The winners of the NWSL’s Challenge Cup will walk away with bonus checks 10 times bigger than expected thanks to the tournament’s first presenting sponsor, UKG.
As part of the three-year partnership, UKG has committed to supersizing the Challenge Cup’s prize pool this year and incrementally each year thereafter for the teams that make the final, as well as expanding the payouts to include semifinalists. New NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman said the raised bonuses will sit on equal footing with the men’s soccer equivalent, the U.S. Open Cup, a pay equity landmark for the women’s game.
“It’s really important to both the NWSL and UKG that we’re able to scale up the compensation being offered to the players for their performance in this in this new competition,” Berman said in a phone interview with Sportico. The Challenge Cup tournament was introduced in 2020 when the league resumed play amid the COVID-19 pandemic and has since become an annual event to kick off the season.
The partnership, negotiated by consulting firm Elevate Sports Ventures, is part of the workforce management and payroll company’s $3 million pay equity initiative. Specific terms of the agreement were not disclosed, but Berman, who began her four-year term as commissioner in April, said it was a welcome show of financial support for the 12-team league.
“This puts our players on par with the comparable domestic tournament that exists for the men, and I think that is what spoke to UKG in their desire to really show up to change the course of the pay gap disparity that exists between men and women,” Berman continued. “And I hope [this partnership] sends a clear message to the players that the way that we’re approaching business is with a player-first lens.”
The NWSL CBA—the league’s first—this year set the Challenge Cup’s minimum bonuses for players on the winning team at $1,000 and $500 per runner-up participant. It also stipulated that some or all of the prize money could be funded by sponsors, paving the way for a partner like UKG to boost the Challenge Cup’s coffers enough to become the first women’s professional soccer tournament to achieve pay equity.
With UKG’s financial backing, this year’s bonus payouts will jump to $10,000 and $5,000 for the winners and runners-up, respectively, with another $1,500 going to each semifinalist, according to someone familiar with the agreement. The total pool will nearly double again in 2023, with payouts matching the men’s side, where the winning U.S. Open Cup team’s prize rings in at $300,000—another $100,000 goes to the runner-up—split between around 20 players (with a 30-player maximum, MLS rosters are the largest of the leagues that participate in the tournament, though those are cut to 18 players each game day).
The CBA had already included increases in compensation and benefits for players, among other enhancements. The new NWSL minimum salary jumped to $35,000 this season and average total compensation to $54,000, but those numbers still lag far behind other leagues, a gap UKG is determined to help close.
“We refuse to accept that one organization cannot make a difference in the fight for pay equity—just look what these remarkable women have done with their collective voice to raise awareness on a national stage about a problem that has plagued our workforce for decades,” Brian Reaves, chief belonging, diversity and equity officer at UKG, said in a release. “We are so proud to stand beside the NWSL and work towards bringing pay equity to a sport that for too long unfortunately reflected the working reality of many women.”
UKG has also added Angel City’s star forward Christen Press and the Orlando Pride’s Sydney Leroux to its roster of athlete ambassadors. The pair join a golf-heavy roster that includes LPGA stars Nelly Korda, Brooke Henderson and Lexi Thompson, PGA Tour players Will Zalatoris and Daniel Berger and retired tennis star Ashleigh Barty, among others.
“Every player in this league has worked their whole life to play professional soccer and have the means to support ourselves and our families,” Leroux said in a statement. “Pay equity goes beyond the average 18 cents less that women are paid for every dollar that a man is paid—it is about people wanting to live the same quality of life, have the same opportunities, and live the same dreams as others doing the same work.”