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NWSL players strike: How we got here and what it would mean

(Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

With NWSL preseason rapidly approaching, all eyes have turned to the conflict between team owners and the Players Association toward ratifying the league’s first collective bargaining agreement. Negotiations began during former commissioner Lisa Baird’s tenure, but have ebbed and flowed in their productivity over the course of 2021.

Now, it appears that time might be running out before players have to make a choice about whether to report to preseason on Feb. 1. As originally reported by The Athletic’s Meg Linehan, a work stoppage is on the table if an agreement isn’t reached in time.

So, how did the NWSL get to this point? And what are the issues at hand? Let’s break it down.

How the NWSL got here

Now in its tenth year, the NWSL has never operated under a ratified CBA. Motion toward getting a deal done began in 2017, when the NWSLPA formed as a way to represent all league players. Originally headed by active players, the PA last April appointed executive director Meghann Burke to succeed former President Brooke Elby. Burke had served as the PA’s general counsel since its founding.

Last July, the PA introduced the “No More Side Hustles” campaign to raise awareness about the second and third jobs that NWSL players have had to adopt in order to make a living on their modest NWSL salaries. This represented the first real push toward public support in the PA’s fight for equitable treatment, firmly placing them on one side of negotiations with ownership and highlighting just how out of step the NWSL is with the rest of the sports world.

The “No More Side Hustles” campaign coincided with a rash of stories of abuse in the league, beginning with Kaiya McCullough’s experience with former Washington Spirit coach Richie Burke and reaching a new level of notoriety in a bombshell piece about former North Carolina manager Paul Riley. The way the league’s power structures let that abuse persist under their watch came under heavy scrutiny, and players became more comfortable with collective action.

The fallout from the abuse scandals led to Baird’s resignation and encouraged a sense of urgency in the negotiating room as owners realized that, in order to retain their workforce, they were going to have to make some concessions. It appears, however, that talks have hit a stumbling block, with sources telling Just Women’s Sports that progress started going south late this week.

Ironing out the details

Even as negotiations progress, the friction that appeared during the 2021 season hasn’t entirely gone away. It appears that, while the league and the PA can agree on larger philosophical ideals such as free agency, coming to terms on who qualifies for what contracts and when those privileges should kick in has been more challenging.

The two main themes of players’ wishes over the past year have been higher wages and more player-directed movement. Wages are easier to outline, but to understand what the sticking points might be in free agency without in-league precedent, it’s helpful to consider the CBAs in other leagues. For example, as part of the WNBA’s CBA ratified in early 2020, qualification for different free-agency tiers kick in depending on a player’s years of service.

Players who have competed in the WNBA for three years or fewer and receive qualifying offers from their teams are considered reserved free agents, and can only negotiate with their previous teams. Players with four years of experience are restricted free agents; they can sign anywhere, but their previously contracted team has the “right of first refusal” to match any outside offers. If a player has been in the league for over five years, they become unrestricted free agents and open to sign with any team.

It seems safe to assume owners are looking for similarly tiered measures in the NWSL’s first version of free agency. Considering the current precedent allows one team to hold a player’s rights for years, it’s not surprising that the NWSLPA and the owners might not agree on when players should be allowed to look elsewhere.

This disagreement is emblematic of the NWSL’s money allocation system, implemented in 2020. While the change promised better compensation for top-tier talent, the qualification system for higher wages proved extensive. Those stipulations included having caps on a national team, making a first or second NWSL Best XI, being selected as a No. 1 draft pick or having five years of service in the NWSL. If those kinds of barriers to higher wage opportunities already exist, it’s not hard to imagine the NWSL taking a similar approach with free-agency structures.

It’s one thing for NWSL owners unfamiliar with free agency to say that they support player-empowered movement, and another when they look at their rosters and see who they might lose over the next few years. The sides also might disagree on when the CBA should go into effect, since it will likely shake rosters up even more as teams scramble to meet new standards.

Sources also tell Just Women’s Sports that group licensing is another issue still on the negotiating table. In other sports, players associations can sign groups of athletes (in the NFL, for example, it’s six or more) to licensing contracts, giving active players rights to their name, image, likeness and more. It seems possible the league is reluctant to concede that level of authority to PA control.

Building back the relationship

Outside of the natural disagreements in contract negotiations, there is also a question of whether the NWSL Board of Governors has shown a willingness to make concessions after a year full of scandals that eroded their relationship with the player pool. Prior to reports of coaching abuses in the Washington Post and The Athletic, Burke said that no owners had been present for CBA negotiations before October. That situation had reportedly improved in the final months of the calendar year.

