Unions Are Imperative For Professional Women Athletes To Get More Respect (And Bigger Paychecks)

As the NWSLPA enters the ugliest part of its first CBA negotiation, it’s becoming even more obvious just how necessary collective bargaining is for women athletes.

Every week in her Good Form column, Natalie Weiner explores the ways in which the sports world’s structural inequalities and injustices illuminate those outside it — and the ways in which they’re inextricably connected. You can read previous columns here.

This week, we heard all-too-familiar rhetoric from the commissioner of a professional women’s sports league: “All of that progress has been made while the league and the clubs continue to operate at a financial loss,” said NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird after touting the league’s growth in a press conference yesterday. As the Equalizer’s Jeff Kassouf noted, the timing of this mid-season presser hardly seemed coincidental given that negotiations for the league’s first collectively bargained contract are heating up.

The NWSLPA, founded in 2017, launched a campaign to increase awareness and curry public favor last month called #NoMoreSideHustles, which is about what it sounds like: the fact that most NWSL players make so little that they take on other jobs like delivering DoorDash orders and working at gyms, as Candace Buckner reported in a Washington Post piece published earlier this week. 

“I want to be able to live comfortably,” Houston Dash player Gabby Seiler, who has worked part-time at Orangetheory to supplement her income, told the Post. “It doesn’t mean we want to make billions; we just want to be able to support our families. We want to be able to have kids and not have to worry about not being able to afford daycare.” 75% of NWSL salaries, according to the NWSLPA, are $31,000 or less; the NWSL disputes those numbers, arguing that average total compensation including health insurance and housing is around $52,000. Nevermind how astonishing it seems to argue that health insurance for an athlete, whose body and physical wellbeing are the very asset you are paying for, is part of their compensation.

no more side hustles

It’s just another iteration of the same old song and dance we’ve heard for ages from the WNBA, who spent the most recent CBA negotiations loudly lamenting how the league and its athletes were effectively their charity cases. “The tickets are very inexpensive, but even at low prices, we’re not selling enough tickets to run a viable business,” Adam Silver said in 2018 — conveniently writing the script for thousands of WNBA trolls and conservative talking heads and shaping a self-fulfilling prophecy that would seem to go against his own best interests as someone who could certainly stand to benefit from the WNBA’s success. 

I wrote about the WNBA’s CBA negotiations in 2019, arguing that history has shown the only way the WNBA can grow is via increased investment. Of course when they finally reached an agreement, the new CBA was touted as “groundbreaking” and featuring “significant investments by the league and its teams” — investments that might have greater impact had the league not spend years prior undermining its own value in the exact same way Lisa Baird is doing now with the NWSL.

In spite of the fact that there is abundant evidence new men’s leagues must operate at a loss for decades in order to become profitable, and that women’s sports’ potential can’t even be fully understood because they have been so thoroughly hobbled by entrenched sexism at every tier of the sports and sports media industries, we are still somehow having the exact same conversations. “There’s simply not enough money,” leagues keep saying as they garner more and more major corporate sponsors and increasing numbers of fans. 

There is no question that CBA negotiations in all professional sports get ugly. Women athletes make for an easier punching bag, though, because of the persistent assumption that they are second-class citizens of the sports world. When the WNBPA first formed, the league nearly folded because they were so insistent that players didn’t yet deserve a fair wage (a battle they won much more easily after suffocating the much more competitively salaried ABL out of existence). I wrote about their battle a bit in this New York Times piece, and Lindsay Gibbs just did an in-depth look at the WNBPA’s formation on the Spinsters podcast this week.

Little has changed in the two decades since in professional leagues’ approach to women’s sports, which proves exactly why every athlete (and worker!) needs a union — no matter how vehemently the bosses insist that their organization is an exercise in futility.