Beating the Odds in Difficult Negotiations

Through agile, creative moves, the U.S. national women’s hockey and soccer teams overcame resistance to negotiate groundbreaking labor contracts.

By — on / Negotiation Skills

Sometimes our negotiation goals seem manageable, such as securing an annual raise or reeling in a new client. At other times we shoot for the moon, aiming to change deeply ingrained practices or to get much more from our counterparts than they want to give. When we set high goals, choices about our negotiating behavior become all the more critical. Should we make aggressive moves or try to be accommodating? Negotiate on our own or hire experts to represent us? Publicize our cause or keep it private?

Not one, but two U.S. women’s national sports teams—hockey and soccer—found themselves facing such decisions over the past year when they tried to convince their sports’ governing federations to fundamentally restructure their labor contracts with the goal of making them more equitable. The teams followed different playbooks, but both succeeded in negotiating precedent-setting agreements that are expected to permanently alter their sports. Drawing on reporting by the New York Times, we examine the deals to identify strategies that similarly ambitious negotiators can adopt.

Second-class treatment

The U.S. women’s national ice hockey team is used to excelling. The team has medaled in every Olympic Games since hockey became an official event in 1998 and has finished in first or second place in every world championship since 1990—a record far exceeding that of the national men’s hockey team.

But when it came to their labor agreement with U.S.A. Hockey (USAH), members of the women’s team didn’t feel like winners. The federation paid the women only $6,000 every four years, spread across the six months preceding the Olympics; team members also received small training stipends from the U.S. Olympic Committee. Too busy training to work full-time jobs, many players added one or more part-time jobs to their schedules and, due to the low pay and lack of maternity benefits, retired from the sport sooner than they’d liked.

USAH doesn’t give much financial support to members of the men’s national hockey team, either, but most of them earn seven-figure salaries from the National Hockey League (NHL). (A U.S. national women’s hockey league folded in 2007; a four-team league started up in 2015.) But members of the women’s team said that USAH was treating them like second-class citizens in other ways. The men’s team flies business class to games; the women have flown coach. In a dangerous sport, only the men received disability insurance. To add insult to injury, the federation reportedly didn’t give the women their 2015 world championship rings until 2017.

The team also accused the federation of squandering promotional opportunities and failing to adequately develop the women’s hockey program. USAH spends $3.5 million per year on boys’ hockey but had no equivalent program for girls. “Girls can’t dream of what they can’t see,” two-time Olympic medalist Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson told the Times.

Going on offense

As they entered negotiations for a new contract in early 2016, the women’s team, believing they had little to lose, aimed to turn their pastime into a profession—both for themselves and for future generations. They demanded a living wage of $68,000 per year, as well as child care, maternity leave, and the same travel and insurance benefits as the men’s team, according to CNN Money.

For more than a year, USAH refused to significantly restructure the women’s contract. But on March 15, 2017, the team finally got the federation’s full attention by making a surprise announcement: It would boycott the International Ice Hockey Federation Women’s World Championship tournament, set to begin March 31, if the talks didn’t soon achieve “meaningful progress.”

“We feel like we’ve been ignored, and this shows how serious we are about this issue,” said Meghan Duggan, the team captain, according to the Times.

Power plays

Five days later, the two sides met for 10 hours of talks: eight members of the hockey team, the team’s lawyers, and 10 other players participating remotely; and four officials and two lawyers representing USAH. The players called the meetings “productive,” but several days later the federation backed away from the concessions it had been considering and revealed that it was looking for replacement players for the tournament.

Meanwhile, the team worked on publicizing its cause, using the hashtag #BeBoldForChange on social media. Top youth hockey players rallied around the team, as did most major U.S. men’s and women’s sports leagues and a group of 20 U.S. senators. Rumors emerged that the NHL was considering boycotting its own world championship in solidarity. Thanks to the attention and support, when USAH asked other women hockey players to sub for the team members in the tournament, most refused.

Despite the mounting negative publicity, USAH’s 91-member board of directors—only 15 of whom are women—voted down the team’s latest proposal on March 27. But at the suggestion of board member Julie Chu, a four-time Olympic U.S. hockey medalist who had publicly supported the athletes, the board authorized its executive committee to negotiate an agreement with the players in the days ahead.

Skating to victory

On March 28, three days before the start of the tournament, the two sides reached a landmark deal that met most of the team’s demands. The players will now earn up to $71,000 annually and up to $129,000 during Olympic years, when contributions from the U.S. Olympic Committee are added in, the Times reports. The women won the maternity, travel, and insurance benefits they’d fought for. And the federation promised to create an advisory group made up of women’s hockey leaders to help develop tomorrow’s stars.

Euphoric team members rushed off to Plymouth, Michigan, where they parlayed their off-the-ice victory into another championship, defeating archrival Canada for the fourth year in a row. “It’s two storybook endings for us,” player Hilary Knight told the Times. “I can’t speak enough of the bond that we created, doing what we did, making history for the next generation.”

The women are seeking one more victory: they want to work to increase the representation of women in USAH’s leadership. That could happen naturally, as management begins investing in developing the sport. “The opportunity for exposure and additional income are there for the taking,” said.

