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Sick of side hustles, NWSL players push back in fight for labor rights

Kansas City's Kristen Hamilton was traded from North Carolina last month. (John Rudoff/Sipa USA/AP)

Kristen Hamilton has won three National Women’s Soccer League championships, tied the record for goals scored in a game and, in 2019, played for the U.S. women’s national team. She’s not a household name, but she is one of the best women’s soccer players in the world.

Yet she has delivered takeout orders for DoorDash in the offseason and needed her mom to co-sign on a home loan. She recently had to uproot her life after getting traded from a team in suburban Raleigh, N.C., to one in Kansas City, Kan., an experience many pro athletes will endure in their careers. But few will do it on a five-figure salary, with the leverage of free agency nowhere in sight.

Hamilton said she makes $30,000 per year. Save for a few exceptions, the most money an NWSL player can earn during a season that can last for as long as nine months is $52,500, the maximum salary for the 2021 season. A truck driver in Missouri, Hamilton’s new home, makes an average of more than $70,000.

Kids who play sports might fantasize about scoring clutch buckets in Game 7 of the NBA Finals or throwing the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl. For the ones who make it as professional athletes, it’s possible for these innocent dreams to cash into generational-changing wealth. But the girls who grew up to be NWSL players carry on a dream that pays very little.

“You’re given the opportunity to fulfill your dreams that all of us have had since we were kids. At that point, it’s really hard to turn down something like that because it’s a dream. At that point, money was irrelevant,” said Hamilton, 29 and no longer the wide-eyed final selection of the 2014 draft. “But now that we’ve fulfilled those dreams, it’s kind of like: ‘Wait a second. I can’t believe we’ve been okay with this. And I can’t believe this is how we’re asked to live and how we’re supposed to live … being professional athletes.’ ”

The NWSL has existed for almost nine years and, like most women’s sports, has shown signs of growth. Incoming expansion club Angel City FC has a roster of investors that includes tennis icon Serena Williams, actress Natalie Portman and soccer legends from the women’s national team. Budweiser has come on as a sponsor. The 2021 championship match will air on CBS. Most NWSL teams have been valued between $20 million and $100 million.

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Though last year the league applied for and received a loan from the Paycheck Protection Program to offset losses from the coronavirus pandemic, the league said in a statement to The Post that players “were guaranteed full pay and benefits whether they chose to play in 2020 or not.”

The NWSL Players Association is pushing for a better deal. Last winter, the union gave the league notice of intent to collective bargain. In March, the sides began negotiating in person; among other issues, the union wants the NWSL to increase minimum salaries. Recently, however, the organization and the players have taken their fight to the public.

In July, the union debuted its #NoMoreSideHustles campaign to share the experience of what it really means to make less than a living wage as a professional women’s soccer player in the United States.

For all eight years she has spent in the league, defender Emily Menges said, she has worked at least two additional jobs during the season. Forward Jessica McDonald, who played on the World Cup-winning U.S. national team in 2019, tweeted that she used to work 10 hours a day packing boxes at Amazon before heading off to coach youth soccer to supplement her NWSL income — while raising her son.

During her rookie year with the Portland Thorns, midfielder Gabby Seiler said, she woke up at 3:30 a.m. most days to work the front desk at Orangetheory and sell gym memberships. If she was successful, she would get a $25 commission on each membership, which helped supplement the $19,000 per year she made as a professional soccer player. She had gone into debt to buy a used car and furniture for her team-issued apartment, she said.

After her part-time gig, she would leave for her day job and train for about three more hours. Sometimes she would spend the evenings making a few extra bucks as a private coach for kids, too. Coming from the University of Florida, Seiler knew the struggle as a pro. Savannah Jordan, her college teammate and a prolific scorer, had retired after two NWSL seasons. Jordan — who was described as a generational soccer talent by Abby Wambach — now holds a corporate job at Chick-fil-A.

“I want to be able to live comfortably. It doesn’t mean we want to make billions; we just want to be able to support our families. We want to be able to have kids and not have to worry about not being able to afford day care,” said Seiler, who doesn’t have kids but is engaged to be married. “I want to be able to support my family, and I want to be able to have a family and not be worried that I’m living paycheck to paycheck.”

Through a spokesperson, the NWSL said player salaries and total compensation have increased every season, including during the pandemic.

“The continued raising of standards of the NWSL is a priority and that includes elevating the player experience in all aspects, including continuing to increase compensation,” the league said in a statement.

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More than just money, players say they want the freedom to chose the next destination in their careers. At no point during an NWSL player’s career, no matter how many years of service she has, does she become a free agent, with the ability to decide where she’s going to play — unless she wants to leave the league to play overseas. Her contract rights belong to the team.

“We don’t really have much say in anything,” Hamilton said. “It’s really not much freedom.”

Though trades are part of the business for multimillionaire athletes, who are expected to pack up and go, NWSL players say they are expected to show the same professionalism even though they receive far less compensation. Brooke Elby, the union’s former executive director, played four years in the NWSL. When she was with the now-defunct Utah Royals, one morning she ate six pancakes, loading up on carbs to prepare for the night’s match, then learned she had been traded to Chicago.

Once she got there, Elby said, the team didn’t have housing set up for her, so she stayed in a Holiday Inn until a new teammate invited her to take a spare room in her apartment. It was around then that Elby started thinking about her future, and she retired at 26 to attend business school. The three-month summer internship she picked up after retirement paid more than her one-year salary as an NWSL player.

“That was the first time I really understood why a union was so important because I just had no rights at that time and sitting in a hotel room just feeling so helpless,” Elby said. “No player should have to feel that way.”

Hamilton had spent her entire eight-year career with the same franchise until July 21, which she described as “one of the most emotional days” of her life. That morning, the coach of the North Carolina Courage informed her that she had been traded to Kansas City with two other teammates for Amy Rodriguez, who as the mother of two young boys now had to find child care in a new city.

The next day, Hamilton packed a bag because she had to catch a flight to prepare for Kansas City’s next match — against the Courage, her former team. In Kansas City, a franchise that relocated from Utah, the team has not won all season and plays its matches at a baseball stadium retrofitted into a soccer pitch.

In the offseason, Hamilton has taken part-time jobs coaching young players. Despite her experiences, Hamilton said, she won’t advise girls against aspiring to play in the NWSL. Instead, she said, she’s working to make the reality match their dreams.

“I’d tell her that we’ll keep fighting for it to be the league that she deserves to be able to play in when she is older,” Hamilton said.