Players, however, haven’t felt that the Board of Governors has respected their time throughout the process, especially considering the severity of the allegations against those in power in 2021. Sources tell Just Women’s Sports that attendance among owners has been spotty, with more than one instance of over 100 players joining a call to share experiences only to find that very few league reps were present. Sources also say that personnel on the bargaining committee has changed multiple times, causing a lack of cohesion during negotiations.

When asked for comment, an NWSL spokesperson said, “Our owners are committed to continuing to invest in the league and its players. The bargaining process with the PA has been positive, is ongoing, and we hope to conclude as soon as possible.”

The nuclear option

The Players Association spent 2021 actively spreading their message to the public and leveraging support while still negotiating in good faith. At this stage, if the PA believes that ownership won’t budge on foundational issues, the final option is to refuse to report for preseason.

There is reasonable fear that the NWSL won’t be able to recover from a strike, but there are also reasons to believe this is the right moment to force the issue. If a strike is necessary for getting a deal done, there is still hope during a long preseason that it wouldn’t affect the regular season, which is set to kick off in May. The players also have to realize that public support for their cause is at an all-time high, making it difficult for ownership to gain leverage.

The other major factor in a possible work stoppage is the recent development that NWSL clubs will contract U.S. women’s national team players in 2022, allowing all U.S. stars to join the NWSLPA for the first time. For years, USWNT players have had a no-strike clause built into their own CBA, making it more challenging to take any direct action at the league level. (In fact, one such clause still exists, but it applies only to national team duties.) Should players decide that now is the time to strike in the NWSL, it will be from the top down, with mega-stars to rank-and-file players taking a unified stand.

Ultimately, both sides want to get a deal done in order to avoid putting the 2022 season in danger. But this is the players’ first big chance to radically redefine what it means to be an NWSL athlete, and they don’t want to let that opportunity fall away without a fight.

Claire Watkins is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering soccer and the NWSL. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.

Alyssa Naeher’s goalkeeper jersey sells out in less than three hours

uwnt goalie alyssa naeher wears jersey on the field with club team chicago red stars
USWNT star keeper Alyssa Naeher's new replica NWSL jersey was an instant success. (Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY Sports)

For the first time in the NWSL's 12-year history, fans can now buy their own goalkeeper jerseys. And while replica goalkeeper jerseys representing all 14 NWSL teams hit the market on Wednesday, some didn't stick around for long. 

Fans across women's soccer have long vocalized their discontent over the position's lack of availability on social media, often comparing the shortcoming to the widespread availability of men’s goalkeeper jerseys. And as the NWSL has grown, so has demand — and not just from those in the stands. 

"To have goalkeeper kits available for fans in the women’s game as they have been for so long in the men’s game is not only a long-awaited move in the right direction, it’s just good business," said Washington Spirit goalie Aubrey Kingsbury in an team press release. "I can’t wait to see fans representing me, Barnie [Barnhart], and Lyza in the stands at Audi!"

Business does, in fact, appear to be booming. Alyssa Naeher’s Chicago Red Stars kit sold out less than three hours after the league's announcement. Jerseys for other keepers like DiDi Haračić, Abby Smith, Michelle Betos, Katelyn Rowland, and Bella Bixby aren’t currently available via the Official NWSL Shop, though blank goalkeeper jerseys can be customized through some individual team sites. Jerseys start at $110 each.

"This should be the benchmark," said Spirit Chief Operations Officer Theresa McDonnell. "The expectation is that all players’ jerseys are available to fans. Keepers are inspiring leaders and mentors with their own unique fan base who want to represent them... I can’t wait to see them all over the city."

Simone Biles talks Tokyo Olympics fallout in new interview

gymnast simone biles on a balance beam
Biles' candid interview shed light on the gymnast's internal struggle. (Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Decorated gymnast Simone Biles took to the popular Call Her Daddy podcast this week to open up about her experience at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, revealing she thought she was going to be "banned from America" for her performance.

After Biles botched her vault routine due to a bout of the "twisties," she withdrew from the team final as well as the all-around final in order to focus on her mental health. She later reentered the competition to win bronze in the individual balance beam final.

In her interview with podcast host Alex Cooper, Biles admitted to feeling like she let the entire country down by failing her vault attempt.

"As soon as I landed I was like 'Oh, America hates me. The world is going to hate me. I can only see what they’re saying on Twitter right now,'" she recalled thinking. "I was like, ‘Holy s---, what are they gonna say about me?'"

