Tuesday, November 29 2022

Author’s note: Earlier this week, the NWSL‘s first ever collective bargaining agreement (CBA) — which was ratified in January — was published online. Highlights from the 69-page document include new details on performance bonuses, player benefits, free agency, accomodations, mental health leave, and more.

On Her Turf caught up with NWSL Players’ Association Executive Director Meghann Burke to get a better understanding of what some of the fine print means and how this CBA sets a new standard for women’s sports. This Q&A has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity. (The full NWSL CBA can be found here.)

On Her Turf (OHT): The CBA is obviously a very dense document, and at almost 70 pages, there’s a lot to unpack. Let’s start with a big picture question, though: What is the most important thing this CBA accomplishes?

Meghann Burke: I think the biggest takeaway is that players were able to take back their rights and autonomy over their careers. And the second bullet point would be that we’re improving on the standards in the NWSL and professionalizing the player experience, which is good for the business as a whole.

OHT: In terms of that professional experience, things that stood out to me were the 401K benefits, severance, competition bonuses, higher per diem, standards in accommodations… How did the Players’ Association determine what to include in the list of benefits that aren’t directly related to player salary?

Burke: I would add to that–

OHT: Please do.

Burke: We were able to reach an agreement that players should be playing on professional soccer fields. Players were previously playing on minor league baseball stadiums in Kansas City and Tacoma and that will no longer be the case under this CBA. In Article 11 and 16, you also see that we’re improving on medical care and the minimum staffing requirements for both teams and the league.

So when we say professional standards, we’re not just referring to some of the terms and conditions of employment you’d expect in any job, things like a 401K, health insurance, and workers compensation. We’re also improving the standards in the NWSL to truly live up to our billing as the best league in the world, which I know we can be. That’s something we’re pretty proud of.

OHT: I was personally really excited to dig into the CBA when it went online earlier this week. Given how long you’ve been working on this, what does it mean to finally be able to share it with the public?

Burke: It’s massive for players, for the NWSL, and for global professional women’s soccer. When we started this process, there was never a question whether that we wanted to make the (eventual) contract publicly available.

As a fairly new union negotiating our first contract, we pulled CBAs online from other sports: the WNBA, NFL, MLS, MLB. We had the benefit of reading those contracts and we kept saying to ourselves, ‘Could we get a copy of their first contract?’ Just to measure the progress (those leagues) have made from contract-to-contract.

And then, as we started talking to players’ associations from around the world, we discovered there are agreements elsewhere that you can’t find. (That) makes it hard to know what the standard is. So by making (our CBA) publicly available, we certainly hope that other players’ associations will push women’s pro sports forward by using this as a benchmark.

OHT: In terms of those other leagues and and players’ associations, who did you learn the most from?

Burke: Certainly the most recent CBA negotiation for the WNBA Players’ Association was instructive. They really raised the bar for parents in that league. I think what the WNBA did is send a message that you don’t have to choose between being a mother and a professional athlete. And so we wanted to build on that.

And then, Major League Soccer has grown tremendously over the past couple of decades… A lot of the rules in the NWSL came from MLS, and so it was helpful to reference the MLS CBA.

But we’ve also said many times: In the history of women’s professional soccer in this country, it’s not the men who set the standard. It’s the women. You look at what the U.S. women have achieved, winning four World Cups, and so we really did seek to deviate from a lot of what MLS did, too.

OHT: In what ways do you think the NWSL CBA sets a new benchmark for other leagues?

Burke: (In this) contract, we’ve secured free agency, we’ve secured a broadcast profit share. We’re unaware of another first CBA that secured that kind of arrangement. The Players’ Association also now holds the group name, image and likeness rights of players. That’s a big deal.

There are a lot of aspects of this contract that are pretty remarkable for a first CBA, but what I hope becomes a standard for pro sports elsewhere across North America is the focus on mental health. We’ve secured up to six months paid mental health leave, and each team will secure the services of a sports psychologist.

OHT: After the CBA was published, I posted a throwback to Bethany Balcer’s tweet about getting a $50 Chipotle gift card when she was named Rookie of the Year. Can you talk me through the new competition bonuses? And also, if a player wins multiple awards, I assume the bonuses are additive, right?

Burke: They’d get multiple bonuses, right. And what’s also important to note is that the bonuses listed (in the CBA) are minimums. So we just saw an announcement that UKG will be funding the Challenge Cup bonuses, and last year, Ally Bank came in and funded the expansion of the playoff bonus pool. So the CBA requires a minimum, but this is what I mean when I say we can far exceed that. When we join forces with sponsors, the league, teams and fans, hopefully what we’re gonna see over the next five years is a salary structure and bonus structure that exceeds what was negotiated in the CBA.

What you can also infer from the bonus structure is the relative value that players place on things like winning the Challenge Cup ($1000 minimum per player) vs. the regular season ($5000 minimum per player) vs. the NWSL championship ($5000 minimum per player)… Players definitely put significant value into winning the regular season and the NWSL championship, more so than they do the preseason tournament that is the Challenge Cup.

OHT: As it relates to that… One of the criticisms with the officiating that we saw the other night (in the OL Reign vs. Washington Spirit Challenge Cup semifinal) is that — if there is value in winning a tournament like the Challenge Cup, which there should be — then the officiating should be able to keep up. If bad officiating is the reason players are missing out, that’s pretty bad. I’m curious if there’s anything you want to share on that topic?

