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Optimism on the table as NWSL, union draw up CBA

By Shira Springer

The NWSL and the NWSL Players Association returned to the negotiating table last week. They have two bargaining sessions scheduled for this week, and three more planned for later this month. By that time, the two sides will have spent around 300 hours hammering out the league’s first collective-bargaining agreement. No surprise there. These kinds of contracts require long hours, especially when bargaining sessions take place amid a leaguewide reckoning.

In 2021, the NWSL saw its toxic culture laid bare in appalling, devastating detail. That toxic culture traumatized players and ruined careers. It also strengthened the players’ resolve to fix systemic issues. Now, against that backdrop, the NWSL’s first-ever CBA carries considerable significance. For the players, it offers an opportunity to reimagine and reshape the way the league operates. For NWSL leaders, it provides a chance to show sincere, not optics-driven, commitment to reform.

NWSLPA Executive Director Meghann Burke said free agency rights, player health and safety, and a living wage rank as the union’s top priorities. The union hopes the two sides come to terms on a CBA before the NWSL preseason starts on Feb. 1.

If negotiations embrace many of the players’ proposals and finish before the end of the month, then 2022 could become the “Year of the Union” in the NWSL, a real-time look at what happens when a seat at the table leads to noticeable, consequential change. That would be good for everyone involved. Not only would it help the league move forward from a scandal-plagued 2021 season, it would make the NWSL a place where more players want to play. And that would create a valuable, sustainable competitive advantage as women’s professional soccer grows on a global scale.

The NWSL and its players union are working on their first collective-bargaining agreement as the 10th season nears.getty images

A lot depends on what happens in the five negotiating sessions set for the remainder of this month. But with the league’s culture under investigation, the balance of power has shifted in the NWSL and given the union good reason for optimism.

“Tragically, what you heard last season was so jarring and so horrific and such an indictment of the league, that you couldn’t help but stop and listen to what the players want,” said Burke.

“What the players want is power and some control over their careers. The only way to get that is with a contract for a set term of years, not to rely on the goodwill of the owners.”

More control over careers requires a CBA that includes free agency, and that would mark another important first for the NWSL. The union initially proposed unrestricted free agency for all players. While league leaders predictably pushed back, Burke said “to their credit they agreed that free agency is a concept that needs to exist in the NWSL.”

The big question now on the table: When should players become eligible for free agency? For a league entering its 10th season, it’s a tough question to answer. But any calculations should consider two important factors: First, the average NWSL career lasts around three years. Second, other international leagues increasingly compete for the world’s best players and engage in some form of free agency.

“We’re mindful, that if a career is fairly short-lived, we’d like for every player to have the opportunity to experience what it’s like to play in the NWSL with free agency,” said Burke. “So, without giving particular numbers, that’s where I’d say we’re being aggressive.”

More player autonomy through free agency would likely attract more top talent to the NWSL. Also, it would signal changed thinking in the league’s corridors of power. At least, it would appear NWSL leaders have gained a deeper respect for the players and a deeper understanding of the personal sacrifices they make to compete in a league where, according to union estimates, the vast majority earn $31,000 or less per season.

But the NWSL’s first CBA has always been about something bigger than the terms of the contract. It’s also about addressing the problematic perspective still held by many of the powers that be in women’s sports. That perspective: Women should be grateful for any and all professional playing opportunities they receive and whatever compensation comes with it.

“We’re demanding our worth,” said Burke, a professional goalkeeper-turned-lawyer. “We’re grateful, but we also deserve more. Those two aren’t incompatible.”

Building organizational cultures that support careers, not ruin them, falls directly under players knowing and demanding their worth. Part of the “more” that players deserve involves mental health support, especially given the toxic league culture they endured for years.

“The CBA can systematize things that we know are already working — mental health leave, sports psychologists with teams,” said Burke. “All that can help with the performance side. It’s a competitive advantage to think of the whole person.”

Framing player health and safety, including mental health, as good business provides a smart pitch at the negotiating table. Tactically, it focuses on the presumed shared interests of both sides: to build and sustain the best, most competitive women’s professional soccer league in the world. By emphasizing shared interests, the process becomes more collaborative than competitive. At least, that’s the hope.

It’s not a zero-sum game. Never has been. That’s worth remembering at the negotiating table because the NWSL’s first CBA will reset the relationship between the league and the players. And that relationship will set the course for the NWSL’s future.

Shira Springer writes about the intersection of sports and culture and teaches journalism at Boston University, including the course “Sports, Gender & Justice.”

Questions about OPED guidelines or letters to the editor? Email editor Jake Kyler at jkyler@sportsbusinessjournal.com

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