"I thought I was going to be banned from America," she continued. "That’s what they tell you: Don’t come back if not gold. Gold or bust. Don’t come back."

Widely regarded as the greatest gymnast of all time, Biles has hinted at a desire to join her third Olympic team in Paris, though her participation won't be confirmed until after the gymnastics trials in late June. She holds over 30 medals from the Olympic Games and World Artistic Gymnastics Championships combined, and if qualified, would be a sure favorite heading into this summer’s games.

Caitlin Clark reportedly nearing $20 million+ Nike deal

Caitlin Clark #22 of the Indiana Fever poses for a portrait at Gainbridge Fieldhouse during her introductory press conference
WNBA-bound Caitlin Clark is said to be closing in on a monumental NIke deal. (Photo by Matt Kryger/NBAE via Getty Images)

Caitlin Clark is reportedly close to cementing a hefty endorsement deal with Nike.

The Athletic was the first to break the news Wednesday evening, commenting that the deal would be worth "eight figures" and include her own signature shoe. On Thursday afternoon, the publication tweeted that the deal would top $20 million, according to lead NBA Insider Shams Charania. Both Under Armour and Adidas are said to have also made sizable offers to the college phenom and expected future WNBA star.

The new agreement comes after Clark's previous Nike partnership ended with the conclusion of the college basketball season. She was one of five NCAA athletes to sign an NIL deal with the brand back in October, 2022. 

Considering Clark's overwhelming popularity and Nike's deep pockets, the signing's purported value doesn't exactly come as a shock. New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu’s deal with the brand is reportedly worth $24 million, while NBA rookie and No. 1 overall pick Victor Wembanyama’s deal is rumored to weigh in at $100 million. And in 2003, LeBron James famously earned $90 million off his own Nike deal. 

Clark’s star power continues to skyrocket, with the NCAA championship averaging 18.9 million viewers and the 2024 WNBA Draft more than doubling its previous viewership record. Following the draft, Fanatics stated that Clark's Indiana Fever jersey — which sold out within an hour — was the top seller for any draft night pick in the company’s history, with droves of unlucky fans now being forced to wait until August to get their hands on some official No. 22 gear.

In Wednesday's Indiana Fever introductory press conference, the unfailingly cool, calm, and collected Clark said that turning pro hasn’t made a huge impact on how she’s conducting her deals.

"If I’m being completely honest, I feel like it doesn’t change a ton from how I lived my life over the course of the last year," she said. "Sponsorships stay the same. The people around me, agents and whatnot, have been able to help me and guide me through the course of the last year. I don’t know if I would be in this moment if it wasn’t for a lot of them."

Star slugger Jocelyn Alo joins Athletes Unlimited AUX league

softball star jocelyn alo rounds the bases at an oklahoma sooners game
Former Oklahoma star Jocelyn Alo has signed with Athletes Unlimited. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

Former Oklahoma slugger Jocelyn Alo has signed on with Athletes Unlimited and will compete in the AU Pro Softball AUX this June.

The NCAA record holder in career home runs (122), total bases (761), and slugging percentage (.987), Alo was originally drafted by the league in 2022 but opted instead to join the newly debuted Women’s Professional Fastpitch

Alo currently plays for independent pro softball team Oklahoma City Spark, with team owner Tina Floyd reportedly on board with her recent AUX signing. AUX games are scheduled for June 10-25, while the Spark's season will kick off June 19th. Alo will play for both. 

Among those joining Alo on the AUX roster are former James Madison ace pitcher Odicci Alexander and former Wichita State standout middle infielder Sydney McKinney.

According to Alo, the decision to play in the Athletes Unlimited league was fueled by her desire to propel women's sports forward as well as provide more exposure to a sport that's given her "so many opportunities."

"Not only to challenge myself more, but just for the growth of the game," Alo said, explaining her reasoning to The Oklahoman. "I genuinely believe that professional softball can be a career for girls."

Joining AUX is also one more step in her plan toward representing Team USA at the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics.

"I’m constantly thinking about how can I do these little things right in these four years to prepare me for the biggest stage of softball," she told The Oklahoman. "I definitely want to play in the Olympics, for sure."

Alo further expressed enthusiasm in the hope that the rise of other women’s sports, like women’s basketball and the NWSL, will push softball’s professional viability even higher.

"We’re seeing the NWSL (National Women’s Soccer League) get their stuff going, I see the WNBA starting to get hot," she continued. "I feel like the softball community is like, 'All right, it’s our turn and it’s our turn to just demand more.'"

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