WNBA players didn't even have a contract for the first two years of the league's existence, and it would be six years before they got free agency. Not until 2005, after the U.S. women had already won two World Cups and two Olympic gold medals, was U.S. Soccer contractually obligated to provide them with a meal when they were in residency - and even then, only on days with morning and afternoon training sessions.
Over the past two years, players from the WNBA, NWSL and U.S. women's national team reached landmark collective bargaining agreements that include significant pay raises - and in the case of the USWNT, guaranteed them equal pay to the men's team - and family benefits well beyond what most women in corporate America have. These are substantial gains, and they will help reshape how women are seen and treated in the U.S. workforce.
But they did not come easily. Or quickly. And they do not happen at all without the women involved recognizing their value, and feeling a deep responsibility to honor the work of the women who came before them by providing more for the women who come after them.
"Girls and young women were made to feel grateful for any investment and any opportunity in their sport," said Terri Jackson, the executive director of the WNBPA.
"These are the badass women of the W. These are the superstars. You've got to be super awesome to be in this league, to be a member of the 144," Jackson said. "Respect them. Honor them. And do not use the constructs you use in men's sports and force them on us and expect us to meet them.
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"We are different. It is simply that. Not better, not worse, simply different. And value that."
As the 50th anniversary of Title IX approaches, professional women's sports have become an established part of the American landscape. The WNBA is in its 26th season and continues to see ratings rise. NWSL expansion team Angel City FC is averaging 19,000-plus in home attendance. The market for U.S. women's merchandise is so robust they're about to open their own online store.
For the women behind those initial CBAs, however, the landscape was much different. They were the first generation to come of age after Title IX and, aware of both the newness of their opportunities and the tenuousness of them, they were fighting simply to establish a foundation. To provide a framework of basic rights in hopes that sports could ultimately become more than just a game for women.
"The women from 1999 that first unionized and did the first CBA - we would not be where we are today without those women who were willing to fight from the very beginning for those lunches, the win bonuses, for the livable wage," said Becky Sauerbrunn, who has been at the forefront of the U.S. women's fight as president of its players association.
Though there are significant differences, the labor histories of the WNBA and the USWNT - and, by extension, the NWSL - are similar.
'In the beginning, there was nothing'
Because the WNBA was a single-entity structure when it began in 1997, owned and operated by the NBA and its teams, players had very little leverage. They signed individual contracts with the league and were assigned to a team, leaving them without the basic protections a CBA provides.
"In the beginning, there was nothing," said Trisonya Abraham, a longtime women's basketball agent. "As quick as after year two, there were the rumblings of, 'OK, we have to do something.' "
The WNBPA was formed in November 1998, and the first CBA was signed early the following year. After collective actions in 1995 and again after the 1999 World Cup, the U.S. Women's National Team Players Association was certified in 2000. The team's first CBA took effect March 23, 2001, though it was backdated to begin Feb. 1.
Because there wasn't a women's soccer league for much of the first 15 years after the USWNT Players Association was formed - the WUSA was in existence from 2001 through 2003 and the WPS played from 2009 to 2012 - the WNBA and USWNT players' had different objectives in their CBAs.
For the WNBA, it was salary increases, of course. But the players also got year-round health and dental insurance, as well as maternity benefits and coverage for domestic partners, in that first CBA. Guaranteed contracts, too, though the guarantee only kicked in midway through the season.
Free agency came in the 2003 deal. A revenue sharing component was added in 2008, though it was tied to ticket sales, and players with at least five years of service got their own hotel rooms on road trips.
"Each time we were negotiating, we were trying to create a system," said Pam Wheeler, who was director of operations for the WNBPA from its inception until 2014. "We were laying the groundwork for creating free agency, for moving away from the hard salary cap. … While the first revenue sharing agreement wasn't the best, we were more interested in creating a system in which players could share in the revenue."
For the USWNT, the priority was security. Because U.S. Soccer for years provided their only opportunity to play, they needed to secure financial guarantees and performance bonuses.
The first CBA paid players who'd been the 1999 Residency Camp a monthly salary of $5,000 for seven months, with other players getting $3,500 a month. On top of that, they were paid $2,000 for each game, with bonuses for wins and ties over top opponents and a $10,000 bonus for every player who made the 2000 Olympics roster.
U.S. Soccer also agreed to direct money to the player pool based on the USWNT's results at the Olympics.
Once the WUSA began, monthly salaries ceased and USWNT players were paid appearance fees and performance bonuses.
In the CBA that ran from 2005 through 2012, the women again got yearly salaries, which were adjusted when the WPS began. There were individual bonuses for playing in a World Cup or Olympic qualifier, making the final roster for either tournament, and for finishing in the top three.
U.S. Soccer provided a nanny on team trips, and players got 50% of their salaries while on maternity leave. The players got health insurance, and a housing allowance while in residency with the team.
And that aforementioned meal on days with double training sessions, of course.
"A lot of these women, if not all the women, went through top college programs. So they knew what good looks like," said Becca Roux, executive director of the USWNT Players Association. "You aren't just necessarily fighting for what is equal for us but equal in terms of what it means of being treated as a professional athlete. Or an elite athlete."
