In a historic move, UKG pledged to sponsor the NWSL Challenge Cup in 2023 and beyond, bringing parity to soccer and North American sports like never before.
Historically, the United States has led the way for women’s soccer across the globe.
It was the United States who won the inaugural 1991 FIFA World Cup, and since then, the USWNT has appeared in all 8 World Cups, winning four of them: in 1991, 1999, 2015, and 2019.
The USWNT has had comparable results in the Summer Olympics, playing in all possible 7 Olympic Games and winning gold in four of them: in 1996, 2004, 2008, and 2012.
The culture of winning fostered during the 1990s allowed women’s professional soccer to flourish in a way it hadn’t in prior decades. After the USNWT took home their second FIFA World Cup trophy in 1999, the Women’s United Soccer Association was born in 2000. Michelle Akers, Brandi Chastain, Mia Hamm, and 17 other USWNT stars founded the eight-team league, but by 2003, that league folded.
The WUSA faced problems that many early sports leagues have faced throughout the past century: it takes time to build a culture around a sports league in order for it to become profitable, so lower-than-expected television viewership and game attendance caused investors to back out.
That’s what makes the accomplishments of the National Women’s Soccer League so remarkable. OL Reign midfielder Rose Lavelle, one of the leading players in the league, spoke to how women’s soccer is leading the way not only on the field, but also in society as a catalyst for change.
“I think sports are a very unifying thing, and I think with our sport in women’s soccer, we all feel that responsibility to make everyone feel welcome and included and loved, no matter who you are,” Lavelle told FanSided. “I think that our goal is to welcome everybody with open arms and show them: ‘This game is for you. This game is for everybody.’ Another thing I love about Reign is that we’re all on the same page of doing that, and I think we all have that common goal.”
It’s difficult to grow any sports league in a matter of years, and what the NWSL has done in just ten years is something that sports leagues could only dream of doing. In 2020, the NWSL signed a three-year broadcasting deal with CBS Sports and Twitch that was worth $4.5 million, but the network was initially only set to air two games: the season opener and the championship.
Then the coronavirus pandemic came, and suddenly, the network was looking to fill slots with more women’s soccer coverage, as Yahoo Sports’ Caitlin Murray reported. In May 2020, the NWSL was the first professional sports league in the U.S. to resume play after the pandemic began, and the first-ever Challenge Cup tournament was born.
Suffice it to say that the Challenge Cup changed things for the NWSL. Three years later, the Carolina Courage have become the 2022 Challenge Cup champions, right when the NWSL announced a historic partnership with UKG, a company that frequently deals with payroll technologies as a workforce and human resource management company. UKG’s Chief Belonging, Diversity, and Equity Officer Brian K. Reaves and NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman announced the partnership that will bring pay parity to the pitch.
“A new partnership is taking aim at the gender pay gap in sports by making UKG the first-ever title sponsor of the NWSL Challenge Cup, increasing the Cup bonus pool tenfold in 2022, and the total pool nearly doubles again in 2023. The 2023 UKG NWSL Challenge Cup will be the first-ever women’s professional soccer tournament to achieve pay equity with its U.S. peers in the men’s game. The multi-year, multimillion-dollar sponsorship is part of the UKG Close the Gap initiative to drive awareness and action to resolve pay disparity between men, women, and underrepresented groups that continues to significantly impact today’s workforce.”
Reaves and Berman spoke with FanSided about what the Challenge Cup sponsorship means not only to the women in the NWSL, but also what this means for the “Women of Color, transgender women and immigrant women” in American society who are disproportionately affected by the gender pay gap, as Reaves notes.
I wanted to learn more about this historic partnership with UKG and NWSL and how it came about. Why this was so important for everyone involved?
Brian K. Reaves
UKG is a leading provider of HR and payroll software, and the topics of pay equity and equitable opportunity are core to who we are. Sadly, in the U.S., women make 18 cents less than men for equivalent work — and that gap is even wider for Women of Color, transgender women, and immigrant women.
So we were tremendously excited to partner with the NWSL as well as to sponsor 2023 Challenge Cup, because that tournament will represent the first time in U.S. women’s soccer history that we’ll have pay equity with the equivalent of that in the men’s world, so we’re super excited. And also, we want to inspire other companies to lean into this topic, because pay inequity will always be here unless all of us lean in.
That’s fantastic. And of course, it makes sense with what your company does with payroll.
Closing the gender pay gap helps women throughout the United States and throughout the world, as well as all of these companies, but how does it specifically help soccer and sports in general?
Well, from the NWSL’s perspective, we believe that sport has the power to change the world. We know that our athletes are cultural icons, not just within the ecosystem of women’s soccer or women’s sports or even just professional sports, but more broadly, they transcend the world of sport into household names because our athletes are the best athletes in the world.
And so we can look to this as an example to show everyone that when we invest in women, and we invest in underrepresented groups, we will achieve the greatest outcome because diversity and inclusion, we share that value with UKG.
Who are some of the key players in the NWSL and some of the key people who really helped with this Challenge Cup partnership and also with helping the new CBA get ratified?
