Gary Darrell, the only remaining original member of the Washington Diplomats, played his first couple of years (1974-75) here on a salary "barely enough to live on."
"I don't remember how much I was paid," said Darrell, a native of Bermuda. "It was almost as if the coach was paying us out of his own pocket. No one made any money in those days. Many of the guys had part-time jobs to get by. We were struggling."
Their plight was brought to national attention by a six-day strike of the players association that ended Wednesday.
While the association did not get the recognition it sought from the league, it nevertheless did make this point: Most professional soccer players in the U.S. earn nowhere near the salaries of players in other sports with the exception of international all-stars assembled by the NASL champion Cosmos.
"A truck driver makes more than a soccer player in this country," said Ed Garvey, the NASL Players Association executive director. "Some of the salaries are so low they are ridiculous."
The average salary for American players was estimated at just over $12,000 and for foreign players just over $19,000 by league sources. Except for the Cosmos, whose budget rivals those of the NFL or NBA clubs, NASL clubs operate on a tight budget.
The league averaged 13,599 fans per game in the regular-season in 1978. The Cosmos averaged 47,856 for each home game. The Diplomats averaged 10,647 for 15 home games.
"Right now, we have to tip-toe through the tulips carefully before we get up with the other sports," said NASL Commissioner Phil Woosnam. "Everyone can't afford to take the steps of the Cosmos. It's a big gamble. They took one and it paid off for them. They have raised their home attendance from 5,000 to 48,000 in just four years.
"But they've come a long way. It takes time. Most of the clubs are losing money and just trying to survive."
The Washington Diplomats are a prime example of a club trying to walk. The earlier Washington Darts and Whips failed in the '60s and the Diplomats have lost money since their birth in 1974. They have had three different owners.
Even now, with the guidance and money of a powerful conglomerate, Gulf and Western, the Diplomats figure to lose money for a few more years. The Dips have greatly upgraded their operation, putting more money into advertising and promotion and signing better players.
"The club here has treated me fairly," said Don Droege, acquired from Rochester in the off-season. "A lot of clubs underpay their players. But there isn't anything the players can do about it. The highest-paid players on Rochester last year made maybe $25,000. The others ranged from $6,000 to $18,000 for a seven-month to a year contract."
Team sources say the average Washington salary is between $16,000 and $35,000, which ranks the team among the top 10 in the league.
Darrell, married with two children, said his salary of approximately $23,000 is adequate. He just purchased a townhouse in Columbia, Md., at what he described as a "very reasonable price," and drives a car owned by the club.
"My monthly expenditures are about $1000. It's hard to put a lot of funds in the bank but I make out," said Darrell, whose wife Jackie does not work. "I've always had to be practical because we never had much money. Maybe that's why these are the best days of my life. I don't worry too much about entertainment. If we want to do something, there's money left to do it."
Darrell was one of 23 Diplomats who did not honor the recent strike.
"Players did not know what to do. I guess I was taking the safe route," said Darrell, who will undergo surgery Tuesday for the removal of cartilage from his knee. "I listened to both sides and decided to play. The sport isn't strong enough to stand a strike right now."
"He will be paid in full while on the injury list.
Most Diplomats are bachelors and share apartments. Droege and Aleks Mihailovic split a $550 monthly rent. Utilities are included and the apartment is furnished.
"I have my own car so my main bills are food and social life," said Droege. "I imagine the average salary might be tough for married people. I look at my situation and can get an idea of what they spend as a family. I save a few bucks but I can't go out and buy any fur coats."
Since 65 percent of the players are not U.S. citizens, immigration laws are as important to the NASL as the waiver rules are to the NFL.
Aliens who have residences in other countries and say they have no wish to abandon them are issued "temporary work permits" by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
H-1 and H-2 visas are issued to persons coming to the United States to perform temporary services of labor. The applicants must be coming here to perform a service requiring special skills that unemployed persons in this country cannot perform.
Aliens who have been here five years may apply for a green card, which, if granted, gives them permanent-residency rights.
Darrell recently was granted a green card.
Getting salaries up to a respectable minimum is one of the long-range goals of the players' union. The club owners have refused to recognize the union thus far but Garvey says he will continue to press for higher salaries.
"That's where the union could help the players," said defender Robert Iarusci. "Now, you have to act as a hardnosed negotiator to get some money. I started out making $100 a game in Toronto. Salaries have improved a bit. But it's not good.
"I can get by but I know some guys need another job. Compared to other jobs, our salaries aren't terrible. But compared to other sports, they're bad. We are professional athletes and should be paid accordingly."
Washington's annual budget, which includes salaries of players and other employes, stadium rental, promotions, advertising and other expenses, was estimated at just over $1 million.
"That's about where most of the NASL teams are," said one league source. "Some clubs spend considerably less than that but it's not easy.Even at an average of $20,000, 20 players would cost the club $400,000."
In 1970, two NASL franchises were sold for $10,000 each. Woosnam said the cost of the three newest franchises-Detroit, Houston and Memphis-cost nearly $1 million in 1977. By comparison, Denver Nugget basketball star David Thompson makes $800,000 per year, probably enough to pay the yearly salaries of two NASL teams.
"You marvel at their salaries but you can't worry about what they make. Basketball and football have made it in this country." said Darrell. "I have to worry about what I make and what I have to do with mine. I don't know what anyone makes on our club and no one talks about it. Maybe it's because we all make so little."
Woosnam said it will be at least another five years before half of the NASL clubs get in the black and players' salaries even begin to improve.
"We're going through the same thing the NFL went through. I took them 40 years before they made any money," said Woosnam. "I'm hoping it takes us only 20. The league has to improve as a whole before any money can be seen. Right now, the only money made is through gate receipts. TV revenue is very small now."
The average ticket price in the league is $4. Many of the NASL clubs must still come up with attractions and promo deals to sell the sport to the fans. Even the Cosmos sponsor family plans and game-by-game attractions to keep the turnstiles turning.
"We are still promoting the sport and we have to have these types of gimmicks," said Cosmo director of marketing Don Flora. "But because of our success, we have cut back on some things without it hurting us a bit."
Salaries and player fringe benefits have multiplied almost faster than the mind can comprehend in every sport except soccer. The NASL Athletes have not been able to demand high salaries because most teams say they can't afford to pay them.
"A few years ago, we would have played for nothing for Dennis (Viollet, former Diplomat coach)," recalled Darrell. "The money wasn't that much and we were trying to sell the sport. Now, it's big business and more professional. It's more like a job now."
Like many of the NASL players, Darrell negotiates without an agent.
"I didn't have any problem with my contrac." said Darrell, in the first year of a two-year pact. "A friend of mine and I sat and talked with Gordon (Bradley, the Washington coach) and I signed. It's worked out fine for me.
"I don't need a part-time job anymore. I can make it now." CAPTION: Illustration, NASL's Growing Pains