The NWSL’s first ever CBA raises the bar for women’s sports

NWSL game between North Carolina and Angel City
Gary A. Vasquez USA TODAY Sports

Author’s note: Earlier this week, the NWSL’s first ever collective bargaining agreement (CBA) — which was ratified in January — was published online. Highlights from the 69-page document include new details on performance bonuses, player benefits, free agency, accomodations, mental health leave, and more. 

On Her Turf caught up with NWSL Players’ Association Executive Director Meghann Burke to get a better understanding of what some of the fine print means and how this CBA sets a new standard for women’s sports. This Q&A has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity. (The full NWSL CBA can be found here.)

On Her Turf (OHT): The CBA is obviously a very dense document, and at almost 70 pages, there’s a lot to unpack. Let’s start with a big picture question, though: What is the most important thing this CBA accomplishes? 

Meghann Burke: I think the biggest takeaway is that players were able to take back their rights and autonomy over their careers. And the second bullet point would be that we’re improving on the standards in the NWSL and professionalizing the player experience, which is good for the business as a whole.

OHT: In terms of that professional experience, things that stood out to me were the 401K benefits, severance, competition bonuses, higher per diem, standards in accommodations… How did the Players’ Association determine what to include in the list of benefits that aren’t directly related to player salary?

Burke: I would add to that–

OHT: Please do.

Burke: We were able to reach an agreement that players should be playing on professional soccer fields. Players were previously playing on minor league baseball stadiums in Kansas City and Tacoma and that will no longer be the case under this CBA. In Article 11 and 16, you also see that we’re improving on medical care and the minimum staffing requirements for both teams and the league.

So when we say professional standards, we’re not just referring to some of the terms and conditions of employment you’d expect in any job, things like a 401K, health insurance, and workers compensation. We’re also improving the standards in the NWSL to truly live up to our billing as the best league in the world, which I know we can be. That’s something we’re pretty proud of.

OHT: I was personally really excited to dig into the CBA when it went online earlier this week. Given how long you’ve been working on this, what does it mean to finally be able to share it with the public? 

Burke: It’s massive for players, for the NWSL, and for global professional women’s soccer. When we started this process, there was never a question whether that we wanted to make the (eventual) contract publicly available.

As a fairly new union negotiating our first contract, we pulled CBAs online from other sports: the WNBA, NFL, MLS, MLB. We had the benefit of reading those contracts and we kept saying to ourselves, ‘Could we get a copy of their first contract?’ Just to measure the progress (those leagues) have made from contract-to-contract.

And then, as we started talking to players’ associations from around the world, we discovered there are agreements elsewhere that you can’t find. (That) makes it hard to know what the standard is. So by making (our CBA) publicly available, we certainly hope that other players’ associations will push women’s pro sports forward by using this as a benchmark.

OHT: In terms of those other leagues and players’ associations, who did you learn the most from?  

Burke: Certainly the most recent CBA negotiation for the WNBA Players’ Association was instructive. They really raised the bar for parents in that league. I think what the WNBA did is send a message that you don’t have to choose between being a mother and a professional athlete. And so we wanted to build on that.

And then, Major League Soccer has grown tremendously over the past couple of decades… A lot of the rules in the NWSL came from MLS, and so it was helpful to reference the MLS CBA.

But we’ve also said many times: In the history of women’s professional soccer in this country, it’s not the men who set the standard. It’s the women. You look at what the U.S. women have achieved, winning four World Cups, and so we really did seek to deviate from a lot of what MLS did, too.

OHT: In what ways do you think the NWSL CBA sets a new benchmark for other leagues?

Burke: (In this) contract, we’ve secured free agency, we’ve secured a broadcast profit share. We’re unaware of another first CBA that secured that kind of arrangement. The Players’ Association also now holds the group name, image and likeness rights of players. That’s a big deal.

There are a lot of aspects of this contract that are pretty remarkable for a first CBA, but what I hope becomes a standard for pro sports elsewhere across North America is the focus on mental health. We’ve secured up to six months paid mental health leave, and each team will secure the services of a sports psychologist.