I’ve been here for just over two weeks, but we ratified the CBA earlier in 2022. And we actually executed that CBA last weekend in Los Angeles at the Angel City home opener where we had 20,000 fans cheering for their team who bought tickets, which really shows the value of women’s sports — that this is a business, and we intend to demonstrate that to the broader community. Our CBA is a five-year agreement and our owners, pursuant to that agreement, are investing an incremental $100 million in paying our athletes. And so that, with the investment of UKG and other partners who have those shared values, we can really achieve and unlock the potential of the NWSL.
Of course, and I think the Challenge Cup has represented a way to do that.
The Cup is pretty new, it’s only been played three times. What’s been exciting about this particular event, and how much more does this prize pool add to that excitement?
The prize pool obviously increases the incentive for our athletes and makes them super excited. I know firsthand, I was in North Carolina at the Challenge Cup final and I spoke directly with the athletes, and they when they learned of the increased prize pool for this year as well as for future years, they were just super engaged and excited.
And frankly, I think [they were] feeling a sense of pride that their hard work and contributions are being recognized. This is obviously the third year of the Challenge Cup and UKG’s investment in that Challenge Cup is really a proof of concept for the NWSL that building out new properties and really building that value proposition will generate incremental investment from sponsors.
How does this help to combat stereotypes about “lower viewership” in women’s sports, that when you actually invest in women’s sports, viewership and profit increases over time?
So, when we look at viewership today in the NWSL, we’re going toe-to-toe with our comparable properties, not just on the women’s side, but on the men’s side. We had a half-million viewers in our last CBS game, and that’s starting to turn heads.
And that was how people showed up for Angel City: our home opener weekend had an average of 10,000 fans show up. And that was significantly higher than the next-highest record, which was in 2016 at 6,000 average. And so women’s sports is really demonstrating to the broader community that the time is now to invest in our sport, in our athletes, and UKG has really helped to bring that to life.
How does media play a role in not only how much women in sports make, but also in highlighting partnerships like this with UKG?
And so, when we look at media coverage, we know that this has really been a challenge for women’s sports, but when women’s sports get proper media coverage, we can really engage that broader fan base beyond our avid and loyal fans.
I believe the statistic is that women’s sports only generates 5% of the coverage that is given to professional sports. And we need media partners to help us and lean in and be part of the solution. Just like UKG is leaning in to really demonstrate that women’s sport is a business, it has a value proposition. And we need to amplify that through all of our distribution outlets.
Right. And so we have the recent CBA, which is going to be huge for the athletes. A lot of major North American sports have had CBAs for years, but 2022 marks the first CBA for the NWSL. Why did the NWSL come together and ratify a collective bargaining agreement this year?
Well, this is our first contract, and people on both sides worked really hard to get this done prior to the start of the 2022 season and we’re really proud of that. We’re proud of having our first contract. The league has only been around for 10 years, which relative to other professional sports leagues who have been around for over 100 years, it’s really at its infancy.
And so I think, as we all have seen in professional sports, both men’s and women’s, negotiating a CBA is quite challenging, but certainly, negotiating your first contract is the most challenging. Now that we have our first agreement in place, we’re going to build our partnership with the Players Association. We believe that we’ll be able to work collaboratively and constructively to continue to build proper labor relations. My background is that I’m a labor lawyer, and so my priority will be building that trust and credibility with the Players Association and the players.
The league being in its infancy is such an important note to make, because of course, it takes a long time for leagues to build up, and the NWSL is doing incredible for 10 years.
Brian, I know you spoke on this, but how does the UKG-NWSL partnership help all women involved and in the league, especially those from underrepresented communities?
Brian K. Reaves
Last December, UKG launched our Close The Gap campaign, and that campaign is really focused on trying to address, highlight, and understand the systemic issues that cause pay inequities. We are also investing a significant amount of money and philanthropy in educational resources and in research to try to understand and shine a light on the systemic issues so that they be dealt with not only in sport, but across all industries where the pay gap exists.
We fundamentally believe that every person, regardless of their diversity intersection, has the right to equitable pay and equitable opportunity, and it will take all of us to lean in across all industries to make that happen. To learn more about the Close the Gap initiative, please go to ukg.com/closethegap.
Of course. I want to hear from both of you: what is the most exciting thing about this partnership for UKG and for the NWSL? What are you each looking forward to the most?
Brian K. Reaves
The NWSL is one of the fastest-growing professional sports leagues in the world. And I personally am a sports fan, and exceptional athletes, they get me jazzed.
The degree that we’re doing things to elevate the National Women’s Soccer League to the level that men have had, as Jessica said earlier, is super important, because they earned it a long time ago. But now, they’re going to get it.
From our perspective, UKG’s investment in our league is a proof of concept that we know is getting the attention of the broader corporate community. The next generation of fans and consumers care about it cause they care about equity, and the NWSL is a purpose-driven brand that really is the perfect manifestation of that value proposition.
And so we know that with investments and partnerships like UKG, we can really amplify and scale the impact and expedite the growth of the league, and we’re excited to bring that to life.
That’s wonderful. Thank you both so much for your time, and congrats on this huge partnership.