After over a year of negotiations, many day-long bargaining sessions, and intense emotions on all sides, the NWSL and the NWSL Players Association have solidified their first-ever collective bargaining agreement.
In the dying hours of January 31, 2022, the league announced that the NWSLPA had ratified the agreement, and the league leadership had agreed to the terms. This historic agreement was celebrated by supporters, but their excitement paled in comparison to the relief and joy felt by the players.
A statement from the Players Association: pic.twitter.com/7piQ0n9i0z— NWSLPA (@nwsl_players) February 1, 2022
NJ/NY Gotham FC players Nicole Baxter and McCall Zerboni, and NJ/NY Gotham FC owner Ed Nalbandian, spoke with AllForXI on their experiences getting the CBA finalized before the start of the 2022 NWSL preseason on February 1st.
“It was so exciting,” midfielder Nicole Baxter said. “It’s such a relief to know what salaries will be for the next five years - it just helps in terms of planning your life and feeling comfortable continuing to play soccer.”
With the finalization of the CBA, Baxter feels she can extend her career without the same worry over her finances that she experienced in prior years. At 27, she is hitting a point where she is playing good soccer, feels great, and is having fun. However, she is cognizant that she’s coming up on the stages of her life where saving money and settling down to start a family becomes increasingly important.
For team captain McCall Zerboni, finishing the CBA was one of the most exhausting and exhilarating experiences of her life. “It was a long process. There were shaky moments where doubt crept in,” she said.
“I had to keep reminding myself that it’s for the future, and it will create something longstanding that will help many players now and many more to come.”
The negotiations required a lot of patience and resilience
According to Baxter, who recently joined Zerboni as one of Gotham FC’s two NWSLPA reps for 2022, the entire process was the most tedious she’s ever witnessed. Imani Dorsey and Zerboni were the Gotham players involved in the CBA negotiations as the 2021 PA reps, so Baxter only attended a handful of the latter sessions. Bargaining sessions had been ongoing for months and were day-long events. The sessions that Baxter was able to attend were held on Zoom and involved a lot of waiting around in breakout rooms with mediators while the two sides went back and forth with proposals.
“Our lawyers, our PA executive director Meghann Burke, and our PA president Tori Huster, really thought of everything,” Baxter said. “There were so many details that they had to account for, and they really did not miss anything!” She also applauded their hard work of putting everything together.
Both Gotham FC’s players and owners took their roles seriously during the course of the lengthy negotiations, and they did not let roadblocks get in their way of getting the CBA over the finish line. According to Gotham co-owner Ed Nalbandian, the player safety issues that arose in September 2021 following the explosive allegations of abuse detailed in The Athletic reset the discussions. One such reset came from a changeover in the commissioner, with Lisa Baird stepping down and Marla Messing entering as interim CEO of the NWSL.
“From that point on, I’ve been really pleased with how the discussions went,” Nalbandian said. “There have been some ups and downs but I think that was sort of to be expected.”
Nalbandian credits a big part of the reason the two sides were able to make progress with the addition of Gotham FC General Manager Yael Averbuch West to the negotiating committee. That committee also included other club management such as Brad Estes from Racing Louisville, and John Walker from Houston Dash.
Zerboni agreed that having Averbuch West involved in the negotiations was crucial to getting the CBA done. “She was an instrumental piece because she has a player’s perspective, but she’s on the other side now,” Zerboni said of Gotham’s GM. “She understands how to be that mediator and liaison to get the deal done.”
Zerboni believes they had good people from the league’s side working with them on negotiations, but it took a lot of patience to get the league and ownership to understand their point of view.
According to Baxter, knowing that Averbuch West was on the NWSL’s negotiating committee made many of the players feel more at ease, especially given how intensely personal these negotiations felt for the players.
“She has a good perspective now on the Gotham business side, but also as a player, and I really respect her opinion,” Baxter said of Averbuch West. “I was relieved to know that someone who had been in our shoes was on the other side of the table.”
Nalbandian was most impressed with how quickly Averbuch West was able to understand the operations and business perspective of the club and translate that into her role on the CBA negotiating committee. “She’s so incredibly sharp, a natural hard worker, and a really good listener,” Nalbandian said of Averbuch West. “She wants to hear all sides, and doesn’t come into a conversation with her opinion set - and in that contemplative way, she was able to help both sides get it across the finish line.”
A final push was needed to reach the end of negotiations
On the afternoon of January 25, just one week before pre-season training was supposed to begin, the NWSLPA along with almost every NWSL player tweeted out a statement. The players made it clear that they had submitted their final proposals, and it was further reported in The Athletic that without a finalized CBA, the players would not be reporting for pre-season training.
As McCall Zerboni explained, with the start date quickly approaching, the players were starting to feel an increased sense of urgency that they did not feel was being matched by the owners’ side. “For me, that was an impactful moment where everything got real. We were behind on negotiations, wanted to get it done by pre-season, and we felt that there were not enough bargaining dates on the schedule. We started to get a little nervous.”
Nicole Baxter echoed Zerboni, explaining that the players decided that they needed to put pressure on the league and show that they were serious because at a certain point it felt like the two sides were never going to agree.
“I think it was everyone’s hope that the CBA would be done by January 1st,” Baxter stated. “It became clear towards the end of December that a couple of issues would hold it up.”
Back in December, Ed Nalbandian also felt confident the agreement would be ready by January. “It was a little later than I would have liked but I was always pretty confident that we would get it over the line.”