OHT: After the CBA was published, I posted a throwback to Bethany Balcer’s tweet about getting a $50 Chipotle gift card when she was named Rookie of the Year. Can you talk me through the new competition bonuses? And also, if a player wins multiple awards, I assume the bonuses are additive, right? 

Burke: They’d get multiple bonuses, right. And what’s also important to note is that the bonuses listed (in the CBA) are minimums. So we just saw an announcement that UKG will be funding the Challenge Cup bonuses, and last year, Ally Bank came in and funded the expansion of the playoff bonus pool. So the CBA requires a minimum, but this is what I mean when I say we can far exceed that. When we join forces with sponsors, the league, teams and fans, hopefully what we’re gonna see over the next five years is a salary structure and bonus structure that exceeds what was negotiated in the CBA.

What you can also infer from the bonus structure is the relative value that players place on things like winning the Challenge Cup ($1000 minimum per player) vs. the regular season ($5000 minimum per player) vs. the NWSL championship ($5000 minimum per player)… Players definitely put significant value into winning the regular season and the NWSL championship, more so than they do the preseason tournament that is the Challenge Cup.

OHT: As it relates to that… One of the criticisms with the officiating that we saw the other night (in the OL Reign vs. Washington Spirit Challenge Cup semifinal) is that — if there is value in winning a tournament like the Challenge Cup, which there should be — then the officiating should be able to keep up. If bad officiating is the reason players are missing out, that’s pretty bad. I’m curious if there’s anything you want to share on that topic?

Burke: It’s time for VAR. I’ll leave it at that. Laura Harvey’s postgame comments probably said it better than I could: She was doing the robot.

OHT: On a different subject… I was laughing when I saw that the CBA includes a section on when the NWSL schedule needs to be released, as I know that is something fans are always vocal about. Do you wish you could have gotten more than a 14-day window for that? 

Burke: Oh, I think we started (negotiating) with that the schedule had to be released before the end of the prior season. (Laughs.)

You know, to be fair to the people who make the schedule, it is a very difficult task. I’m certainly glad that’s not my job. They have to wait for the MLS schedule since those teams also play in a lot of (the same) markets and (the NWSL) isn’t the primary tenant in a few other markets. And then you’re trying to maintain scheduling parity and not have teams traveling cross-country multiple times… So it is a difficult task.

I think my hope with this issue – and with several other issues – is that the best business practice is going to be what determines what the league does in the future, not necessarily what the CBA requires… Because what we were fighting for in the first contract, at least in a few instances, were concepts, right? It’s the concept that you have to release the schedule sooner than you have historically…. But I think what’s gonna happen over the next four to five years (is that the) NWSL will see that it is in the best interest of the business to release it a lot sooner.

OHT: I know players have long had issues with the fact that the NWSL schedule doesn’t line up with FIFA windows. Was that a part of this year’s negotiation too? 

Burke: It was definitely part of the negotiation. We certainly proposed the NWSL try to follow the FIFA international match calendar windows. There was some resistance to that, but I think what you see is that this year’s schedule — even though it is wonky in some ways — it’s an improvement from years past in terms of respecting international match calendar windows… I think that’s a good example where maybe what we specifically asked for didn’t get into the final contract, but we’ve persuaded the league of the wisdom of that practice, and that’s hopefully what we’re gonna see happen.

OHT: It was tough to see so many NWSL players sustain injuries in the first few weeks of the season this year. I think some people have questioned whether that influx of injuries is related to the schedule and its length. Where does the NWSL Players’ Association stand on that? 

Burke: It’s devastating to see players get injured, at any time. It’s the last thing we want to see happen. And we certainly were attuned and paying attention to injuries that were sustained in that first week or two. On the flip side, we know that injuries are an occupational hazard in professional sports…. So is it causally related? That’s really hard to say… I think that’s a scientific and medical question that I’d rather doctors answer.

We are certainly monitoring workload. That’s something that we addressed a lot in the CBA negotiation. And again, a lot of the guardrails we wanted to put around scheduling didn’t make their way into the final contract. But I think what these injuries show you is that we need to pay attention to workload, travel, and scheduling because (those things) are related to player health and safety.

