Last year, the NWSL was the subject of a pair of lengthy and costly investigations, which racked up hundreds of billable hours and, with them, millions of dollars in legal fees while uncovering rampant abuse and misconduct within women’s soccer. Now that it’s all said and done, who pays for the league’s reckoning?
It turns out, the answer is everyone except the players the sport failed.
The first investigation, led by former U.S. deputy attorney general Sally Q. Yates, was commissioned by U.S. Soccer. Those costs fall under U.S. Soccer’s domain—one of many such legal bills the sport’s governing body has had to foot in recent years.
The second was a joint probe conducted by two legal teams, one representing the NWSL and the other its players’ association. Attorneys at Weil, Gotshal & Manges, led by Arianna Scavetti, represented the NWSLPA pro bono throughout the joint investigation, saving the players’ association from ending up with what it estimates would have been a seven-figure bill.
“I mean this sincerely: We wouldn’t have had this joint investigation or the massive changes you’ve seen in NWSL as a result of this joint investigation without [Scavetti],” NWSL Players Association executive director Meghann Burke said.
Meanwhile, a legal team at Covington & Burling led by Amanda Kramer, former assistant U.S. attorney for the southern district of New York, worked on behalf of the league. And while the two firms ultimately issued a joint report, their agreements with the bodies they represented were entirely separate, leaving each responsible for their own billing hours—saddling the NWSL with what is expected to be several million dollars in fees from Covington & Burling, according to two people familiar with the investigation.
And while owners have been talking among themselves for months about how much their individual teams will owe, the amount hasn’t yet been settled. That’s because the final sum owed to the firm is still being negotiated, according to the people. With the league in the midst of expanding by three teams, the timing of those talks may dictate how many franchises will divvy up the legals costs.
Like all leagues, the NWSL uses it revenues to cover as many of its operating expenses as it can. As a single-entity league, any excess expenses are split evenly between member clubs. The hefty fees for Covington & Burling’s work (rates for top partners at the firm can close in on $2,000 per hour) will therefore be divided among the NWSL’s teams, regardless of their involvement in the investigations.
That includes Los Angeles and San Diego, which both joined last year as expansion franchises. Even teams implicated in wrongdoing and those that delayed the process by failing to fully cooperate with the investigations—including Chicago, Portland and Louisville—will pay the same price as their peers. This explains the separate fines issued by the league last month, money that commissioner Jessica Berman has said will be put toward systemic reform.
There’s one wild card: In the NWSL, teams are considered members of the league when they pay to buy in, first their expansion fee and then their remittances owed, as opposed to when they begin play, according to the people.
For the new Utah expansion franchise, that likely means covering the investigation’s costs along with the league’s 12 current franchises before playing its first match. Utah was not a member of the league during the investigations, but owner David Blitzer has now executed the team’s option to join as an expansion team in 2024, according to someone familiar with the transaction, and therefore has official NWSL membership.
Utah’s discounted buy-in was baked into Blitzer’s purchase of MLS club Real Salt Lake early last year. But the other newly approved franchises—in the Bay Area, which will also join the NWSL in 2024, and Boston, which will join at a later to-be-determined date—are still negotiating their final expansion fees. Both are in discussions at more than $50 million. If those deals are not settled and paid before the Covington & Burling bill is due, they could avoid splitting the investigation’s costs. Even if they are viewed as members, they could argue against inclusion in those payments in final negotiations.
Representatives for the NWSL and Blitzer declined to comment.
Independent investigations led by law firms are common in sports, as in other workplaces, and most leagues make clear who is responsible for the costs. But there has been some ambiguity around the financial responsibilities for the NWSL investigation because of the uncertain timing around when the cost figures will be finalized, when payment will be due to Covington, and when certain expansion franchises will become official members of the league, according to one of the people, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
The investigation, for its part, found “widespread misconduct directed at NWSL players” at different points in the league’s history. Jointly, the two firms conducted hundreds of interviews and combed through troves of documents in uncovering the abuse and misconduct, and in assigning responsibility for the failure to protect the players.
That failure is what prompted Weil’s offer of free representation to the players’ union. “The players in the NWSL have shown incredible courage in speaking out about the misconduct they have endured,” Scavetti said. “They are world-class athletes, and they deserve world-class advocates to ensure that their safety and well-being is the top priority for the League and its Clubs.”
With assistance from Eben Novy-Williams.