When Brooke Elby found herself suddenly traded from the Utah Royals to the Chicago Red Stars in a three-team deal in 2018, she considered quitting the sport of soccer entirely.
Staying in a Chicagoland hotel room while her car sat in a Salt Lake City parking lot for weeks with all of her things, Elby reflected on her position in the NWSL, a 6-year-old league where player rights were not yet protected under a collective bargaining agreement.
“That was the first time I ever really felt like I was such a pawn in this league, and really like no one valued me,” she says.
During her stay in that hotel room, Elby reached out to a number of trusted friends to figure out what to do. One of the people she contacted was Yael Averbuch West, president of the NWSL Players Association at the time, who presented Elby with a different path: Instead of walking away, she could get involved.
The NWSLPA has had only three presidents in its five-year history: Averbuch West, Elby and current president Tori Huster. The PA hired Meghann Burke as executive director in early 2021 to oversee operations and negotiations, but only active players in the league can serve on the board.
The work those three have put in behind the scenes led to a landmark achievement to start the year. On Jan. 31, before the 2022 preseason, the NWSL and the players association ratified the league’s first CBA, ushering in a new era of player protections and compensation.
As all three know, the responsibility of balancing playing and litigating is something you can’t prepare for until you’re in the thick of it.
Averbuch West played in Women’s Professional Soccer for three years before the league folded in 2012, making way for the birth of the NWSL in 2013. When she founded the NWSLPA four years later, she had to focus on her game while making sure she could pay her bills and commit enough time and energy to getting a fledgling union up and running. It didn’t help that the average NWSL salary at the time was far below a living wage.
“There was relationship-building, there was education, there was organization — fortifying our own constitution and bylaws — and going to preseason to meet with the players to explain what a union is,” says Averbuch West. “None of us were part of a union ever before; we’ve not worked in other industries.”
The NWSL officially recognized the Players Association as an exclusive bargaining representative after the 2018 season, but at the time, both parties agreed that progress had to be made before they could sit down and negotiate a CBA. So, Averbuch West threw herself into the groundwork.
“Yael has a knack for getting things done,” Huster says. “Her ability to just figure out the small tasks that need to get done, and then mobilizing people, has been super important in starting what is a small business.”
When Averbuch West suspended her playing career in 2019 and moved to an executive director role with the NWSLPA, Elby was ready to take over as president. In her second year in Chicago, Elby tackled administrative work with enthusiasm. She redid the website, opened a bank account, filed tax forms and created social media accounts for the NWSLPA.
The tasks were overwhelming for an active professional athlete, but Elby found solace in Averbuch-West’s support during the dark times, and the clarity that comes with a shifting of priorities.
“It was almost a freeing feeling,” Elby says. “I stopped caring if I had a job or not. If somebody was going to waive me, that’s fine. I cared about the players, and I was like, if I have to be the one to say something that nobody wants to hear, or that’s going to get somebody cut from a team, I’m willing to say it because this isn’t a career that I love anymore.”
In 2019, the NWSLPA began conceptualizing the CBA process knowing that, in order to make a contract happen, they’d need some outside help. Elby reached out to Becca Roux, executive director of the U.S. women’s national team players association, and Roux put the NWSLPA in contact with the NFLPA. The advice they gave to the NWSL players was simple: If you don’t yet have the legalities in place, you need to have the structure — and that comes with a staff.
With no extra income to work with, Elby started scouting outside sponsorships. Roux connected her with Hulu, a streaming platform that was already running a campaign with USWNT stars called “Hulu has Live Sports.” Spending the offseason in Los Angeles, Elby had the chance to stop by the Hulu offices and speak with executives, who wanted to help the players in any way they could. But because the NWSL unilaterally owned the name, image and likeness rights of all of their players, the PA couldn’t commit to a content deal alone.
“[Hulu] told me their vision for what they want to do with women’s sports, and my first answer to them was, ‘This is amazing,’” says Elby. “But as players, we had no rights to anything. So I can’t sit here and be like, ‘Yeah, let’s do content,’ because we couldn’t.”
So, they got creative. Hulu agreed to donate one dollar to the NWSLPA for every juggling video posted with the company’s official hashtag, for a total of $100,000. While the production didn’t quite meet the vision — the fans generated somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 videos, boosted through the PA’s still modest social media followings — the Hulu execs stuck to their word and made sure the PA got the full $100,000.
I’m selling out for a cause with @hulu 1️⃣ Say ‘Hulu has live sports’ while juggling. 2️⃣Add #HuluHasLiveSportsChallenge 3️⃣ Tag your friends! 4️⃣ Hulu will donate $1 to the @NWSL_players for every post, up to $100k. You’re up @saverbuch and @sammweber! pic.twitter.com/1knM4qetT0— Yael Averbuch West (@Yael_Averbuch) May 16, 2019
I’m selling out for a cause with @hulu 1️⃣ Say ‘Hulu has live sports’ while juggling. 2️⃣Add #HuluHasLiveSportsChallenge 3️⃣ Tag your friends! 4️⃣ Hulu will donate $1 to the @NWSL_players for every post, up to $100k. You’re up @saverbuch and @sammweber! pic.twitter.com/1knM4qetT0
“That was probably the coolest experience to be a part of,” Elby says, “just being able to talk to these executives who didn’t care about how it was going to benefit them directly, but cared about in the future, how this was going to benefit women’s sports.”