OHT: I was intrigued to see the section of the CBA about physiological testing and biometric data. This topic seems so interesting from a CBA perspective because, on one hand, it’s data about a player’s private health. But on the other, it’s information that is very relevant to sport and performance. And at the same time, from a bigger picture perspective, it’s an area in which women’s sports have historically been overlooked, just because of the way research has long ignored women. What is the background on this part of the CBA? 

Burke: First of all, you’re absolutely right that there’s inadequate research and data on women’s health in professional sports. For example, despite the fact that women have birthed children since time immemorial, we still don’t fully understand how a female athlete should return to professional sports after giving birth. Like, what is the plan and how do you do it safely? So you see some references to that in the CBA.

In terms of data…. In the CBA, we fought for the right for players to choose whether or not to wear the GPS tracking devices that monitor heart rate, distance covered and things of that nature. So players can choose whether to wear that and they own that data. That is their data.

We do see the broadcast value of aggregate, non-individually identifiable data being shared as a way to add interest for fans. That’s not really the issue. The greater concern is when (the data) is individually identifiable and who owns that information. So we would say that players own that data and that it shouldn’t be disclosed without their consent.

OHT: It’s clear that there are not enough women and former players serving in coaching roles. I saw that the CBA has both a tuition benefit and coaching licensure pathway. Can you speak about those benefits?

Burke: On the coaching licensure pathway… We’re all familiar with the significant turnover of head coaches in the NWSL. As that was happening, we talked a lot about how maybe the answer to this problem is right here, staring us in the face. Some of the most impressive people I’ve ever worked with are currently playing in this league, but they’re going to retire at some point.

Now, having played the game doesn’t automatically make you a great coach, but it certainly means you understand the player experience in the NWSL and what the player-coach dynamic should look like. And we’re now hearing from players who — having seen what we’ve seen — are committed to transforming the game in more ways than just what we saw last year. Bev Yanez is a great example; she’s a former NWSL player who got her B-license last year as a result of the funds the PA was able to secure and she’s now an assistant coach at Gotham. Julianne Sitch, another former player, is now an assistant coach in Chicago. Becca Moros also went through the B-licensing program and is now coaching at University of Arizona, but was at Gotham before that. We really feel that one answer to the coaching problems we’ve seen is for these players to become coaches when they’re done playing.

And then the tuition benefit… It’s interesting because the vast majority of players in the NWSL already have college degrees. They’re highly educated, they’re very smart, they’ve gone to excellent institutions. And so you often think of a tuition benefit being something that would help someone get a college degree. But in our case, the way we think of it…. their earning potential is below their qualifications during the course of their professional playing careers and this is a way of closing that gap by funding their ability to get master’s degrees and professional degrees that help them have even more marketable skills when they’re finished playing.

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC

Diana Flores looks to break down gender barriers with turn as AFC defensive coordinator in 2023 Pro Bowl

Courtesy Diana Flores

Diana Flores admits she was surprised when she became a viral sensation last spring, courtesy of a 15-second slow-motion clip showcasing her evasive maneuvers and fancy footwork while leaving at least three defenders in the dirt during Mexico’s 2022 national collegiate flag football championship.

“I never expected someone to record that moment,” said Mexico City native Flores, who led her team – the Monterrey Tech Borregos – to their third consecutive national title as a senior last May. “I was just having fun. I was just playing the game I love and then days later to see that it was viral on the internet — it was crazy. But at the same time, it was exciting because I remember when I was younger, I didn’t have a lot of flag football role models to follow. So now, for me to be a role model for many boys and girls that play my sport is something that really makes me happy and proud and also motivates me to keep getting better.”

Flores, who led the Mexico Women’s National Flag Football Team to a gold medal at the 2022 World Games, will have the chance to promote her sport on one of the world’s biggest stages this weekend when she serves as the AFC defensive coordinator for the NFL’s 2023 Pro Bowl Games, featuring the first-ever AFC vs. NFC Flag football games on Sunday in Las Vegas.

