Updated: Aug 11, 2022
The National Women’s Soccer League (“NWLS”) has been around since 2012 and the league’s players have had a recognized union since 2017, the NWSL Players Association (“NWSLPA”). Despite this, the NWSL has never had a collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”) in place. That should change soon—the league and players union are involved in ongoing negotiations on the league’s first ever agreement. In the meantime, the players are fighting for higher pay by all means at their disposal, legal and otherwise.
The NWSL uses a single-entity structure by which players are league employees allocated to one of the league’s member clubs. Though NWSL player salaries have improved over the years, the maximum player salary sits at $52,500 (a 10% increase from last year); the minimum salary has risen 5% but is still just $22,000 per year. An NWSL player with children on the minimum salary would be just above the federal poverty line. According to the NWSLPA, about 33% of its members make the league minimum and 75% make $31,000 or less. Compare that to MLS minimum salaries, which are almost four times higher.
NWSL players who also compete for the U.S. Women’s National Team (“USWNT”) have their own CBA and make much more; the U.S. Soccer Federation covers their salaries and pays them $100,000 per year. The NWSLPA does not bargain on their behalf, or on behalf of players allocated by the Canadian national team. The USWNT of course has a well-publicized fight of its own over player pay.
Like in other professional sports leagues, its not the superstars who need the union most and reap the most benefit from organized labor. It’s the journeying pros and squad players—many of whom have had to take second, third, or even fourth jobs to make ends meet while pursuing their professional soccer goals.
To raise awareness of these players’ financial plight and its labor fight, the NWSLPA created an online website and social media campaign called #NoMoreSideHustles. Players and fans have been using the hashtag to help tell their stories.
Already trending online, the movement may now have an ally in club management. Yael Averbuch West, a former NWSL pro and USWNT player helped form the NWSLPA and served as the union president and executive director.
CBA negotiations, which got underway in late 2020, are ongoing. The NWSL was the first professional team sports league to resume action amid the pandemic, and the league and NWSLPA collaborated during that process. For its part, the league has stated a willingness to work with the players’ association to reach a deal.
Some players have pointed to the WNBA as a model, which reached a CBA last year that enhanced player compensation by over 50% and improved health care, child care, and other player-friendly benefits. Above all, the players seek to use labor law as a vehicle to hone and improve their craft and bridge the pay gap between their counterparts in other leagues. Doing so can only help the quality of NWSL play, and most importantly, the players’ quality of life.
Ben Shrader is a partner at Hart McLaughlin & Eldridge in Chicago, where he serves as Chair of the Chicago Bar Association Sports Law Committee. You can reach Ben at [email protected] or find him on Twitter @BenShrader.