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NWSL ratifies 1st collective bargaining agreement hoping it leads to more stability

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

With just one night before the beginning of training camp, the National Women's Soccer League avoided a work stoppage. The players' union struck a deal with the league to ratify the first collective bargaining agreement in women's professional soccer in the U.S. Part of the deal raises the minimum salary from $22,000 to $35,000. Players also secured paid mental health leave, and parents will be guaranteed eight weeks of leave for birth or adoption. These are just some of the details in the agreement.

For more on this, let's bring in Meg Linehan of The Athletic. She covers the NWSL. Hello.

MEG LINEHAN: Hello. Thank you for having me.

KEITH: You're welcome. You know, in addition to the base pay and leave improvements, the agreement states that salaries are to raise by 4% every year with increased money for housing, 401(k) matching, health insurance. What do those provisions tell you about what the players want the league to become?

LINEHAN: So much of this CBA process, but also everything that the National Women's Soccer League has been through kind of in the past year as they're negotiating this new deal is rooted in this kind of tension of the history of women's soccer in this country, of two leagues that have fallen apart in three years. We're about to start the 10th season of the NWSL. This is now a promise, but is also this locking-in of we're going to be taken care of this entire time.

KEITH: This comes as several teams are embroiled in scandal, with male coaches accused of inappropriate behavior. Does this help with any of that?

LINEHAN: I think the collective bargaining agreement is absolutely very key to the league trying to sort out everything that happened from 2021 in terms of coaching but also people in power, right? But safety is more than just ensuring that there's not going to be sexual harassment at work or something along those lines. It's making sure that players feel safe that they're not going to be traded, right? Free agency is even a part of that, that players have this sense of control. A lot of, I think, what ends up in this final document in 2022 doesn't happen without what happened in 2021.

KEITH: And some of the numbers - they're certainly an improvement for the players, but they also seem shockingly low, like $35,000 a year as a minimum. You've been talking to players. What do they think of this agreement?

LINEHAN: Generally, the mood with the players that I've been speaking to - everyone has described walking into preseason feeling lighter - right? - feeling more secure, feeling protected. There is a real sense of accomplishment. They're celebrating this.

But again, to your point, $35,000 as a minimum salary does not feel like a lot for a lot of people. But to put it in the context of the history of this league, in 2013, when the NWSL first started to play, the maximum salary for players was $30,000. So we have in some ways come a really long way, but getting essentially a 60% increase in minimum salary, also getting increases for players at every single salary band across the league. That's important, too, because it's going to keep those players in the league longer.

KEITH: And you have someone like Rookie of the Year Trinity Rodman signing a big contract.

LINEHAN: Exactly, and this is now kind of the next phase of the NWSL, where players are going to have the options to start moving and have more control over their career, so it's going to become a battle to keep players around. So seeing Rookie of the Year Trinity Rodman signing a four-year contract that is for a pretty big number - that's only going to make this league better and is only going to attract more international talent into the league as well.

KEITH: That's Meg Linehan, staff writer for The Athletic. Thank you.

LINEHAN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUM'S "BLESSED BRAMBLES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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