A NWSL partnership with UKG for the UKG Challenge Cup. A NWSL partnership with UKG for the UKG Challenge Cup.

A lack of pay equity has long been a concern in women’s sports, and that’s been perhaps particularly prominent in soccer. There, the U.S. women’s national team has conducted a prominent multi-year fight, including a lawsuit, to try and make the U.S. Soccer Federation pay them under the same terms they do the men’s team (which historically has received more money despite not reaching the same heights on the international stage). That finally resolved Wednesday (following a February lawsuit settlement pending new collective bargaining agreements) with new women’s and men’s national team CBAs providing that both of those teams will now be paid under the same formulas.

Even before that, though, pay equity was reached in another area of U.S. women’s soccer. That was with the National Women’s Soccer League striking a multi-year, multi-million sponsorship deal with HR/workforce management company UKG to boost the Challenge Cup (now the UKG NWSL Challenge Cup) bonuses tenfold this year and to a total pool of $1 million (equivalent to the men’s U.S. Open Cup) by 2023. Last week, NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman (who was hired by that league in March after time as a deputy commissioner with the National Lacrosse League and a vice president with the National Hockey League) and UKG chief belonging, diversity, and equity officer Brian K. Reaves spoke to The Comeback about this deal, and they both said they see it as a deal that could set a precedent for further pay equity efforts. Berman said this deal matters for the league as an illustration of how they can bring in and work with brands that align with their values on equity.

“This is an important deal for the NWSL because we really want to invite to the table partners, investors and brands that are interested in helping the league to grow. But not just any partners, we want brands that are like-minded and have shared values. And UKG is that perfect company that really is putting their money where their mouth is. They’re investing in sports, investing in properties that hold true to their values. And we’re super excited to have this be a proof of concept that we can then scale into other future partnerships.”

And Reaves said those league values were part of what drew UKG to this opportunity.

“At UKG, we’re a leading provider of HR and payroll software. To Jessica’s point, our values are rooted in things like equitable pay and equitable opportunities. But the reality is that in the world, in the U.S., women are paid 18 cents less then men for the equivalent work. And the gap is much larger for women of color, transgender women, and immigrant women. For us, this was a great opportunity for us to partner with Jessica and the NWSL as well as to lean in with our sponsorship of the 2023 Challenge Cup, which will represent the first major tournament where you have pay equity with the equivalent male tournament. And it’s also to lead, and to hopefully inspire others to follow, because it will take all of us to lean in and close the gap.”

An interesting element of this deal was how it was announced just weeks after Berman officially started with the league on April 20, and just ahead of the May 7 Challenge Cup final. That’s why this year’s version featured that still-significant 10-times-multiplier rather than the full equity pool planned for 2023 and on. Berman said they were excited to get a deal done to improve the compensation for this year’s tournament as well, but the full version will kick in in 2023.

“The conversations with UKG have been ongoing, and we were excited to be able to infuse some of the partnership into this year’s event. But really, this partnership will come to life fully with next year’s tournament. And our players are really excited about that opportunity to have the chance to really demonstrate what it looks like when they’re being paid what they deserve.”

Berman said her time as NWSL commissioner so far has largely been about listening and learning, but she’s excited about what she’s heard.

“I’m two and a half weeks in. My first day was April 20. I’ve spent most of the time that I’ve been here really on a listening tour, taking in information from all of our key stakeholders, our brands, our sponsors, our media partners, our players in the union, as well as our ownership group, to understand about the challenges in the league and where they see the opportunity. And then it will be my responsibility to infuse all of my experience and all of my ideas and creativity into what has been the historical experience of this league, to really help it grow.”

“There’s really a universal feeling among everyone, pretty much, that I’ve spoken to, that the time is now to unlock the potential of the NWSL. And there’s so much interest in working with the NWSL to really help us achieve our greatest potential. And everyone’s really ready to be unleashed. And it’s my job, our job at the league office, and the job of our ownership group and all of our teams, to really create that platform and opportunity and really take the league to the next level. And I think everyone’s ready for it.”

Reaves said that growth potential is visible from the outside as well, and that’s part of what drew UKG to this sponsorship.

“It’s about exceptionalism. When you have a league and leaders that are willing to lead—everyone needs that rubric to follow, so it takes that special entity, in this case the NWSL, to lead. And this is part of a larger initiative we call ‘Close The Gap‘ that we launched in December, where we’re trying to really get at the systemic issues that hold us all back from pay equality. So with that, with our investments in philanthropy, investments in educational resources, investment in research, we needed partners who were going to lead. It’s not just words, it’s about action.”

As for the simultaneous actions on pay equity from U.S. national team players, Berman said having many of those players in the NWSL has provided an opportunity for the league to listen and learn about the players’ compensation concerns, and that proved important in striking their first-ever CBA in February (which includes a 160 percent boost to minimum salaries, four percent year-over-year increases, free agency within the league beginning in 2023 for players with a minimum of six years NWSL experience and moving to include more players over time, and more).

“Most of the U.S. women’s national team players play in our league, so we have an opportunity to work with them and listen to them about what their experience has been. Of course, that case has been settled, which is fortunate, I think for everyone. But we have a separate construct; we have our own players’ association, and in 2022, we negotiated, concluded, and announced our first-ever collective bargaining agreement with our players’ association that sets forth the very clear terms and conditions of employment that our players have bought into and agree is appropriate for the next five years.”

“It provides for our owners to invest $100 million over the next five years in player compensation. And we really feel that builds the foundation and the platform for the league to grow and continue to focus on how we scale our reach, our relevance, and our commercial value with partners like UKG coming to the table.”

It’s somewhat unusual to hear a commissioner openly talk about the importance of paying players more, as league-side messaging is more frequently about keeping costs down. But Berman said it’s crucial for the NWSL to care about its players being paid well and fairly, as that’s a critical goal for the players.

“It’s important to the players, and they are our most important asset. We wouldn’t have a league without them. They are our talent, they are our product. And we know that our players are socially active and have a platform. And they’ve clearly communicated to us that it’s important that they be compensated, respected, and treated like professionals. And that’s what was negotiated into our new collective bargaining agreement, clear standards for not just their compensation but their playing environment, and the opportunity for them to be treated like and feel like professional athletes.”

“We need them to be part of the solution and the movement to really unlock the potential of the league as we move forward. So their buy-in, their confidence in the league, there’s nothing more important than that. And we feel like we can now begin to turn the page with them as part of the solution, working with us to grow the league, now that we have a new collective bargaining agreement in place.”

Reaves said attending this year’s Challenge Cup gave him an up-close look at what the NWSL has going on, and has him and UKG excited to build out this partnership ahead of the 2023 tournament.

“I had the great opportunity to be at this year’s Cup. We’ve set the foundation. Now we need amplification, folks like you and other outlets, for people to really begin to understand. And also, some of that research I spoke about earlier, we’ll have the results of that research. So we can begin to build a rubric for other companies, other entities to follow. Because everyone deserves equitable pay as well as equitable opportunity. So we think we’ll get significant momentum by announcing now and going into 2023.”

And Berman said she’s optimistic this partnership will provide an illustration of the value the NWSL can bring to both sponsors and players with the right deals.

“This is really a proof of concept for us. The Challenge Cup in particular is a new property the league has invested in. It was born out of COVID, but now has continued beyond that. And it really shows us as a league and our investors that when we invest in our own value proposition, we can bring incremental investment and growth to the table. We hope that this will be the first of many properties that we can bring to bear in the marketplace, and having investment and partners like UKG really helps us to share that story with future partners.”

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.