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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.