Inside the historic NWSL CBA: Future focus paved by previous sacrifices

NWSL player Merritt Mathias
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Merritt Mathias, a defender for the North Carolina Courage, has played in the NWSL for nine seasons. But on Tuesday afternoon, for the first time in her career, the 31-year-old arrived at soccer practice protected by a collective bargaining agreement (CBA).

Late Monday night, the NWSL Players Association and NWSL announced the league’s first ever CBA, which was officially approved by the Board of Governors on Tuesday.

“To have a CBA is really comforting and empowering,” said Matthias, a member of the NWSLPA’s bargaining committee.

The timing of the announcement, which was made less than 24 hours before the start of preseason, highlights the fraught nature of the negotiations process.

“The last couple weeks, there were definitely times where it wasn’t going well and we were looking at having to strike,” Matthias said. “It has been very, very long process, but very worth it – like most things in life.”

In addition to increases in player salaries, other highlights of the inaugural CBA include the introduction of free agency, paid mental health and parental leave, new revenue sharing opportunities, and a commitment that NWSL games will be played on fields meant for soccer.

“Including [free agency] in a first-time contract is kind of unheard of,” said NWSLPA President Tori Huster. “Getting that into the contract for next season is incredible. I’m very proud of that.”

Starting in 2023, players with six years of service will become eligible for free agency, a right that allows athletes to solicit offers from other teams and decide where they want to continue their careers. Free agency rights will expand further in 2024.

Until now, the only way NWSL players could move from one team to another was if they requested a trade and their current club was willing to release them. The lack of free agency has been cited as one of the factors that allowed systemic abuse to thrive in the NWSL.

“That can play a factor in players being in unhealthy or traumatic situations,” Kristen Hamilton told On Her Turf in December. “Ultimately, the teams, the clubs, the coaches have all the power.”

“To finally – in the future – know that you will have autonomy over your career… that’s really exciting,” Matthias said. “That’s something no one in this league has ever been able to experience.”

While athletes won’t be eligible for free agency until next season, most other elements of the NWSL CBA will go into effect beginning this year, including an increase to minimum player salaries.

Huster said that the Players Association will provide members with training to make sure they understand the CBA and their rights under it.

“Having the understanding and the knowledge of all of the intricate details… that’s going to be super important moving forward,” she said. “It’s only a piece of paper unless it gets enforced.”

Throughout much of the fight for this CBA, the NWSLPA has taken a multigenerational approach: focusing on what this work will mean for future generations, while acknowledging the sacrifices made by previous generations to reach this point.

“A lot of what (players) are fighting for… they themselves may not see the benefits of that,” NWSLPA Executive Director Meghann Burke said on the On Her Turf podcast in December. “They’re leaving the game better than they came into it.” (The full interview with Burke is embedded above.) 

But today, the first day of the 2022 NWSL season, the current generation deserves the spotlight.

“A lot of this league has been built on just being grateful to have a league,” Matthias said. “Yes, we are grateful to have a league to play in. But now, we’re not just grateful. We’re here and we’re willing to bet on ourselves.”

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC