For 10 days, she was a single mom. Not really, but that’s the nickname friends and family gave her during the week and a half she took on a full-time nanny gig that featured 24/7 kid duty in addition to seven chickens and five cats. It started like all mornings do, shuttling to and from school, then to tutoring sessions and dance lessons while trying to maintain a semblance of sanity.
On top of all of this, “Lo” was wrapping up her final few classes at Stanford University in northern California. Don’t forget about zooming to-and-from her private 1-on-1 soccer lessons to earn a little extra cash on the side. Then when she managed to find a sliver of time for herself, she’d train, she’d sprint, she’d get touches on the ball to stay in the best shape possible.
LaBonta went pro in 2015, drafted by FC Sky Blue in the NWSL, but had to return to Palo Alto to finish her degree. To keep herself afloat in a place as cutthroat as the Bay Area, she said yes to every job opportunity. She had to.
The Utah Royals midfielder was a server, bartender, nanny, helped teammates who were launching their own companies with social media advertising. She didn’t even want money for that one. She accepted coffee money to keep her engine going.
Professionals on Utah’s newest professional team hope that’s not longer necessary, but it remains an unfortunate reality swirling around the NWSL, which is considered top-to-bottom the most competitive women’s league on the planet. Minimum salaries for players in the league dip as low as $15,750 in 2018, while the max is $44,000.
Surviving in today’s economy is difficult as it is already, but trying to thrive on an eight-month-long contract (February through September) while attempting to make a name for yourself against the world’s top talents is a mighty task.
Royals coach Laura Harvey says the salary cap must go up and do so dramatically to reach the next phase of the league’s evolution. Right now, each club has $350,000 to spend on its roster. Allocated players from the U.S. and Canada national teams are paid by their respective federations, but each is still factored in as a mid-range salary under the cap.
To Harvey, it starts with getting players on 12-month-long contracts so they not only feel stable but don’t feel the pressure to chase pro opportunities, for example, in Australia. The women’s league there runs counter to the NWSL, allowing pros to move across the world for a few months to earn a living.
At the moment, Harvey said NWSL wages are close to on par with the English league, but those players get paid year-round. Then there are places like Division 1 Feminine in France where Harvey said some star players earn as much as 5,000 Euros a month, a trend that she says is not sustainable for any league.
It’s a topic she doesn’t want to be among the first posed when discussing her new team but knows it’s part of the equation.
When Dell Loy Hansen took the risk of purchasing the club formerly known as FC Kansas City last November, he did so knowing that salary cap immediately would become a source of frustration for him. So during his negotiations with the league, an objective he felt needed to be hit was that in Utah’s first year, it could spend three times the amount other clubs spend to help the athletes get established in such a tight window.
(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Royals midfielder Lo’eau LaBonta at her Midvale apartment, Friday April 6, 2018.
Hansen, also a real estate mogul, said they were allowed to spend an extra $100,000 on housing. Most of the team lives in fully furnished apartments near Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy. Club sponsor Maverik donated $100 monthly gas cards, while Ford took a leap and gave 10 cars for the team to split this season.
Like Real Salt Lake, the Royals get the same amenities, too. Meals pre and post training, which will go a long way, Hansen said, in helping Royals players save money in Year 1.
“Simple answer is if they don’t have to spend money on gas or cars and food,” he said, “they have more money that’s disposable to take care of themselves.”
The NWSL board will convene in May, and Hansen said he has at least eight new initiatives to propose for next year to help advance the league and provide more fiscally to the players each year.
For established names like Royals and U.S. national team captain Becky Sauerbrunn, a pioneer in the fight for equality in compensation in American soccer, the next step starts and ends with more compensation.
(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Royals midfielder Lo’eau LaBonta, center, in a team meeting at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Friday April 6, 2018.
Hansen is determined to provide as much as he can without shaking trees at the league office or with the NWSL board. He hopes no players have to carry multiple full-time jobs, and the players themselves are crossing their fingers, too.
Goalkeeper Abby Smith, who was reallocated to Utah when her former club, the Boston Breakers, dissolved this year, knows what it’s like to try to balance the impossible. Her rookie year in Boston was the season before the minimum salary number moved up from near $7,000. She had to work 40 hours a week at Lululemon to pay rent.
Brooke Elby, a defender who, like Smith, arrived in Utah from Boston via the dispersal draft, is the chief marketing office of Beast Mode Soccer, an elite 1-on-1 training company with locations all over the country. She works at least a few hours every day after Royals training and treatment wraps at around 3 p.m.
Like most of us glued to our laptops, Elby is the same, working wherever she can post up and focus. Sometimes, it’s in her bedroom at her apartment, other times it’s at her other home office — Rio Tinto Stadium.
“I’ve never been in a place where I could work at the stadium,” she said. “We have our own work room, so if I just wanted to hang out at the stadium and work, I could easily do that, too.”
Defender Sydney Miramontez was booking it to her car in Kansas City at the conclusion of training sessions to make the 40-mile drive to her other job a year ago. When she wasn’t vying for minutes on the field, she was an assistant coach at Baker University, an NAIA college in Baldwin City, Kan.
In Utah, Royals players are still settling in, getting used to life along the Wasatch Front. But as Miramontez notes, nobody — at least not yet — is feeling the pressure to rely on the grapevine for work.
“This organization is making it if we want this to be our sole priority, they’re letting us do that,” she said. “They’re letting us be professional athletes with the highest of standards, and you can’t ask for anything more there.”
(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Defender Sydney Miramontez runs as The Utah Royals FC practice indoors at the RSL practice facility in Herriman, Thursday, April 12, 2018.