He explained that over the last four or five weeks of negotiating the final points, he was well aware that every detail was part of the larger picture necessary to a complete and well rounded agreement. “It’s hard to get five years’ worth of agreements on so many different topics but we were together on the biggest parts of the agreement for quite a long time.”
Although the sticking points comprised a small section of the CBA, the issues themselves were not small. The details of when free agency would begin and the length of the CBA itself were at the forefront of conversations during January negotiations.
“Although it was a small part of the CBA, these issues meant so much to the players,” Baxter explained. “Ultimately, I think it’s a good deal. The PA is happy about it.”
With the length of the CBA, the players and owners had varying perspectives. According to Baxter, she and other players wanted a shorter CBA, opening up the option of coming back sooner to renegotiate items like minimum salaries. The league wanted something more long term. The two sides were able to meet in the middle and Baxter explained that the addition of potential revenue-sharing for broadcasts made players more comfortable with the five-year length.
Zerboni explained that early on in the process, the NWSLPA and their counsel came up with the concept of the CBA being a pie. They knew that not all players would be happy with every single part of the CBA, so the goal became to increase every part of the pie to make sure they could get as much into it as possible, thereby making the majority of the player group happy.
Any time they became frustrated, they thought back to the pie. The players were willing to sacrifice quite a bit to get to where they wanted to be but sometimes felt resistance from the other side. This held up negotiations since the players were not willing to budge on the crucial aspects of items like free agency.
According to Zerboni, the players had their fair share of frustrations during the process, with the largest one being the delays they faced.
“We had 207 players that we had to report back to and get their vote, and they had a Board of Governors of about 12. If we could get to 207 players on the same page overnight, I believe they should have been able to do it, too.”
To Zerboni, there was concern that the league was delaying progress as a tactic, but the players remained brave and stayed the course even when they contemplated a strike. “I spent many nights lying awake wondering if it was the right decision, that was the hardest thing.”
The decision to strike did not come lightly for the players, but it felt important to make their voices heard in this way. “At times we felt like our power move was to refuse services,” Zerboni said. “We saw a greater good and knew what we had to do.”
When the players saw the outpouring of support from the soccer community and fans, they felt even more empowered in their decisions and further determined to get the CBA done.
“The outpouring of support and love from the fans and community is the reason we had power,” Zerboni stated. “Without that, we couldn’t have shown the league that we were very serious.”
The approval finally arrives
For Ed Nalbandian, the finalization of the CBA solidifies his feeling that owners and players are all in this together. “It’s been a long process, but if you look at the CBA and read through it, it includes really important things that are big steps up for the players,” Nalbandian said, pointing to items like player safety, vacation time, personal leave, mental health leave, and insurance. “There is a big commitment from the owners, and I really feel like we’re in this together.”
From the player perspective, this agreement finally puts the players and the owners on the same page. As McCall Zerboni explained, the players only ever wanted ownership to understand their side and work together for their common goal: bettering the league.
“We [the players]are telling you what we need and what resources you can acquire that will help you grow your business. We’re building your brand and business, and unless you invest in that, your company is not going to grow.”
The process of getting this point across got tiring at times, but the culmination of all their hard work ultimately proved that it was worth it.
“We have the language together now, and we know what our purpose is and what we’re trying to achieve,” stated Zerboni. “Putting pen to paper and understanding what we are trying to achieve together gives us a lot more direction and purpose.”
Nicole Baxter agreed with Zerboni, adding that the approval of the CBA makes both sides stronger. “A rising tide lifts all ships,” Baxter said. “We had to get the CBA done as if we were opposing sides, but at the end of the day, we’re on the same team - we just want to see the league grow.”
Walking into work after the CBA was done, there were no hard feelings or tension, everyone on both sides was able to celebrate the historic approval of this CBA.
“You should have seen the player call we had right before getting the survey about ratifying the CBA,” Baxter stated happily. “You should have seen the messages. People were so excited and so grateful to our team and our lawyers. It was such a cool moment to witness and I’m so glad I’m still in this league while this is happening.”
What the future holds for the NWSL and its players
As an owner, Nalbandian is now looking to the future. Having taken over the day to day operations of Gotham FC in 2020, he looks forward to inching towards his goal; having the best club in the world.
“One of our key performance indicators we have is asking our players, how likely are you to recommend Gotham as a place to play?” Nalbandian explained. “That’s about as important a KPI as we have. Our goal is to have the best professional women’s soccer team in the world. We want to be an elite club, and the way we do that is having the players want to be here.”
In fact, a large part of the reason the team hired Averbuch West was because they thought she was the right person to help lift Gotham to the highest level. Under her leadership, Nabandian sees the club becoming a place where players want to stay, which allows them to maximize their own individual and collective potentials. He looks forward to growing the club and by extension the league in this way, hand in hand with the players.
“We’re all in this together - fans, owners, and players,” Baxter explained. “The goal is for this league to boom, and it just makes me so happy that the CBA was a huge step towards this.”
With the negotiations behind them, the players can now focus on pre-season, which began as scheduled on February 1st. Even with the cold temperatures and snow, new and returning Gotham FC players are energized to get started. “Everyone is meshing together really well. There’s so much excitement and good energy.”
In conclusion Zerboni wanted to express her gratitude for the people involved, including the NWSL Board of Governors and their attorneys.
“They all worked day and night on this. Now we can all celebrate because together, we’ve raised the level of women’s soccer.”