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NWSL Players Association’s Meghann Burke discusses importance of Allyship on and off the field

In March of 2021, Ally became a national sponsor of the National Women's Soccer League (NWSL), aiming to highlight the players, fans and communities who are working to grow the game and make a difference, on and off the pitch. This week, Ally has extended that relationship by announcing an unprecedented sponsorship with the National Women's Soccer League Players Association (NWSLPA).

The NWSLPA has served as the officially recognized union of NWSL players since 2017 and is a vital resource and support system for all players in the league.

We sat down with NWSLPA Executive Director Meghann Burke to talk about the work she and her team are doing, and the relationship with Ally.

Can you give an overarching view of what the NWSLPA does?

The most important point is that we are a labor union that represents all soccer players in NWSL. What that means is we are the exclusive representative of all NWSL players when it comes to negotiating the terms and conditions of their employment in the league.

And you have been a part of women’s professional soccer for over 10 years, correct?

Yes, I am a former player, so I come at this from a passion for the game. My first memories as a human on this earth are playing soccer. I was drafted to play for the Carolina Courage out of college, played in the WSA [Women's Soccer Association] and WPS [Women's Professional Soccer].  It was when I was a law student playing in the WPS where I helped organize the WPS Players Union. Many years later Yael Averbuch [West] called me, she had organized the players into a labor union, the NWSL players association, and she just needed support. Since then, my role has obviously morphed into something much different and bigger.

What is your role? What do you do day-to-day?

I am now the executive director. I had been a small-town trial lawyer for the past 11or so years and really loved what I did. I took on the PA [players association] as a ‘client’ for whatever they needed in a general counsel capacity but also as an advisor and supporter with getting up and running. Never in a million years did I think that I would shut down my law firm and do this full time, but it just shows what these players have accomplished.

Day-to-day, I advise players on their contracts, their roles, and just making sure players know we are a place where they can turn to for support and guidance. We work on large strategic goals, too, including launching a group licensing program to maximize value to players on their group name, image and likeness.

You recently said, “We are going to take our league back.” What are some of the exciting things happening right now in women’s soccer?

Yes! You know, the NWSL is a great league. We are entering our 10th year. I played in the two former leagues that didn’t make it beyond three years. I give a lot of credit to the folks that – on the business side – launched this league and have created an organization that Ally and other sponsors want to be affiliated with and part of. I think a core piece of the value that NWSL has is our players. We are the league. Without the players you don’t have an NWSL and you definitely don’t have what I think is the best soccer on the planet.

You aren’t going to find another league where at one point in the season 1 through 10 was separated by six points. How exciting is that? Top to bottom it is really just an extraordinary league. And there is a lot of good in that. But a lot of how the league was created, all the rules were written by the league itself, without the input of, or it being negotiated by, the players.

The reality is we need sponsors, we need owners, we need front office staff, we need coaches, we need players, we need people putting the signboards on the field, we need the guy carrying the water. We all need each other. The problem is that the scales have been tilted too much and so we are balancing the scales again with players getting free agency rights, improving wages so that they are livable, putting basic protections in place to keep players safe in the workplace, and improving professional standards so that these elite athletes can have the best experience as pros and maximize their potential.

The NWSLPA created a Support the Players National Trust. Can you expand on who and what that trust supports?

I have grown up in the game, and one of the things you will find is there is so much solidarity. I have heard from players that couldn’t afford an emergency. They couldn’t afford a plane ticket home [for the loss of a parent or emergency]. We have a really generous players’ pool, generous fans and people really love and support one another, so we realized we needed to systematize being there for each other. The National Emergency Trust is for that purpose – to support players in financial need.

It is a little surprising that a professional sport would need something like this fund.

It is. That is part of the reason it was important to affiliate with the AFL-CIO. It was important that people understand the image that most people have of a professional athlete is that of Major League Baseball, the NFL and the NBA.

One of the challenges of the NWSL is to change the paradigm around who we think of when we think of an athlete. It’s not a rich man. It's also not men. We are also pro athletes.

We felt it was important because we need to evolve in this sport to be equal to other professional athletes.

How will Ally help in this relationship with the NWSLPA?

I love that question because what I said earlier is so true, that we all need each other. Especially in labor relations, you think of management or workers as being on one side and bringing sponsors in, and it’s like where does that [sponsor] fit into the equation? And I think what Ally shares with us is a bullish belief in the future of our sport – and that players are at the core of that.

Ally came to us precisely at a time when we needed to know that you were in it with us. I can’t tell you what it meant to our players for [Ally Chief Marketing and Public Relations Officer] Andrea Brimmer to essentially say ‘we’re in it with you.’ Because when you think about what has happened in the past, there’s a reason why players were reticent to demand better and to talk about experiences. They were having that need to change – and so I will always be grateful to her for the timing of when she reached out with the offer of support. And that offer was not prescriptive, it was ‘tell us what you need, how do we get in it with you?’ It feels almost cheesy to say, but what a way to be an ally. When you think about it, what is an ally? It’s not you telling someone what you need, and going to do that. It’s saying YOU tell me what you need and I’ll go do that.

Very tangibly what the Ally sponsorship means is that we have hired Sydney Miramontez, a former player, to be our business agent. She is working fulltime for us and her value is already very clear. No one can understand what players have been through unless you have been a player, and so she comes into this role as having truly lived it. She’s brilliant, she’s poised – organized, thoughtful, conscientious. I feel like Syd has really strengthened our team in tremendous ways, both tangible and intangible. And that was possible with Ally’s early support.

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