NWSL Labor Deal Clears Path for Young Talent, Pay Increases
BY EMILY CARON, MICHAEL MCCANN
After nearly a year of negotiations that were almost derailed by a league-wide abuse scandal, the NWSL and the NWSLPA have agreed to terms on a collective bargaining agreement—the first-ever for any professional women’s soccer league in the U.S. The deal, which runs through 2026, was struck the night before players were expected to report for preseason camps Tuesday.
Beyond avoiding a work stoppage, the CBA carries legal significance as well. Sportico has learned the contract has no age restriction, clearing a path for young talent to join the league—an issue that took center stage last year when teenage phenom Olivia Moultrie won a legal battle to play for the NWSL’s Portland Thorns before turning 18, the previously league-mandated minimum age.
Drawing from successful antitrust litigation brought by Spencer Haywood (who challenged the NBA’s eligibility rule requiring players be four years out of high school) and Ken Linseman (who challenged the World Hockey Association’s 20-year-old eligibility rule), Moultrie’s attorneys contested the eligibility rule and persuaded U.S. District Judge Karin Immergut to award their client a restraining order, which enabled Moultrie to sign with the Thorns. Before an appeal played out, the two sides reached a settlement that made her eligible to play but stipulated her continued eligibility hinged on the CBA.
Moultrie, now 16, is eligible under the new CBA. The NWSL’s approach is aligned with Major League Soccer, which similarly eschews an age floor and instead allows the market to determine eligibility. Last month, Real Salt Lake signed 14-year-old Axel Kei to a contract.
The new deal also includes increases in salaries and other player compensation. It introduces free agency starting in 2023 and addresses the possibility of revenue sharing (10% of net broadcast revenues) if the league reaches profitability during the third, fourth or fifth year of the agreement. The league said the new terms will require nearly $100 million in incremental investments by NWSL owners over the course of the next five seasons.
While the Players Association has yet to release the full CBA—which is still subject to final approval by the NWSL board—it said in a statement that its players could now start the preseason with the “safety, security and protections of a collectively bargained contract that sets the NWSL on a positive trajectory in the future.”
The CBA sets a new minimum salary of $35,000, up from $22,000 in 2021, and establishes annual salary increases for all players. Total average compensation (including housing, retirement and insurance benefits) will reach $54,000, up more than 30% year-over-year, according to the league. Boosts to player bonuses and additional opportunities for compensation for promotional/commercial appearances are also included. Medical, health and wellness staff requirements for teams and the league were committed to in writing, as were policies for issues like mental health and maternity leave. The NWSL also allocated up to $300,000 annually for group license name and image rights.
“Our owners are committed to providing the significant and unprecedented investment required to build and sustain a professional women’s soccer league that properly supports our players, both as professional soccer players and as individuals,” interim CEO Marla Messing said of the agreement.