While Ali Riley is certainly grateful for everything soccer has provided her on and off the field, the Angel City FC and New Zealand women’s national team captain is even more excited about what the beautiful game can bring the next generation as interest and support continues to grow from investors, brands, fans and media.
But the fight for equality is far from over.
“I hope women’s sports moves in a direction—and we are seeing it—where we don’t feel the need to make more money (outside of our salaries),” Riley says. “I would love it if all of this was a choice and a passion. In the future, I would love to make enough money where I could be investing in these companies that do good things because I think a lot of players will probably jump at any opportunity to make extra money.
“I’m not going to say I’m lucky because I’ve worked really, really hard to be in this position but I have the privilege of being able to choose who I work with because I’ve had this career where I’ve been able to save money and make a good living playing soccer. With the platform I have, I want to set an example and make sure the legacy I leave is to impact as many people in a positive way as possible during my life. To be able to do that through the partnerships I have and the messages I put out into the world I think really is important but that’s a space I really hope develops for women athletes because it is hard.”
From NWSL players like Sydney Leroux revealing how she spent more money on childcare one year than she made playing professional soccer in the NWSL and the USWNT’s fight for equal pay to the glaring disparities in resources and facilities between the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, the scales are unfortunately still heavily tipped in favor of men’s sports. But that is slowly changing.
The NWSL and the NWSL Players Association in January 2022 agreed to their first-ever collective bargaining agreement, a landmark deal that introduced player free agency, higher salaries with annual increases and other health and wellness benefits through 2026. Despite the improvements, disparities still exist—under the new CBA minimum pay increased from $22,000 in 2021 to $35,000 in 2022, while minimum salaries in Major League Soccer are $84,000 for senior players and $65,500 for reserves.
“I think we are making huge strides,” says Riley, who has played in New York, Sweden, England, Germany, Orlando and Los Angeles. “It’s easy and so tempting to get bogged down by the disparity and what needs to be done and how we hope things will be for our children, but it helps to get perspective to see how far we’ve come. I’m glad to still be playing to be experiencing this—to be living it and enjoying the benefits of finally having the viewership, engagement, sponsorship and media coverage that we have now compared to five years ago, 10 years ago.”
The NWSL, which is reportedly adding franchises in Boston, the San Francisco Bay Area and Utah beginning in 2024, welcomed a record 1+ million fans to matches during the 2022 season, while its championship game was the most-watched match in league history at 915,000—a viewership increase of 71% from the 2021 final.
Clubs, including Riley’s Angel City FC, which has a star-studded investment group fitting for Hollywood, are being buoyed by increased investment from big names in and around sports including Eli Manning, Sue Bird, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Oscar De La Hoya and Dominique Dawes.
Brands including Ally, P&G, Budweiser, Nike, Verizon and MasterCard are also putting their money where their mouths are in support of growing the league and game, which is also spurring others to follow suit.
Tovala, a WiFi-enabled smart countertop oven and pre-made meal kit delivery service, ventures into the space for the first time via a partnership with Riley, who will represent New Zealand for a fifth time at the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand this summer.
“First of all, I think just having the opportunity to partner with brands and make money to supplement my salary is very important,” says Riley, who is releasing a cookbook later this year. “I love cooking—it’s such a passion of mine—and healthy eating and I am eating more plant based pretty much as much as I can. … Being able to work with Tovala and try their vegetarian meals—they’re amazing. Having support, not just getting the groceries but actually that the oven is so smart and all I have to do is scan something so that’s another 20 minutes I have where I can focus on my recovery, which I need to do more this year, or make phone calls and have meetings with the national team.”
2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup
Kicking off on July 20 and running through August 20, the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup will be the first to be comprised of 32 nations.
Begun in 1991 with 12 teams, the tournament increased to 16 nations in 1999 and expanded to 24 in 2015.
The tournament expansion, as well as demand for tickets—more than 500,000 tickets have been sold as of mid-January—is another testament to the growing popularity of the women’s game.
Riley, who is pushing 150 caps for the Football Ferns, hopes this summer’s tournament lays the groundwork for growing the game Down Under.
“It is such a huge opportunity and I feel a responsibility where I want to make sure we don’t miss this opportunity,” she says. “It’s very fitting the slogan is ‘Beyond greatness’ because for me yes, I have my football ambitions and I want us to make history by winning our first ever World Cup game, I want us to get out of the group and all of this, but our success is so closely linked—and it is a lot of pressure—to growing the game and inspiring people. I would love in 10 years for the Football Ferns to be more diverse and even more little girls are playing and this is the opportunity we have.
“I think playing in the U.S. I’m privy to the growth here and what the U.S. women’s national team is doing and they’re really setting the bar, and I think we’re so far behind that, but this could be the springboard to start trending in that direction. I feel very lucky to be involved with Angel City in the NWSL surrounded by USWNT players and then having a leadership role on the New Zealand national team to host this World Cup because there’s so much opportunity.”