Will teams strike a joint deal? How does lawsuit impact talks?

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Both the U.S. women’s national team and the men’s national team are in the midst of negotiations with U.S. Soccer for new collective bargaining agreements, or CBAs, and these new agreements will be crucial for the federation and the teams alike.

After years of the USWNT fighting U.S. Soccer in court over allegations of wage discrimination, the pressure is on both sides to reach a deal that will prevent similar disagreements in the future. The USWNT’s contract hasn’t expired yet — a Dec. 31 deadline was pushed back to March 31 — but it doesn’t appear to be in anyone’s interest to let the issues raised in the lawsuit linger. Meanwhile, the USMNT has been playing on an expired contract since Dec. 31, 2018, and the federation has to not only work out a new deal going forward, but consider how a new CBA may need to be applied retroactively.

Here’s where things stand heading into what should be a busy couple of months for all sides.

How have negotiations gone so far? Are the men and women negotiating together?

The women and the federation have been in negotiations on a regular basis. Attending those sessions on behalf of the USWNT are Becca Roux, the executive director of the players’ association, and the players on the USWNT’s CBA committee: Alex Morgan, Becky Sauerbrunn, Crystal Dunn, Kelley O’Hara, Lynn Williams, Midge Purce, Samantha Mewis and Tierna Davidson, along with their legal counsel. The men haven’t been negotiating at all with the federation over the past few months, but the executive director of their players association, attorney Mark Levinstein, has listened in or participated in the women’s sessions.

“We have continuously been in negotiations and with both the men and women, and we’re happy to see that the men’s PA has joined some of the women’s PA negotiations,” said U.S. Soccer president Cindy Parlow Cone on Jan. 11. “Hopefully we can get some player representatives as well when we negotiate with the men, but we remain ready and willing to meet whenever the men are ready.”

What Parlow Cone is hinting at is a dynamic in which players on the USMNT haven’t been engaged in the CBA negotiating process. Those close to the U.S. men’s team say it’s because when the team has been together in camp, they’ve had to focus on important events like World Cup qualifiers or the Nations League, and when they’re apart, many of them are overseas playing in demanding club environments. The USMNT player pool has seen a lot of turnover in recent years as well, with many of the veterans who were most engaged in union issues, such as Brad Guzan and Michael Bradley, no longer with the team. But it’s also worth considering that for USMNT players, federation compensation pales in comparison to their club wages. Consider that Christian Pulisic earns a base salary with Chelsea that’s reportedly somewhere around $10 million per year, which is how much the entire USMNT would earn for winning a World Cup — the pinnacle of national team duty.

Both sides are aiming for a new contract with the women to be hammered out by March 31, which is the new date their current CBA expires. A new men’s contract appears much further away.

Is a joint contract on the table?

No, not at this point.

U.S. Soccer stoked hope among fans that such an arrangement could be possible when the federation announced in December that the unions for the men and women sat down together to discuss the possibility of “a joint effort to equalize prize money.” The federation also said it looked “forward to seeing both teams’ counterproposal addressing prize money equalization and a single CBA structure for both teams, which we’ve been told will be sent in the next few weeks.”

Sources with knowledge of the negotiation sessions, however, say the federation overstated the importance of those discussions. The unions for both teams had been coordinating with one another before they sat down together with representatives from U.S. Soccer, but have never agreed to negotiate a joint contract together, formally or informally. Both sides are hoping to make the terms of their individual contracts as close to one another as possible, but federation CEO Will Wilson in January admitted that the men’s and women’s contracts will not be identical.

“There are nuances between the two groups,” he said. “We have to be mindful those and work down a path that makes sense and that both sides ultimately agree is equal, in quotes.” In other words, a contract will be deemed “equal” when the women and men decide it’s so, though it will not need to be the same contract.

The federation has said that it offered identical contracts to both teams in September and they rejected it, but sources say the offer wasn’t deemed serious by the players’ unions. The USWNT union also said publicly it did not consider the contracts to be equal. Still, sources on all sides agree that the contracts this time around will look a lot more similar than they have in the past.

Parlow Cone added: “What we’re talking about here is equalized prize money, identical game bonuses, an identical commercial revenue sharing agreement. But will there be differences in the contract? Yes, because they have different needs.”

How would the teams “equalize” FIFA prize money?

No one has an answer for that yet, and that is certainly being discussed in these negotiation sessions. It’s also the biggest question looming over the CBA negotiation process.

Players on the USWNT sued U.S. Soccer over wage discrimination in large part due to the huge disparity in bonuses the federation offers the men’s and women’s teams for competing in FIFA World Cups. The women say the federation should pay them the same bonuses the men’s team would have earned under their contract, which amounts to $67 million in backpay.

Meanwhile, the federation argues that its World Cup bonuses are dictated by the prize money offered by FIFA, the sport’s governing body. In the previous cycle, FIFA offered 13 times more prize money for the men’s World Cup than the women’s tournament, and winning the men’s World Cup was worth 19 times what winning the women’s was. The women earned a $1 million prize from FIFA for winning the 2015 Women’s World Cup and $2 million for winning the 2019 World Cup. But the winners of the 2014 and 2018 men’s World Cups received prizes of $35 million and $38 million.