In 2022, revenue from group licensing largely covers the costs of the NWSLPA, and the union was recently able to hire former player Sydney Miramontez, effectively doubling full-time staff. As part of the new CBA, the NWSL has agreed to pay the players $255,000-$300,000 per year for group licensing rights. The PA also accepts direct donations from the public. NWSL sponsor Ally, which signed on as the union’s first official partner earlier this month, will match any contributions of up to $25,000 made to a recently established players fund.
Elby’s work in 2019 not only set the NWSLPA up to become a legitimate business, but also prepared the players for collective action. It was actually during that season under Elby’s presidency that the NWSL had its first, albeit brief, work stoppage.
In late April, the Red Stars and Reign FC had to make a call on whether to play an early-season match in Chicago, despite inches of snow covering the field. The league determined the game was to be played as scheduled, but after attempting to warm-up on the slippery surface, players weren’t so sure. Elby, acting as PA president, asked her team’s locker room and the Reign’s captain whether they believed they could play the game safely, and both sides expressed concerns about possible injuries.
“These are our bodies you’re asking us to use and to put at risk for a game that you just don’t want to reschedule,” says Elby, who called many members of the league office that night to make the players’ wishes known. The game was ultimately called off and rescheduled for the next day.
“It was all these women. They were the ones who really stood up for what mattered,” she says.
Elby retired from professional soccer at the end of the 2019 season, and Huster took over as president in early 2020. Instead of diving right into CBA talks, however, Huster began her tenure navigating the pandemic and fighting for player protections heading into the NWSL’s first-ever Challenge Cup.
The experience actually proved pivotal in setting the stage for the current CBA. The NWSLPA arranged guaranteed contracts for players uncomfortable with competing during the pandemic, a model the WNBA Players Association adopted ahead of the league’s 2020 Wubble season. They also maintained constant communication with leadership, particularly Managing Director of Competition and Player Affairs Liz Dalton, to ensure the proper protocols were in place.
The Challenge Cup successfully sheltered players from COVID-19, but even then, the fissures forming within the league began to crack. Players struggled with their mental health during a long month in a strict quarantine bubble, and the league failed to reckon with the conversation about racial equality that swept the nation during the summer of 2020.
Elby and Averbuch West shared the responsibilities of co-executive director until Burke came aboard officially in early 2021. That was when CBA talks became more serious, and the PA started interviewing outside legal counsel. Amid the instability of the 2021 season, with multiple abuse scandals rocking the league, Huster had to juggle playing, contract bargaining and standing in as a player advocate for basic safety.
“Through the entire process, I’ve just tried to be somewhat of a vehicle,” Huster says. “And we’ve had so many conversations even all through last season with the player group at large, and just trying to, through myself and through my position, reflect what it is that the players are trying to say.”
“She’s just one of those people who gets it,” Elby says of Huster. “She knows what all the players are thinking. She will put their opinions over hers first, she will always listen.”
For Huster, there are very few silver linings in what players had to go through last year, but she does find solace in the way players fought for each other and the progress they made along the way.
“These former players felt this pain, and we still can see their pain. And without their pain, this wouldn’t be possible,” Huster says. “We wouldn’t be where we are together as a collective, or able to come together as we did.”
It took the threat of a work stoppage to finally get the deal done, but in 2022, the players will enter their first NWSL season with rights protected under contract. Those include a 60 percent increase in the minimum salary and guarantees for maternity and mental health leave. Hanging over all of it is the understanding that the sacrifices players made for decades in women’s soccer led to this moment.
“I don’t think there was any point that I was like, ‘Well, I wish this existed when I was there,’ but I can be like, ‘This exists now because I was there,’” Elby says.
Even with the huge milestone behind them, for all three women, the work goes on. Averbuch West has transitioned into a new role as general manager of Gotham FC. She envisions a future where players are part of the decision-making process and work with ownership to create a better league for everybody. Elby is currently in business school at Columbia University, expanding her knowledge base before returning to the world of women’s soccer (she’d love to be commissioner one day).
Huster is rehabbing an Achilles tendon injury and hopes to be back on the field with the Washington Spirit in 2022. In the meantime, she knows that a ratified contract is just step one. Unless teams are held accountable to the terms, the contract is just a piece of paper. Huster intends for the PA to serve as a support system for players whenever they need help.
In that sense, the work will always be bigger than soccer.
“I really think it’s not supposed to end,” Huster says. “I think we have to continue to adapt, and just be ready. Things are constantly changing and evolving, and if we don’t, we’re gonna potentially get left behind, or somebody will get left behind.”
“I think that’s the hardest balance that I’ve seen Tori and Yael manage so well,” Elby says. “You’re not just doing something for you, but you’re doing it for your friends. And they’re not just your co-workers, they’re your life, the people who are going to stand next to you at your wedding.”
Advocacy for a group of over 250 people will never be simple, and as the league expands, the hurdles ahead are daunting. But as the NWSLPA continues to evolve in the image of its first three leaders, the next generation of players can feel more secure in their freedom to get involved.
Claire Watkins is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering soccer and the NWSL. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.