Organized in partnership with RCX Sports, the NFL’s flag football operating partner, and the International Federation of American Football (IFAF), Sunday’s Pro Bowl event will feature three 7-on-7 AFC vs. NFC flag games. Each game will be 20 minutes in length (two halves) and played on a 50-yard field with 10-yard end zones. Flores will be joined by Peyton Manning as the AFC head coach and Ray Lewis as defensive coordinator. On the NFC side, U.S. Women’s National Flag Football team quarterback Vanita Krouch will serve as offensive coordinator, with Eli Manning as NFC head coach and DeMarcus Ware as defensive coordinator.

“I think that this has been one of the best things in my life,” she recently told On Her Turf about her Pro Bowl appointment. “It is like a dream. I mean, I grew up watching football, watching the NFL, playing flag football. And now to be able to be part of all of this — it is bigger than my biggest dreams.”

Flores’ football dreams began as when she was just 8 years old. Her father — who played quarterback for the perennial football powerhouse Monterrey Tech program — took her to a practice and she fell in love with the sport. But as the time there were no teams for girls her age, so she played with girls twice her age and used it to her advantage, focusing on her own abilities and sharpening her skills. By age 14 she was playing NFL Flag in Mexico, where she was the only girl in the league, and at 15 she started playing NFL Flag in the U.S, where she finally played on an all-girls team.

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“I remember when I started playing, I used to receive a lot of like comments, directly and indirectly from other people, like, ‘Why do you play that sport? That’s not a girls’ sport, that sport is for boys, you’re get injured, you’re going to get hurt, don’t play with boys, that’s too rude.’ And the list keeps going. But my mom and dad were so supportive. They always encouraged me not to listen to anybody, to just follow my passion.

“And I think thanks to them, I’ve always had this mentality that gender doesn’t matter. It just matters how passionate you are about your dreams, how hard you work for what you want to achieve. And that you will always demonstrate what you’re made for, depending on the hard work you do. So, I’ve lived through that [negativity], I have experienced that. And I think that it has been one of my biggest blessings to be able to experience — for myself — what sport can do and how gender barriers get broken when you follow your dreams and you connect with other people through your passion.”

At just 16 years old, Flores made Mexico’s national team, playing in the first of four Flag Football World Championships – so far. Last summer at the World Games in Birmingham, Alabama, the 24-year-old Flores led Mexico to a 6-0 record, which included two wins over the U.S. women, who took silver. In the gold medal game against the United States, she completed 20 of 28 pass attempts for 210 yards and four touchdowns in Mexico’s 39-6 victory. She finished the tournament with 23 touchdown passes, the third-most among women’s teams, and she was the only starting quarterback to beat USA’s star QB, Krouch, who is 19-1 in international tournament play.

All that international experience so early in her career has given Flores a wise-beyond-her-years approach to playing flag football, a sport where she was frequently the only female player on the field and often the only Latin American as well.

“When I first came to the U.S., it was a little shocking to notice that I was probably the only Latin American girl playing,” she recalls. “But I think that it was easy for me because I got all the support from my coaches and my teammates. And since a young age, I think that I started to realize that sometimes what you do is for something bigger than yourself. That’s why you have to always give your best, in any situation. Even at that young age, I understood that I was representing more than myself on the field, I was representing Latin American people, Latin American girls in a sport that [many people thought] was meant to be for boys.”

RELATED: NFL still pushing for Olympic flag football with a chance ahead

One door Flores hopes to help open is the one leading to the Olympics. Flag football is on the short list being considered for inclusion in Los Angeles in 2028 Los Angeles. As an ambassador for flag football for the NFL and the International Federation of American Football (IFAF), she’s participated in talks with the International Olympic Committee, and just last month she was joined by First Lady Dr. Jill Biden in Mexico City where they joined forced to promote women’s empowerment and inclusion.