U.S. Soccer has argued that making up that disparity out of its own pocket would bankrupt the federation — thus, the teams have to find a way to accept bonuses based on FIFA prize money. But it appears U.S. Soccer is hoping the unions for the USWNT and USMNT will figure that out for themselves.

“We told both players’ associations that we will not reach a deal unless we find a way to equalize the World Cup prize money,” Parlow Cone said. “We’ve asked the men and the women to get together to find a place that is best for them.”

Weren’t the men already close to a new CBA last year?

The men thought they were close to a deal in June, and that has certainly complicated not just the efforts to negotiate a new CBA, but the path to “equalize” FIFA prize money.

Sources tell ESPN that the USMNT threatened to strike before their friendly against Costa Rica in Utah on June 9. To avert the strike, the union and Wilson reached an agreement that included, among other compensation, guaranteed bonuses of 90% of whatever World Cup prize money FIFA offered, according to multiple sources. U.S. Soccer’s board rejected that offer, citing the overall expected cost of the deal — board members wanted millions in payouts removed.

That failed deal has created a dynamic where the men’s union has seemed to lose confidence in the negotiation process, and anything less than 90% of FIFA prize money is likely to be viewed as a downgrade. In previous contracts, U.S. Soccer gave the USWNT and USMNT World Cup bonuses that were not a percentage of FIFA prize money. In their previous CBAs, U.S. Soccer offered flat numbers: the women would earn a $2.5 million bonus for winning the World Cup and the men would earn a $9.4 million bonus, regardless of how much FIFA awarded.

Wilson has acknowledged the deal that fell apart in June without confirming the details of what had been negotiated.

“I’m not going to get into specifics of where we were, but as is the case at any negotiation, there’s a lot to work through,” he said. “We’ve said that one of the most important aspects to us going forward is equalization of prize money and we’re committed to that being a condition of getting any deal done.”

How does the USWNT lawsuit affect negotiations? And can a new CBA resolve the lawsuit?

The USWNT’s wage discrimination lawsuit was dismissed by a federal judge in 2020, but it’s since gone through an appeal process, and it’s scheduled to move to oral arguments in front of a three-judge panel in March.

The challenge, until the lawsuit is resolved, is that the CBA negotiations cover a lot of the ground that the women sued U.S. Soccer over in 2019 — the women essentially sued U.S. Soccer over the terms of their previous CBA. If U.S. Soccer and the USWNT agree to a contract that again offers different bonuses than the men’s team, U.S. Soccer could be subjecting itself to another lawsuit if the legal appeal is successful.

Asked by ESPN about the ongoing litigation in the backdrop of CBA negotiations, Parlow Cone admitted, “It’s a problem.”

“The litigation is not a positive thing for anything we’re doing,” Parlow Cone said. “It has contributed to a lot of negative things happening, but that being said, I have to give our team, as well as the women’s national team and their PA, a lot of credit here because we have come together and we are having very productive conversations.”

Those conversations won’t be able to resolve the lawsuit itself, though. A big reason for that is that the USWNT’s lawsuit is a class-action suit, meaning that not only are current USWNT players involved, but former players can participate and would be able to collect damages, too. The CBA, meanwhile, is negotiated by only current players for future terms.

What will be in the contracts?

In the middle of negotiations — and especially when negotiations are progressing — both sides are less likely to share details of what may or may not be in the contracts. But sources have long indicated that the USWNT may move away from a compensation structure that includes salaries for certain players. That structure was a necessity in years past when USWNT players didn’t have as many club options and needed a reliable income to even be willing to play for the national team instead of getting a “real” job. But the women’s game has evolved to the point where players are increasingly looking to the club game for compensation.

The USWNT already took a big step away from salaries when it agreed in December to a CBA extension for three months that also eliminated NWSL salaries for USWNT players. With that, USWNT players are no longer required to play in the NWSL either and are free to play in Europe at will.

Eliminating the salary structure in favor of a per-camp fee also distributes money among more of the USWNT player pool. But sources say that, because USWNT players spend a large amount of time in the national team environment — far more than USMNT players — dedicated salaries are not absolutely off the table.

For the USMNT, sources tell ESPN it’s likely the men may adopt a similar image rights and licensing deal to the one the women have. While the men currently split the royalties from licensing deals with U.S. Soccer, the women control their own licensing fees and sign their own deals directly without U.S. Soccer. The USWNT has worked with an agency that represents athletes in the NFL, WNBA and other national teams.

U.S. Soccer has also proposed a revenue-sharing agreement with both teams where the revenue from broadcast and sponsorship deals would be split evenly while each of the teams could also take revenue from their game-day tickets. But the USWNT plays more games than the USMNT, which contributes to those commercial sources of revenue, and the USWNT has not accepted that offer, according to sources.