Conflict off the field

If the U.S. women’s hockey team benefited from becoming increasingly assertive in its negotiations, the U.S. women’s soccer team succeeded when it replaced a combative stance with a more collaborative one.

In 2015, after winning the Women’s World Cup, the U.S. women’s soccer team earned far higher revenues for the U.S. Soccer Federation than the men’s team did. Fed up by unequal pay and other perceived slights, a group of team members ordered their union to fight harder for higher salaries and other improvements in their upcoming contract negotiations. As talks with U.S. Soccer launched in early 2016, the centerpiece of the union’s campaign was pay equity with the men’s national team, according to the Times.

But the two teams’ very different pay structures complicated the discussion. The women received set salaries and benefits with limited opportunities for bonuses. The men’s incentive-based pay, by contrast, fluctuates widely depending on whether they win or lose, and they receive fewer traditional benefits than the women. (The base salary is $72,000 on the women’s team; the top players on both teams recently have earned above $1 million.)

The difficulty of comparing apples to oranges led the women’s team and U.S. Soccer to cherry-pick data, a tactic that sowed conflict. In February 2016, the federation sued the players’ union to enforce the expiring collective-bargaining agreement (CBA) and block a possible strike. In response, some of the team’s players filed a wage-discrimination complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission accusing U.S. Soccer of wage discrimination.

Bending the ball

When the women’s team’s CBA expired at the end of 2016, labor and management were barely speaking. Over a series of team meetings, phone calls, and text messages, the players agreed it was time for a “fresh start,” according to the Times. They fired their combative union leader, Rich Nichols, and began taking greater control of the negotiations themselves. In addition to hiring new lawyers and an interim union director, the team set up a new union structure that put players in key leadership roles.

“Our big goal is to have as many of the players cued in, and involved, and invested, as possible,” team midfielder Megan Rapinoe told the Times. “No one knows what we need and what we want and what our goals are more intimately than the members themselves.”

Following the changes, Sunil Gulati, the president of U.S. Soccer, publicly expressed optimism that a deal was within reach. As the talks intensified, women’s team members kept in touch day and night, tracking one another’s priorities and practicing their talking points, writes Andrew Das in the Times.

Perhaps most important, the players refined their message. They still aimed to earn as much as their male counterparts, but they replaced their union’s rigid “equal pay” mantra with the more flexible “equitable and fair.” Soon Gulati was echoing the new phrasing.

Fast and furious

At the start of April, at least 15 members of the team participated in lengthy negotiating sessions with U.S. Soccer representatives—including Gulati—in Dallas, where the team had gathered for a training camp. The parties reportedly made progress on issues such as travel and inclusion in decision making, but compensation remained an obstacle.

The news that the U.S. women’s hockey team had reached a historic agreement gave the talks momentum, the Times reports, as did the fact that the soccer players were about to scatter to their National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) teams in mid-April. (U.S. Soccer pays league salaries, which are wrapped into players’ national team contracts.)

On April 5, a five-year deal emerged. U.S. Soccer agreed to a more-than-30% increase in players’ base pay and increased performance bonuses, though it did not guarantee pay equal to that of the men’s team. The team won greater control over licensing and marketing rights, as well as commitments from U.S. Soccer to continue to back the newly formed NWSL and to give more support to players on the periphery of the national team.

Gulati portrayed the deal as a win-win that will establish U.S. Soccer in the fight for gender equity in the sport worldwide, according to the Times—and he credited the players for enabling a breakthrough by establishing a more collaborative tone.

Aiming high—and succeeding

The following six takeaways from the hockey and soccer teams’ negotiations can help you reach similarly ambitious goals:

  1. Present a united front. Members of both women’s teams achieved their goals by working together effectively behind the scenes. When negotiating as a team, devote ample time in advance to building rapport, agreeing on goals, assigning roles, and formulating your negotiating strategy.
  2. Acknowledge your mistakes. Wise negotiators recognize their weaknesses and errors, and adapt accordingly. For the hockey team, that meant accepting that they had little to lose and going all-in on a high-risk threat. For the soccer team, it meant facing the fact that their combative approach wasn’t working.
  3. Strive for balance. Make too many aggressive moves in a difficult negotiation, and you risk driving the other party away. Be too accommodating, and your counterpart won’t take you seriously. Both assertive and collaborative moves have a place in negotiation; above all, strive for balance.
  4. Weigh the pros and cons of going public. The women’s hockey team strengthened its position by publicizing its federation’s starkly different treatment of male and female players. The women’s soccer team had less success doing the same, perhaps because members denigrated the men’s team in the process. Before publicizing your plight, test your message on trusted advisers.
  5. Seek out allies. Women’s hockey was victorious in part thanks to the intervention of a sympathetic federation board member. A hostile counterpart can seem monolithic, but there may be allies you can enlist to your cause.
  6. Determine what’s in it for the other party. Despite their low revenues relative to men’s hockey, the women’s hockey team convinced the federation to invest more in their sport by highlighting the potential long-term financial benefits it could reap from getting more girls to play hockey. Because the other side’s opportunities aren’t always obvious, be sure to name them.

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