“I think for me, that experience is one of my top three,” she said of spending time with Biden. “I call them gifts from life, something that you didn’t expect it to happen, and somehow, one day, you’re right there in front of the First Lady. I admire her for what she does for boys and girls, for empowering woman and giving opportunities for everybody to achieve their dreams. So it was truly an honor to meet her, and also to be able to keep impacting my sport, not only on the field, but [off] the field, and have the opportunity keep inspiring others and keep impacting the world.”

As for what she hopes fans at the Pro Bowl and viewers at home take away from Sunday’s flag football showcase, Flores hopes they’ll see the characteristics that made her fall in love with flag in the first place: creativity, speed, agility, teamwork, passion and a lot of heart.

“I hope to show to all little girls and women that dreams come true, that nothing is impossible, to keep inspiring and opening opportunities and doors for women in sports, especially in the world of the NFL and football and flag football,” she says. “We’re going to make history, and I am so proud and happy for that. I’m really hoping that it is just the first step, not only for me, but for all the women that are coming after me.”

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Flag football star Vanita Krouch ‘living the dream’ ahead of NFL Pro Bowl debut as NFC coordinator


When Vanita Krouch got the news that she was named NFC defensive coordinator for the 2023 Pro Bowl Games, featuring the first-ever AFC vs. NFC Flag football games on Sunday, the U.S. Women’s National Flag Football team quarterback admits her jaw nearly hit the ground.

And then she realized something even more profound.

“For the longest time, thinking about the moment, everything, you’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is a dream come true. Is this really happening?’” said the 42-year-old Krouch, known as the “Tom Brady of flag football” with a 19-1 record as USA’s starting quarterback in international tournaments since 2018.

“But then I started thinking to myself: You know what? None of us grew up thinking of this as a dream to obtain. So really, it’s kind of reversed where I’m living a dream. I get to be a pioneer in this growth of flag football for all and inclusion for all, youth and adults, [women and men]. It’s such an inclusive sport, and I get to be a part of this growth and still actively play. It’s exciting. I’m literally living the dream. I’m very much like, ‘Guys, don’t pinch me. Let me keep sleeping.’”

Organized in partnership with RCX Sports, the NFL’s flag football operating partner, and the International Federation of American Football (IFAF), Sunday’s Pro Bowl event will feature three 7-on-7 AFC vs. NFC flag games. Each game will be 20 minutes in length (two halves) and played on a 50-yard field with 10-yard end zones. Krouch will be joined by Eli Manning as NFC head coach and DeMarcus Ware as NFC defensive coordinator. On the AFC side, Mexico Women’s National Flag Football quarterback Diana Flores will serve as offensive coordinator, with Peyton Manning as head coach and Ray Lewis as defensive coordinator.

But Krouch’s journey to the Pro Bowl stage began under the unlikeliest of circumstances and was inspired by her own family odyssey, which began in Cambodia during the horrific regime of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s. Krouch’s mother, Phonnary Krouch, fled the country with three young sons in tow, running by night and hiding by day to escape, finding safety initially at a refugee camp in the Philippines. That’s where she welcomed Vanita, in September 1980, and two months later the family made its way to the United States. Krouch’s father exited the picture upon their arrival in America, leaving Phonnary to raise four children alone.

“In a nutshell, my mom is an amazing woman,” said Krouch, who first found sports via an elementary school flyer advertising youth soccer in Carrollton, Texas. “On the journey, she had a lot of trials, tribulations, … and after our dad left us, it was just mom and four kids in this little one-bedroom apartment. So, it was a challenge. I’m just so amazed by her strength and will to never give up.”

She also credits her mom for standing up to then-stereotypical notions that Asian girls should not play sports.

“I’m just thankful, honestly, that my mom allowed me to break the Asian culture barriers of a woman playing sports because that’s not easy,” she said. “She faced a lot of backlash from the community. But she said, ‘Hey, my child’s making good grades. She’s healthy, she’s good. She’s staying off the streets. I don’t see a problem.’ And she just let me do it. I was just lucky to have a mom that let me spread my wings.”

