By COLIN STAUB
Emily Menges joined the National Women’s Soccer League when she signed on to the Portland Thorns in 2014. Want to guess what her first-year salary was, having made it to the highest-level professional women’s soccer league in the United States? $6,600.
At the time, says the defender and local fan favorite, she was excited just to be making money playing soccer. The league was only in its third year, and players knew it had limited resources. There had been instability in previous women’s soccer leagues. Women’s Professional Soccer, NWSL’s predecessor, had formed and folded in the space of three years.
“When this league started, there was an understanding from the players of certain sacrifices that you would have to make in order for there to be a league in the first place,” Menges told the Labor Press.
Players couldn’t afford to rent without roommates. After soccer practice they would drive for Amazon, deliver for DoorDash, work as soccer referees, do cleaning jobs.
But several years in, the league had grown from its eight original teams to 10 (it’s since added two more). It felt like things were shifting, Menges recalls, with the league taking on an air of professionalism and conditions improving: “We started understanding that we deserved better.”
Players come together
Menges was one of many players holding down jobs outside of the league, and her experience is a good example of the challenges of working around a soccer schedule. Soon after joining the Thorns, she took a remote job doing hotel revenue management. Her employer let her work around soccer, with full-time hours in the off season. Then the company sold, and Menges was asked to fly to Dallas for three weeks to interview for her job. It was the first week of the Thorns preseason. Travel was out of the question.
“I can’t miss one day in Portland,” Menges told the new owners. Then she couldn’t keep the job, they responded.
Money wasn’t players’ only concern. Playing conditions factored in too. In one notable example, the New York and Seattle teams once faced off on a baseball field that didn’t meet NWSL size regulations.
In 2017, players from across the league came together to form the NWSL Players Association. The union effort was led by Yael Averbuch, who was at the time a midfielder for FC Kansas City. In November 2018, the league voluntarily recognized the union. Players had no experience forming a union, let alone bargaining a union contract. They chose a board of directors, picked labor lawyers, and asked each team to name two player representatives, some of whom would also volunteer on the bargaining team. Over the course of negotiations, Menges was on the bargaining team; so were fellow Thorns players Angela Salem, Simone Charley and Tyler Lussi. In fall 2020, the players association notified the league it was ready to begin collective bargaining. Players got to work identifying priorities via a WhatsApp group: the quality of hotels and apartments; the lack of free agency; group licensing, through which multiple athletes together negotiate promotional deals; and more. The association sent its first proposal to management in February 2021. Bargaining would last nearly 11 months, with bargaining committee members and their lawyers spending more than 400 hours on Zoom.
Taking its campaign to fans and the public, the union launched the #NoMoreSideHustles campaign in summer 2021, publicizing the fact that professional soccer players needed to work multiple jobs outside of soccer to survive.
Coach abuse scandal
Then, in the fall, the NWSL was rocked with the news that Paul Riley, the North Carolina Courage coach who previously coached the Portland Thorns, had sexually coerced and verbally abused multiple players over the course of several years—and that the league had learned of it but failed to fully investigate, publicize or act on the information. Riley was fired after the harassment was made public in an article in The Athletic. Matches were canceled. Top league leaders resigned. The need for a players union was never clearer, and a national audience was watching.
The scandal had an impact on union contract bargaining, underway seven months by that point. For one, it emphasized the importance of free agency—players’ right to sign with other clubs rather than remain under contract with their current team.
“I think it rallied the players around specific ideas, like, ‘We should not be trapped on a team. We should not be trapped under a coach,’” Menges said. The events also brought the union closer together, she said.
In the end, the bargaining process resulted in agreement, just hours before the 2022 preseason began on Feb. 1. The union and league ratified the contract Jan. 31.
The contract bumps up minimum player salary from $22,000 to $35,000, and guarantees 4% yearly increases. It implements free agency for players after six service years beginning in 2023, and for players with five service years starting 2024. Players also won up to eight weeks of paid parental leave, clean and private nursing facilities for parents, minimum field standards and more. In the future, the CBA also requires that NWSL show its finances to the players, allowing them to verify whether the league is profitable or not.
Menges feels the contract puts the players in a good position and sets the stage for future negotiations. Bargaining committee members wanted still higher salaries and immediate free agency, but understood it’s a negotiation process and that whatever makes it into the contract will be hard to remove in the future.
“We got our foot in,” Menges said, “in a lot of places.”
The contract doesn’t end the pay inequity between women’s and men’s soccer – Major League Soccer (MLS) players’ minimum salary was $81,375 in 2021, more than twice the minimum under the NWSL contract. And the maximum salary for MLS players was $612,500 in 2021, while the NWSL maximum is $75,000 this year.
Does the contract end the need for side hustles? Maybe not altogether. But it gets players “closer to that place, for sure,” Menges says.
Lesson in solidarity
On Sept. 16, 2021, the National Women’s Soccer League Players Association (NWSLPA) was welcomed as the 57th affiliate of the AFL-CIO. At 250 members, NWSLPA is the 12-million-strong federation’s smallest affiliate.
For many NWSL players, organizing and bargaining was a crash course on unionism. In September, the union’s Executive Director Meghann Burke shared an article about the Nabisco strike in North Portland with Thorns players. Menges and other players decided to show up in support of the workers.
“It never even occurred to me that you could show up on someone else’s strike line,” Menges says.
It was Menges’ first time on a picket line. She learned what “scab” meant. A lot of players who hadn’t been as involved with the bargaining process also came out for the strike, and had similar experiences.
“Millions of people across the country are in similar situations as us,” Menges came to realize. “We are not getting treated properly.”