Burke: It’s time for VAR. I’ll leave it at that. Laura Harvey’s postgame comments probably said it better than I could: She was doing the robot.

OHT: On a different subject… I was laughing when I saw that the CBA includes a section on when the NWSL schedule needs to be released, as I know that is something fans are always vocal about. Do you wish you could have gotten more than a 14-day window for that?

Burke: Oh, I think we started (negotiating) with that the schedule had to be released before the end of the prior season. (Laughs.)

You know, to be fair to the people who make the schedule, it is a very difficult task. I’m certainly glad that’s not my job. They have to wait for the MLS schedule since those teams also play in a lot of (the same) markets and (the NWSL) isn’t the primary tenant in a few other markets. And then you’re trying to maintain scheduling parity and not have teams traveling cross-country multiple times… So it is a difficult task.

I think my hope with this issue – and with several other issues – is that the best business practice is going to be what determines what the league does in the future, not necessarily what the CBA requires… Because what we were fighting for in the first contract, at least in a few instances, were concepts, right? It’s the concept that you have to release the schedule sooner than you have historically…. But I think what’s gonna happen over the next four to five years (is that the) NWSL will see that it is in the best interest of the business to release it a lot sooner.

OHT: I know players have long had issues with the fact that the NWSL schedule doesn’t line up with FIFA windows. Was that a part of this year’s negotiation too?

Burke: It was definitely part of the negotiation. We certainly proposed the NWSL try to follow the FIFA international match calendar windows. There was some resistance to that, but I think what you see is that this year’s schedule — even though it is wonky in some ways — it’s an improvement from years past in terms of respecting international match calendar windows… I think that’s a good example where maybe what we specifically asked for didn’t get into the final contract, but we’ve persuaded the league of the wisdom of that practice, and that’s hopefully what we’re gonna see happen.

OHT: It was tough to see so many NWSL players sustain injuries in the first few weeks of the season this year. I think some people have questioned whether that influx of injuries is related to the schedule and its length. Where does the NWSL Players’ Association stand on that?

Burke: It’s devastating to see players get injured, at any time. It’s the last thing we want to see happen. And we certainly were attuned and paying attention to injuries that were sustained in that first week or two. On the flip side, we know that injuries are an occupational hazard in professional sports…. So is it causally related? That’s really hard to say… I think that’s a scientific and medical question that I’d rather doctors answer.

We are certainly monitoring workload. That’s something that we addressed a lot in the CBA negotiation. And again, a lot of the guardrails we wanted to put around scheduling didn’t make their way into the final contract. But I think what these injuries show you is that we need to pay attention to workload, travel, and scheduling because (those things) are related to player health and safety.

OHT: I was intrigued to see the section of the CBA about physiological testing and biometric data. This topic seems so interesting from a CBA perspective because, on one hand, it’s data about a player’s private health. But on the other, it’s information that is very relevant to sport and performance. And at the same time, from a bigger picture perspective, it’s an area in which women’s sports have historically been overlooked, just because of the way research has long ignored women. What is the background on this part of the CBA?

Burke: First of all, you’re absolutely right that there’s inadequate research and data on women’s health in professional sports. For example, despite the fact that women have birthed children since time immemorial, we still don’t fully understand how a female athlete should return to professional sports after giving birth. Like, what is the plan and how do you do it safely? So you see some references to that in the CBA.

In terms of data…. In the CBA, we fought for the right for players to choose whether or not to wear the GPS tracking devices that monitor heart rate, distance covered and things of that nature. So players can choose whether to wear that and they own that data. That is their data.

We do see the broadcast value of aggregate, non-individually identifiable data being shared as a way to add interest for fans. That’s not really the issue. The greater concern is when (the data) is individually identifiable and who owns that information. So we would say that players own that data and that it shouldn’t be disclosed without their consent.

OHT: It’s clear that there are not enough women and former players serving in coaching roles. I saw that the CBA has both a tuition benefit and coaching licensure pathway. Can you speak about those benefits?

Burke: On the coaching licensure pathway… We’re all familiar with the significant turnover of head coaches in the NWSL. As that was happening, we talked a lot about how maybe the answer to this problem is right here, staring us in the face. Some of the most impressive people I’ve ever worked with are currently playing in this league, but they’re going to retire at some point.

Now, having played the game doesn’t automatically make you a great coach, but it certainly means you understand the player experience in the NWSL and what the player-coach dynamic should look like. And we’re now hearing from players who — having seen what we’ve seen — are committed to transforming the game in more ways than just what we saw last year. Bev Yanez is a great example; she’s a former NWSL player who got her B-license last year as a result of the funds the PA was able to secure and she’s now an assistant coach at Gotham. Julianne Sitch, another former player, is now an assistant coach in Chicago. Becca Moros also went through the B-licensing program and is now coaching at University of Arizona, but was at Gotham before that. We really feel that one answer to the coaching problems we’ve seen is for these players to become coaches when they’re done playing.

And then the tuition benefit… It’s interesting because the vast majority of players in the NWSL already have college degrees. They’re highly educated, they’re very smart, they’ve gone to excellent institutions. And so you often think of a tuition benefit being something that would help someone get a college degree. But in our case, the way we think of it…. their earning potential is below their qualifications during the course of their professional playing careers and this is a way of closing that gap by funding their ability to get master’s degrees and professional degrees that help them have even more marketable skills when they’re finished playing.

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC

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