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NWSL CBA: Key Takeaways From a Historic Labor Agreement

The NWSL and its players union have agreed to a first-ever collective bargaining agreement. From minumum salary to off-field benefits, to free agency, here’s what you need to know.

It was a topic of discussion hanging low over the proceedings throughout the National Women’s Soccer League’s entire 2021 season, right on through the Washington Spirit’s NWSL Cup championship win over the Chicago Red Stars in November:

The dream of a first-ever collective bargaining agreement between the league and the National Women’s Soccer League Players Association.

And on Monday evening, it became a reality.

An overflowing list of items was on the table as the NWSLPA hashed things out with the league and its owners, from player pay to travel and accommodations, to more general safety and quality of life issues. And while there’s still a truly long way to go on the road to equity and dignity within the landscapes of both American sports and global soccer, a number of key milestones have been realized.

Here’s what you need to know.

1. Progress on Player Pay

From its inception, the NWSL’s economic model has attracted criticism — and not simply due to the low salary figures that didn’t guarantee that every player could afford to focus on soccer year-round. Curiously, players in the United States and Canada national team pools had their NWSL salaries paid by their respective federations, while the rest of the league was paid by their club.

Suffice it to say that this two-tiered system created head-scratching inequality that always felt avoidable. “Historically, the gap in treatment between your average NWSL player and someone on the US women’s national team has been severe,” Just Women’s Sports CEO Haley Rosen told Boardroom in 2021.

Fortunately, we’re seeing the beginnings of a rising tide in this historic labor agreement. Key details include:

  • An increase in the league-minumum salary from $22,000 to $35,000 per year, a 160% bump
  • A 4% annual increase in the minumum salary over the course of the CBA
  • The average player compensation package raises to $54,000
  • The league will set aside between $255,000 and $300,000 for group-licensed endorsement and sponsorship deals involving NWSL players

An exclamation point on the proceedings? The new terms enabled Trinity Rodman, the 19-year-old Washington Spirit phenom, to sign the biggest contract in NWSL history and enter the 2022 season as the league’s highest-paid player.

Say it out loud: four years and $1.1 million, good for an average annual salary of $275,000.

2. Building Better Benefits

In addition to salary concerns, a main sticking point in the negotiation was benefits that constitute an investment in the NWSL’s athletes beyond the field of play. Topline advances in the CBA include:

  • The NWSL instituting a 401(k) program that includes matching contribtions beginning in 2023
  • Players who are released by their teams will receive four weeks of severance and 30 additional days of health insurance and housing support
  • Up to eight weeks of paid parental leave, including for adoption
  • Up to six months of paid mental health leave

That last detail might be the most groundbreaking of all.

As mental and emotional wellness make increasing inroads into our broader cultural conversations about health, the NWSL has a chance to set an example for other leagues to follow.

3. Health and Safety

When the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup came to Canada, there was widespread concern from players and fans alike about the preponderance of turf fields selected as official venues. Quite simply, the injury risk is higher on artificial surfaces than on natural grass, and an athlete’s approach to their game can be affected as a result.

And while the new CBA doesn’t solve North American soccer’s turf problems, a clause in the agreement does represent a related kind of progress:

“No more playing on fields that require substantial conversion to the dimensions of a soccer field.”

Playing soccer at a venue that was not built with the Beautiful Game in mind can be dangerous. This is a win for the players — particularly if it kick-starts a needed conversation in both the men’s and women’s games about improving playing conditions in as many different ways as possible.

Portland Timbers fans show their support for Portland Thorns and NWSL players at Providence Park, 2001 (Diego Diaz/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

4. The Birth of NWSL Free Agency

Perhaps the most underrated aspect of the CBA discussions? That the league only has to wait until 2023 for the start of free agency — one decade after its debut season. By comparison, Major League Soccer began in 1996 and didn’t institute free agency of any kind until the tail end of 2015.

The status does come with restrictions. According to the NWSLPA, they include:

  • In 2023, only players with six years of NWSL service time will be eligible
  • Starting in 2024, players with three years of service can become restricted free agents, while players with five years in the league can become unrestricted

That said, there’s no way to slice this up as anything other than a breakthrough for player power — and while 10 years feels like an awfully long time to wait, most other sports leagues on earth forced their players to wait much, much longer.

This day arrived because the athletes of the NWSL refused to settle for less. And given how keen and forward-thinking they were with their demands for their very first CBA, the future of both the league and the broader women’s soccer establishment are surely brighter than they’ve ever been.

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