SOCCER

Historic NWSL ABCs have big wins for players, but lingering questions for the future

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During a practice last month in Kansas City for an away game against KC Current, Racing Louisville goaltender Jordyn Bloomer was injured when one of the bases she was standing in front of reportedly fell and allegedly hit her in the leg.

Frustrated Racing Louisville head coach Kim Björkegren complained that the lens was not up to par and the quality of the pitch was below that expected for a professional team.

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“That kind of stuff can’t be in a professional league, to be honest,” Björkegren said.

However, as Racing Louisville forward Nadia Nadim pointed out, this should not have happened under the recently signed collective bargaining agreement between the National Women’s Soccer League and the NWSL Players Association. Article 16.8 requires the host team to provide visitors with “a suitable facility for training the day before an away match”. It’s unclear exactly what makes a setup “proper”, but players have surely considered objectives that are properly staked and won’t hurt them, even though it wasn’t specifically mentioned in the ABCs.

While this incident was an abnormal event – ​​the current said in a statement that the pitch is the same it has provided visitors all season – it is a reminder that the new NWSL CBA is not a panacea for ills. of the NWSL. .

The league and the players rightly called it a historic agreement, and it was universally hailed for providing players with the kind of economic stability, autonomy and working conditions that professional athletes should expect. – but it always takes vigilance to apply it and experience to learn. what players might want to do differently next time.

By digging deeper into some of the provisions that have been included, as well as those that have not, we can see how far actors have come and some of the looming issues that future CBAs will need to address.

What victories have the players had?

Minimum wages

Arguably the most critical achievement for the NWSL Players Association – which had promoted a “No More Side Hustles” campaign in the six months before a new CBA was agreed, a plea to highlight the plight of players who could not survive on their professional salaries alone – was the simple fact of obtaining a substantial increase at the bottom of the salary scale. Under the NWSL CBA, the minimum wage has increased by approximately 60%, from $22,000 in 2021 to $35,000 in 2022.

This is a significantly larger initial percentage increase than the 12% increase MLS players received when they first CBAed in 2004. In addition, NWSL players will now receive competitive bonuses and contributions 401(k). While $35,000 plus bonuses and pension contributions is still well below the current MLS minimum wages of $84,000 for senior players and $65,500 for reserves, it’s a big step forward. in establishing a measure of economic independence for players.

Guaranteed contracts and severance pay

A key aspect of economic stability is having guaranteed contracts or some form of severance package in case a player is released mid-season. Under the NWSL CBA, players are allowed to negotiate guaranteed contracts, as is the case in Major League Baseball and the WNBA, but they are not automatically guaranteed for players over a certain age and age. years of service as in MLS.

This makes severance pay more important, and the NWSLPA has negotiated four weeks of severance pay, team housing or housing allowance, and insurance premiums. Obviously, expanding access to fully guaranteed contracts would be better for players, but offering a month of transition payments and benefits is a good second-best alternative.

Free agency

Perhaps the most notable achievement for the players was gaining free agency. From 2023, players with six years of league service (rising to five years in 2024) can join any team in the league when their contract ends. In 2024, players with at least three years of NWSL service can move into restricted free agency at the end of their contract, giving their existing teams the ability to match any offers.

Free agency has always been a difficult concept for single-entity leagues like the NWSL and MLS. In a single entity, the league, not a team, is the player’s employer, and allowing teams to bid against each other for players in free agency reduces the cost containment advantage of operating as an employer. single entity.

MLS players didn’t get free agency until its third CBA in 2015, and at the time it was only for players 28 and older with eight years of service (which then fell at age 24 and five years of service in the 2020 ABC). Not only did NWSL players get free agency in their first CBA, but unlike MLS, increases in free agency aren’t capped (other than potentially by the salary cap discussed below).

health and wellbeing

Although most professional sports leagues provide health and wellness benefits to their players, NWSL players have clearly prioritized this element and achieved benefits that go beyond what more established leagues offer.

