The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) has announced its first title sponsor for the Challenge Cup tournament, league sources tell Yahoo Finance. Starting in 2023, the tournament will be called the UKG Challenge Cup and boost the tournament’s prize pool to $1 million.
The prize pool nearly matches the estimated prize pool for the MLS is Back Tournament, marking the league’s first pay equity brand partnership deal.
“There's a value proposition here from a business perspective that not only we see but others see, and in particular brands who are looking to invest in women's sports and, in particular, the NWSL to really reach a new and engaged and unique audience relative to other sports,” NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman told Yahoo Finance. “I'm expecting this to be a continuation of what really has been the opening of the floodgates in terms of brands really reaching out to us and wanting to be part of our growth story which it's clear is on the move, and brands want to be part of it.”
The deal comes at a time when many women's soccer players have been fighting for pay equity between their league and the men’s soccer league. The U.S. Women’s Soccer National Team (WSNT) players recently settled a court case on the issue that provided the players a combined $22 million.
Many WSNT players also play in the NWSL, the most prominent women's soccer professional league. Until recently though, the players' international fame, which often peaks during the World Cup, hadn’t translated into major sponsorship success for the NWSL.
“It’s a great thing that our players are stars and are continuing to gain interest from their fan bases because that will ultimately ladder back up to their NWSL teams and the league overall,” Berman said. “But there needs to be intentionality around that where we find the ways for the players to really be thoughtful about promoting the NWSL and their NWSL teams, and I think that will flow from continuing to grow trust through partnerships with the players and the players' association as we move forward.”
Elevate Sports Ventures, which works with a variety of sports franchises from the NFL to NBA and others, negotiated the agreement between UKG and the NWSL and will assist in managing strategy and activation for the cause-driven brand and league partnership.
“Pay inequity has been a pervasive problem for far too long, and as an organization whose purpose is people and whose business is HR and payroll technology, UKG believes all people have a fundamental right to equitable pay and equitable opportunity,” Brian K. Reaves, UKG Chief Belonging, Diversity, and Equity Officer, told Yahoo Finance via email. “We’re thrilled to welcome the NWSL to our roster of elite athletes and professional sports teams as we work together to push for change.”
For UKG, the partnership is another step towards closing the pay equity gap across all sectors. In the past year, the company launched the UKG Close the Gap Initiative. Part of that initiative contributes $0.18 (the current gender wage gap) per employee to programs and organizations fighting for equal pay.
The latest deal for the NWSL comes roughly a year after various reports of sexual abuse and misconduct threatened the long-term sustainability of the league. The league has since added Berman as a commissioner and tried to rebuild its relationship with the players, which Berman noted will be key moving forward given the celebrity status of the league’s players that in some cases supersedes the NWSL itself.
“It's been a really hard six months and prior,” she said. “But there's a lot of enthusiasm and optimism about the future growth of the NWSL, a clear interest and desire to partner with the league and our teams on our growth strategy, and a firm belief that we have the ability together to unlock the potential of the NWSL — and they're all in for that.”
Josh is a producer for Yahoo Finance.