The league’s design also allows for a different type of North American market to harbor first-division sports. Given the financial landscape of the league’s announced ownership groups, the USLSL will likely have lower expansion fees than NWSL, allowing for mid-sized metropolitan areas like Madison, WI; Lexington, KY and Rogers, AR to bring a top-level professional team with less risk of it becoming a financial burden as the league evolves its operation. Cities like those would be unlikely to interest the NWSL at this stage, as that league is instead targeting the nation’s largest cities or markets that have had success in MLS and charging expansion fees topping $50 million.
The new league will create “at least 150 professional jobs” for players, in Vandervort’s words, without specifying how much that recruitment will mine from the NWSL’s existing base of players.
U.S. Soccer President Cindy Parlow Cone statement on USL Super League Division One sanctioning. pic.twitter.com/HU6EGLbz2R
— USL Super League (@USLSuperLeague) February 10, 2024
Will the USLSL have a college draft?
One major departure that could make the USL Super League more appealing to young players than the NWSL is Tuesday’s confirmation that the USLSL will not draft players.
“USL Super League players are global free agents unless they’re under contract,” said Vandervort. “In practical terms, this means our players can negotiate freely with whatever club they choose to before signing a contract…. Upon the end of their contracts. They’re free to negotiate with whomever they choose in the U.S. or abroad.”
How will player salaries compare to other leagues?
Vandervort said that she expected the league “to be competitive both in the U.S. and the international marketplace” in terms of compensation, including salaries, housing, and health insurance. According to Vandervort, the league has looked at the NWSL collective bargaining agreement as well as international player agreements in terms of understanding where the bar has been set for player standards.
Vandervort also alluded to the USLSL’s willingness to voluntarily recognize any eventual players’ union, should the players decide to unionize.
“We’re really proud of our relationship with the USLPA, and I think that the work that we’ve done with them, the way that we’ve worked with them over the years, I think is a demonstration of our commitment to players and how they want to organize,” she said.
When will they play their season?
Unlike the NWSL, the USLSL will operate on a fall to winter schedule, playing from August to June with a midseason winter break.
“We believe participation in the global soccer economy in the future will be predicated on transfer window alignment, respect for international windows like the FIFA Women’s World Cup, and prioritizing player welfare and mental health with adequate midseason and end of year breaks,” said Vandervort.
She also emphasized the benefits of having more players available in-market for more games by aligning more closely with the international calendar, although this presupposes that the USLSL rosters will include in-demand international players. But in theory, their match calendar would help them minimize club versus country conflicts during the sport’s summer tournaments.
The NWSL currently has a season that begins in March and ends with the championship game in late November.
Does the USLSL have a broadcast deal?
The league currently does not have a broadcast deal.
While the USL men’s operation recently agreeing to a three-year deal with CBS to run through the 2027 USL championship, Vandervort said that they will not attempt to bundle any USLSL rights with the men.
“We know the USL Super League media rights have a high value and so we’re excited to be negotiating those rights separately,” she said.
She also said commercial investment interest has been “significant.”
“We’ll be announcing our first kind of grouping of commercial partners…in the coming weeks and you’ll see more start to line up between now and August,” she said.
How many teams does the league plan to have?
On Tuesday, Vandervort declined to put a cap on how large the USL Super League could eventually grow. Similarly, she didn’t commit the USL to launching a sanctioned second-division competition to exist between the Super League and the amateur “pre-professional” W-League, which kicked off in 2022; nor did she tease promotion and relegation as the USL has had on the men’s side for over half a decade.
She did, however, express excitement about the ongoing efforts to ensure, regardless of eventual formatting, that each team is playing in an ideal venue.
“We have many more purpose-built stadiums, stadium developments, that we’re gonna announce in the near future,” she said.
Vandervort pointed to multiple existing USL stadium projects, such as Spokane’s newly-built 5,500-seat One Spokane Stadium, Lexington SC building a 7,500-seat stadium, and Indy Eleven’s 20,000-seat Eleven Park as examples of how the USLSL wanted to tie infrastructure into its development. Eleven Park is part of a larger $1 billion land development project in downtown Indianapolis.
Bringing Division One professional women’s soccer closer to home in markets across the country 🏡🧡
We can’t wait to kick off in August 😤 pic.twitter.com/u8ziZXAG8m
— USL Super League (@USLSuperLeague) February 10, 2024
Will this make it more viable for athletes to go pro in women’s soccer?
From the start, Vandervort and other USL brass have emphasized the need to grow opportunities in women’s soccer as central to their mission with the Super League. With the first-division sanctioning, she estimated that the inaugural season will create “at least 150 professional jobs for players and even more than that in the front office between now and August.”
Typically, the pool of players to fill those jobs would either be products of the American college system or international signings. However, previous efforts by the USL will allow them to create a new operational standard for roster-building for American women’s soccer: one aided by developmental academies.
“We’ve invested heavily in the path to pro at the USL,” Vandervort said. “Today, there’s about 2 million registered girls playing youth soccer in the U.S. but only a select group — maybe 30,000 — make it into a competitive youth level. Even then, the focus is largely on winning and showcasing talent rather than development as players.
“We launched the USL Girls Academy as a U-20 platform in 2023 to complement the existing youth landscape and prioritize player development. In 2024, you’ll see the USL Academy boasts 40 clubs, each aligned to a W League or Super League team, a senior level environment and a select number of Academy players will be able to feature with their senior teams if they’re ready without making that lifelong commitment to forego their collegiate eligibility. We’re really proud of our academy program and excited about the growth of that platform.”
(Photo of Amanda Vandervort: Tim Heitman/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images)