Long Days, Google Docs and Anonymous Surveys: How the U.S. Soccer Team Forged a Deal

By Andrew Das | New York Times

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The United States women’s soccer team pressed its fight for equal pay not in one dramatic moment at the negotiating table, but in a thousand small ones away from it. In text messages and phone calls, in hotel rooms and on bus rides, and at their homes in far-flung cities, the players fine-tuned their needs and their arguments and their solidarity.

Sometimes the suggestions arrived in an overnight email from forward Alex Morgan in France, or a late-night one from midfielder Megan Rapinoe on the West Coast. They sent out anonymous surveys to their teammates, to better gauge what people prioritized but might not want to say aloud, and weighed in on legal language and PowerPoint slides in a cache of shared Google Docs.

As the talks intensified in recent weeks, players like Becky Sauerbrunn and Meghan Klingenberg conferred with teammates like Kelley O’Hara and Christen Press to propose changes as small as a single word in page after page of precise contract language. Then they would rehearse what they would say at each negotiating session, and even decide who would say it.

The result of all those long days and late nights is the team’s new collective bargaining agreement with U.S. Soccer, which was announced on Wednesday morning. The agreement includes a sizable increase in base pay for the players — more than 30 percent, initially — and improved match bonuses that could double some of their incomes, to $200,000 to $300,000 in any given year, and even more in a year that includes a World Cup or Olympic campaign.

Yet while the women’s players can claim significant gains, including on noneconomic issues like travel and working conditions, the new deal does not guarantee them equal pay with the men’s national team, which the women had made the cornerstone of their campaign for much of the past year. For the union, that reality — a consequence of the teams’ different pay structures and an eight-figure gap in FIFA bonus payouts to U.S. Soccer for the men’s and women’s World Cup — was balanced by progress elsewhere. It is those changes, including control of some licensing and marketing rights, which the union views as an opening to test the team’s value on the open market, that the players and their lawyers feel could pay off in future negotiations.

Sunil Gulati, the president of U.S. Soccer, portrayed the agreement as a shared victory, an “equitable” deal that he said recognized the team’s achievements and kept U.S. Soccer at the forefront of the continuing fight for gender equity in soccer worldwide.

“We’ve always had the most highly compensated women’s team in the world, and this puts them at even higher level,” Gulati said. “Their performance over all over the last quarter-century has put them at the top of their game. Financially the agreement gives the players security in a way that they haven’t had before and adds a number of other things that were very important to them.

Gulati noted that the deal’s five-year term, through 2021, ensured that the next negotiation would not become an issue for the team in its next major competitions, the 2019 World Cup in France and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. He also revealed that U.S. Soccer had agreed to pay the players for two years’ worth of unequal per-diem payments, the result of improvements in the men’s C.B.A. that were not accounted for in the women’s version.

Initially, the talks had been framed as a simple equal-pay debate, a powerful wedge issue that hung over the talks from the start. It resulted in a lawsuit against the players’ union by the federation to enforce the old collective bargaining agreement but also in a federal wage-discrimination complaint signed by five top players that will continue even with the new C.B.A. complete.

Gulati, in a telephone interview on Wednesday morning, said the change in leadership, and in tone, had quickly opened the door to the discussions that produced a deal.

As a result, the new agreement includes commitments from U.S. Soccer for its continued support of the domestic professional league, the N.W.S.L., as well as requirements that the federation improve standards in the league and — through sizable increases in camp and roster bonuses for players not under contract with U.S. Soccer — transfer money to players who exist on the periphery of the more established national team pool.

The agreement also reinforces the national team players’ commitment to the N.W.S.L. through their league salaries, while at the same time establishing a mechanism for them to pursue opportunities abroad, as players like Carli Lloyd and Crystal Dunn (in England) and Morgan (in France) have done in recent months.

The final breakthrough came last weekend in Dallas, when as many as 16 players — dressed in matching team gear in a row of chairs only feet from the negotiating table — took part in two days of marathon discussions with Gulati and U.S. Soccer representatives. Helpful timing — the players were together in camp ahead of two friendlies against Russia this week — and the looming start of the N.W.S.L. season provided another needed nudge.

On Tuesday night, the players gathered in a drab conference room to hear the details of the agreement from their lawyers, including some benefits that had come to pass only in the final days. “Oh, we got that, too,” one player remarked, according to Roux. Then the completed document was shared electronically with all 22 voting members for ratification, while U.S. Soccer’s board met on a conference call to give its assent.

© 2017 The New York Times Company.
[IMAGE: Mitchell Leff/Getty Images]

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