For example, while most leagues offer mental health benefits, the NWSL has agreed to give players up to six months of paid time off (net of workers’ compensation or disability benefits) on recommendation of a licensed psychologist or psychiatrist. The players also negotiated a one-week in-season break between June 1 and September 1, which looks like an informal break for mental and physical health. Even the National Football League, which has one of the most comprehensive CBAs, only offers players a four-day break during a team’s bye week.

What will be the lingering issues that will concern future CBAs?

Wage squeeze

The NWSL CBA didn’t ignore players who were already being paid more than the minimum in 2021, but their raises are lower than those expected for minimum wage players. This means that the gap between player salaries will narrow, as shown in the comparison table, which starts with the minimum wage and increases from there.

This wage compression will increase in the coming years, because while minimum wages will increase by 4% per year during the duration of the agreement until 2026, other wages will only increase by 2.5% and only for the duration of their current contracts. Veteran players may become unhappy if the gap between their salary and the league minimum narrows.

Salary cap/salary budgets for teams

The CBA’s Management Rights Section expressly reserves to the NWSL the right to make decisions regarding player and team salary budgets. The league must notify the NWSLPA of the “annual salary cap amount and any salary cap regulations and/or rules affecting the allocation of funds”, but the cap amount is at the discretion of the league. It’s rare.

The CBAs of American professional sports leagues subject to a salary cap usually include a detailed discussion of that cap.

Some leagues, such as the WNBA, MLS, and United Soccer League, which use a fixed dollar amount, state the salary cap each year over the term of the agreement, usually starting with a fixed amount and allowing for increases annual percentage. Others, like the NFL, NBA, and NHL, which calculate their cap as a revenue-based formula, have tons of pages outlining how the formula works, what revenue will be included, and how those numbers will be audited. Even Major League Baseball, which has no salary cap, discusses its competitive balance tax in its ABC, which applies to teams that spend above a certain threshold.

There are at least two reasons why salary caps (plus a minimum spend requirement) are usually negotiated in the ABC. For players, it prevents leagues from artificially restricting wage growth and pocketing profits. For the league, he guarantees that he is covered by an exemption under federal labor law for what could otherwise be interpreted as an agreement between the league and its teams to restrict wages in violation of antitrust laws.

Perhaps, based on the ABC’s final language, neither the NWSL nor the players are particularly concerned about these issues. Players can take comfort in the fact that even without the CBA and without the NWSL generating a profit, the salary cap has increased slightly every year since the league’s inception. Additionally, the players have negotiated some protection for themselves in the form of a requirement under the CBA that the league will pay 10% of media and broadcast revenue towards player compensation from the third year of the deal if the league becomes profitable.

Likewise, given that the league has already been unilaterally setting salary budgets for years and may be considering continuing with annual increases in accordance with its past practice and those agreed upon for minimum wage, it may not be concerned. through an antitrust lawsuit. Additionally, while a negotiated salary budget or an express waiver of the right to negotiate by players may be safer, the league could be confident that it will still be eligible for the antitrust exemption. A 2019 ruling by the National Labor Relations Board relaxed the standard that management must take unilateral action and still comply with federal labor law, though this new standard is currently being challenged.

Nonetheless, as the league grows and the discretionary funds available for player compensation increase, it seems likely that players will at least want to set a floor for salary budgets, rather than leaving it entirely up to the league, and the league may prefer the law. certainty of a negotiated number. Not only will this allow players to maximize their value in free agency and help address the issue of wage compression, but it can help the NWSL mediate between team ownership groups with differing ambitions then that the league competes with other countries for players.

For now, however, NWSL players will focus on enforcing the CBA they have and determining whether all of the provisions within it are proceeding as intended.

Steven Bank is a professor of business law at UCLA and an avid footballer who teaches the course “Law, Lawyering and the Beautiful Game.”

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