On Friday, the National Women’s Soccer League did the unthinkable. They closed that stubborn fucking gap—at least, for one major tournament.
The tech company UKG has partnered with the National Women’s Soccer League in a multimillion-dollar, multi-year deal to sponsor the NWSL Challenge Cup. The Cup’s pool will increase tenfold this year, and will double again in 2023 to around $1 million— which will make the 2023 Cup the “first-ever women’s professional soccer tournament to achieve pay equity with its U.S. peers in the men’s game,” according to NWSL’s press release. The prize money will be distributed amongst the winning team members, the runner-up, and the semifinalists. UKG is also sponsoring athletes Christen Press and Sydney Leroux.
“We have fought long and hard for pay equal to that of our male counterparts, and we need more people to take a stand on closing the pay gap and fighting for fair and consistent pay for everyone, regardless of gender, race, background, or profession,” Press said in a statement. UKG’s sponsorship is part of their “Close the Gap Initiative,” which they launched in December with the aim of closing the gender pay gap for every UKG employee.
Did it take far too long to achieve this one small step? Sure did. But in the version of America we live in, which tends to drag its feet around any and all women’s equity issues, this announcement will absolutely change the game of soccer in the United States for the better—and, hopefully, set a precedent for other women’s sports leagues to follow.
“Every player in this league has worked their whole life to play professional soccer and have the means to support themselves and their families,” Leroux said in the same statement. “Pay equity goes beyond the average 18 cents less that women are paid for every dollar that a man is paid—it is about people wanting to live the same quality of life, have the same opportunities, and live the same dreams as others doing the same work.”
News of the partnership follows February’s ratification of the National Women’s Soccer League Players Association (NWSLPA) first collective bargaining agreement. Players formed the NWSLPA in 2017 after years of embarrassing pay rates and lackluster benefits and were prepared to walk from their respective training camps if the league did not reach an agreement.
After an arduous fight, nearly two-year fight, the players won a 160 percent increase in minimum salaries for up to $35,000 per year, as well as 4 percent year-over-year increases. That’s not to say a $35,000 salary is anything to brag about, but it marked a substantial wealth increase from the players’ previous average salary of just $22,000. During negotiations, the athletes kicked off a campaign called #NoMoreSideHustles for Professional Athletes, in hopes of educating the public about how insane it is for a professional athlete to have to work multiple gigs or other salaried jobs just to afford a physically grueling job at which they had to demand better working conditions for years before making any significant headway.
Now, NWSL players have necessary benefits such as six months of paid mental health coverage, eight weeks of paid parental leave for birth or adoption, and access to private nursing facilities.
The NWSL is still recovering from allegations of sexual misconduct by former North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley—which resulted in the dismissal of former commissioner Lisa Baird and general counsel Lisa Levine last year. But the forward movement of both a historic contract and a tournament that has actually achieved what most leagues say they’re hoping to someday pull off is truly a moment to be celebrated.
Perhaps one day women athletes really won’t have to grovel for table scraps. One can dream, right?