'We sent a message for working women'
But the women also knew they weren't getting paid the same as the U.S. men, who went 40 years between World Cup appearances before qualifying for the 1990 tournament and whose best finish in the modern era was a run to the quarterfinals in 2002.
By 2016, both groups of women were ready to take dramatic action.
In March of that year, Sauerbrunn, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd and Hope Solo filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging they were being paid significantly less simply because they were women.
Three years later, the entire USWNT filed a federal lawsuit demanding equal pay.
"It never crossed my mind to stop fighting," Sauerbrunn said. "I knew, even with the lawsuit, if we fought to the very, very end and got nothing from it, there was a lot of significance in the actual fight and showing people we were willing to fight because we believed in our value."
WNBA players, meanwhile, had announced in 2018 that they were opting out of their contract early. They wanted a new deal that would radically reshape not only the league but conditions for working women everywhere.
"Opting out was a risk," Jackson acknowledged. "I heard from a lot of retired players, 'What are you all doing? You're going to blow up the league!' I told them, 'No we're not.' The (current players) understand the legacy you have handed them and what they're responsible for to the next generation."
The WNBA players' concerns were grouped into three "buckets" - salary and compensation, player experience, and health and welfare - but there were dozens of issues within each of those buckets.
"We said, 'We're not settling for the one or two or three must-haves,' " Jackson said.
Eventually, the WNBPA and the league reached agreement on a contract with wide-ranging gains for the players.
The salary increases were significant, with the league minimum rising $13,000 for the players with least experience, and the maximum salary jumping roughly $60,000 to $264,423. That might not be NBA money, but it provided enough financial security that players would no longer have to go overseas during the offseason.
All players now get their own hotel rooms on road trips. The revenue sharing agreement was reworked to now include "cumulative league revenue," rather than just ticket sales, and give players up to a 50% split.
Most notable, however, were the family planning benefits. There's a $5,000 stipend for childcare. Full salary while on maternity leave. And players with eight years' experience or more can be reimbursed up to $60,000 for adoption, surrogacy, egg storage and IVF expenses.
"We sent a message for working women, not just in sport," Jackson said. "There were so many groups that reached out to us to say, 'Job well done. Thank you so much.' They were so happy for us, it felt like a win for them."
As contentious as negotiations between the WNBPA and WNBA occasionally got, they were nothing compared to the standoff between the USWNT and U.S. Soccer.
The U.S. women won their second consecutive World Cup, and fourth overall, three months after they'd filed their lawsuit, with fans serenading them with chants of "Equal Pay! Equal Pay!" after the final. In March 2020, U.S. Soccer submitted a legal finding that argued the women didn't deserve to be paid equally because male players are stronger and faster and their game is more demanding.
The federation also argued USWNT players actually made more than the men from 2015-19 - glossing over the fact this occurred because the U.S. women won two World Cups during that time while the men didn't even qualify for the 2018 tournament in Russia.
"I was not sure (equal pay) was going to get done in my playing career," Sauerbrunn said. "Just all the other CBA negotiations that I was a part of and the pretty stagnant way of thinking. 'Oh, just increase all these line items by 20%,' even though our value to the federation was growing by more than 20%."
U.S. Soccer's attitude changed after Cindy Parlow Cone, a member of the 1999 team, took over as president. That, and a recognition that even if U.S. Soccer won in court, the court of public opinion had long since sided with the wildly popular USWNT.
In February, U.S. Soccer announced it would pay the U.S. women $24 million to settle the lawsuit and committed to equal pay going forward. The deal was contingent on a new CBA, which was announced in May.
A Tier III player was making $30,000 a year when Roux took over in 2017. Now, players will earn $30,000 just for the group stage at next month's World Cup qualifying tournament.
"I texted this to a couple of former players: I wish you all had gotten the experience of feeling what it's like to be treated equally. So thankful for the fight they fought, and that they got to see it," Roux said.
It goes beyond that, though. U.S. Soccer promised to provide the same level of staffing at training camps for the women as it does for the men. The women will stay in comparable hotels to the men, and both teams will get the same number of charter flights.
U.S. Soccer also agreed to share up to 15 percent of its broadcast, apparel and sponsorship revenue with both national teams.
"I hope that it's a big positive message that a deal like this is possible," said Sam Mewis, the vice president-treasurer of the USWNTPA.
"And it's important."
While what the WNBA and USWNT achieved might not be replicable across all industries, the lessons they learned are. First, information is key to everything.
When the USWNT fought for the rights to their name, image and likeness in their 2017 CBA, Sauerbrunn said it was partly so they could establish data points for future negotiations. Knowing what the U.S. men made not only confirmed to the women that they were being underpaid, but by how much.
And knowing what other players associations were doing gave the WNBPA and USWNTPA ideas for their own negotiations. The WNBA's current CBA includes a statement that a team physician's duty of care is to a player first, something Jackson said the players association got from the NFLPA.
Most importantly, be ready for the long game. These groundbreaking deals did not come together in a year or two or even six. They are the culmination of decades of small gains and big sacrifices, all with the hope that the next generation of women will have it better.
"Sometimes it does feel slower than we want it to be, but we just keep pressing," Jackson said. "Because we have to. That's what the players deserve."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: USWNT, WNBA have won major gains in collective bargaining agreements