Krouch also had a few mentors along the way. Her elementary school PE teacher, Toni Neibes, stepped in to pay for those initial soccer fees and continued her support as Krouch transitioned to basketball in the fourth grade. She fell in love with the sport and excelled at it as well, eventually earning a full scholarship to play college basketball at Southern Methodist University. She wears the No. 4 to this day in honor of Niebes, who wore the same number as a young athlete. She also credits her fourth-grade teacher, Judy Ward, as having a lasting impact after the teacher made a habit out of showing up for her youth basketball games.

She pays tribute to them both through her clothing line, 4Ward Apparel, which features ever-changing collections emblazoned with relevant slogans encouraging female empowerment, inclusion and her personal mantra of “paying it forward” – something she does with the line itself. Each month, Krouch donates a portion of the sales to individuals, families or organizations in need.

After graduating SMU in 2003, Krouch continued to play basketball in semi-pro and adult leagues, but she was still searching for something to satisfy her competitive drive. She and a former college teammate stumbled on flag football during a Google search for local Dallas-area activities, and the rest – as they say – is history.

“It was like I drank the Kool Aid and I never looked back,” she says of her start in flag in 2006. “It’s just like every game, every play is a new challenge, and it’s addictive for a competitor, so I just fell in love with flag. I actually think I’m way better at flag than I was at basketball.”

She moved into the quarterback position through some sly maneuvering by current USA Women’s Flag Football head coach Chris Lankford. They were playing together in a local tournament when he “tricked” her into the QB position, despite Krouch knowing “zero football language.”

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“One day I showed up for a tournament and I asked, ‘All right, guys, who’s our quarterback?’ And he says, ‘We’re looking at her,’” she remembers. They kept the plays simple, and her team made it to the playoffs that season. Krouch has been a QB ever since.

Krouch joined the national team in 2016 and was inducted into the National Flag and Touch Football Hall Fame that same year. Last year at the 2022 World Games in Birmingham, Alabama, a 41-year-old Krouch set a new mark as the oldest Flag football player, man or woman, in the games, and she ranked second among women with 25 touchdown passes at the tournament where USA won silver.

She aims to bring that expertise to the field at the Pro Bowl games, where she’s looking forward to seeing NFL players take on the flag football style type of plays. “Flag is a very finesse, quick game, a lot of footwork, and these guys can’t grab or hold, no downfield contact or downfield block or anything off the line,” she explains. “So it’s going to be exciting just to see skill for skill, footwork for footwork, defense to offense, and to see flag football language with those type of elite athletes.”

As for the biggest challenge, Krouch believes it will be crafting a concise playbook and language that puts everyone on the same page. “A challenge for me is getting a coach’s mindset,” she adds, “I have to actually come up with plays ahead of time and I don’t usually have premeditated plays in my head. I just read it so for me to tell Kirk Cousins or Geno Smith [what to do], it will be different, you know?”

But beyond the Pro Bowl, Krouch is excited that flag is being considered for inclusion as an exhibition sport in the 2028 Summer Olympics. While she’s keeping a hopeful eye on that development, she’s also working to shape the next generation of potential athletes as a physical education teacher at La Villita Elementary in Irving, Texas.

RELATED: NFL still pushing for Olympic flag football with a chance ahead

“It’s an honor to be a role model – for other youth flag football players, for my students, both boys and girls,” says Krouch. “Then at my campus and in my community, it’s amazing to be able to break the barrier of like, ‘Asian women can’t do this.’ And then to be at my age, still doing this, I feel very lucky and blessed. …I think I still got some years in me.”

As for what she hopes viewers and fans walk away with after watching the Pro Bowl flag games this weekend, Krouch feels confident folks will walk away enlightened by the show.

“I just hope that they have fun with it,” says Krouch. “And for those who don’t know flag to be like, ‘Wow, that’s really amazing. Maybe that’s something I really can get my son or daughter into at a young age.’ So I just hope that they see that the sport is real – it’s not just something we play at recess. It’s a real thing now. I think they’ll see that the world loves it, the world can play it and is playing it.”

Be sure to check back with On Her Turf later this week when we catch up with AFC coordinator and Mexico Women’s National Flag Football Team quarterback Diana Flores.  

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