TAMPA — Amanda Vandervort said she had a “challenging childhood” growing up in Tucson, Arizona. Her parents were divorced and “didn’t have a lot of money.”
“For me, soccer was my escape,” she said Tuesday.
It was a way to earn a college scholarship, something she knows would not have been possible without Title IX. Thursday marked the 50th anniversary of the law that bans sex discrimination in any education program or activity that receives federal funds, transforming college, high school and youth sports.
“Giving back to the game that gave me so much is what drives me,” Vandervort said.
After Vandervort played goalkeeper and graduated from Wyoming in 2001, though, playing professionally wasn’t a reality. As president of the USL Super League, scheduled to launch after the Women’s World Cup in 2023, she is helping to create the opportunity for hundreds of players to do just that.
While the National Women’s Soccer League began play in 2013, women’s soccer in the United States has lacked a professional second tier. Vandervort said many American players must go abroad to launch their pro careers.
“I believe we’re filling in a huge need,” she said, noting that about 40,000 women play college soccer at the NCAA, NAIA or junior college level. “There’s a gap in the marketplace for players to go.”
Building a pathway
Based in Tampa, the United Soccer League already has bolstered the path to professional soccer for men. The USL runs leagues at the academy and pre-professional level all the way up to the nation’s second tier — the USL Championship — where the Rowdies are one of 27 teams.
Vandervort said she reflects on Title IX often as the organization builds a similar infrastructure for women. The USL W League, a pre-professional summer league that allows high school and college athletes to maintain their amateur status, began play this year. After the Super League launches, Vandervort said the USL will focus on finalizing its academy setup.
“The pathway is something that we’re building that doesn’t exist elsewhere,” she said. “And we think that building those things will make us one of the best leagues in the world.”
Tricia Taliaferro coaches in the W League for Tampa Bay United, one of the region’s biggest youth soccer clubs. She said the league was a “mandatory” development to ensure American college players didn’t lose ground to their European counterparts.
“It was something that we wanted to create that the younger ones could aspire to,” Taliaferro said.
Vandervort said the Super League also will give more coaches in the women’s game and female executives a chance to work at the pro level, as well as serve growing consumer demand.
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“There are cities across this country — and Tampa Bay, one of them — that’s never had the opportunity … to root and cheer for professional women’s soccer before,” she said.
Vandervort, who spent nearly nine years helping lead Major League Soccer’s award-winning social media outreach, acknowledges the league will have to be “good business” to be sustainable.
That starts, she said, with creating a league in which players want to play.
Commitment to compensation structure
Stars such as Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe lambasted the NWSL in 2021 after reports revealed the league had mishandled accusations of sexual misconduct, racism and verbal/emotional abuse. By the end of the year, five male coaches had been fired or forced to resign, and commissioner Lisa Baird had stepped down.
Also last year, the USL hired Vandervort, who had spent the previous 20 months as the chief women’s football officer for FIFPRO, professional soccer’s worldwide players union. Her professional experience goes beyond the boardroom, however. It includes a four-year stint as head coach at New York University. She said most of her fellow executives at the USL are also former players and coaches.
“So we really believe in the value that the voices of players and those in the game bring to our business,” she said. “So we do a lot of listening.”
As the U.S. women’s team’s legal battle with U.S. Soccer over equal pay dragged on, the USL committed to the same minimum compensation established in the USL Championship’s collective bargaining agreement signed in November.
In May, U.S. Soccer finalized labor deals with the men’s and women’s national teams to resolve the equal pay dispute.
“There’s never been a women’s league that I’m aware of that’s launched with a commitment to standards and compensation structure from the beginning,” Vandervort said. “So for us, yeah, that was a big deal.”
Vandervort said the league is still selecting the 10 to 12 markets that will debut teams in 2023 and is considering current USL club owners and independent groups.
“Although we’d love to get to market and start announcing teams and get fans excited right now, we want to make sure that we’re doing it the right way,” she said. “And getting the right clubs and building for the future of women’s soccer, too.”
Though coy about the league’s immediate plans, Vandervort was not shy about its long-term ambition.
“To me, I think it’s going to break barriers that that we can’t even see today,” she said. “The way maybe in 1972, when they enacted Title IX, they didn’t even realize the profound impact that it would have on the lives of so many people, myself included.”
Contact Greg McKenna at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @McKennaGregjed.