Brooke Elby’s career in soccer has brought her all across the United States, spanning both coasts with a stop in Australia as well. But, as she sits in her Manhattan apartment, the NWSL Players Association Co-Executive Director reflects on one of her biggest tasks in her new role – steering the Association through a global pandemic.
“When all of this happened – there was no one who had done this before,” Elby said. “There’s no handbook named “Global Pandemic 101”. So, we walked into this almost thinking that we would keep moving forward the way our season is supposed to – go on hiatus for a couple of weeks then end up bouncing back into the season. When we approached that date, we realized the feasibility of playing a season, traveling, and even leaving your house was not there.”
With a “new normal” now upon the league and the Players Association, both sides got to work.
“From the moment we stopped play, the League and the Association were practically having daily calls,” Elby said. “That’s credit to the relationship between the NWSL and the NWSL PA. Lisa Baird came in knowing she wanted to jump on top of having that type of relationship with the players, specifically. That came at a perfect time.
“As those conversations developed, we expressed the concern straight from the player group which was that travel is not going to make sense. So, how do we take that but also capitalize on the momentum that women’s sports and women’s soccer has been bringing in this country? That was the spark.”
Both sides continued to explore ways to get the NWSL back on the pitch safely. Elby remarked that this stage wasn’t so much of a negotiation as it was a conversation, with both sides discussing any available options and next steps. With these discussions, player concerns remained at the forefront and it’s something that Elby credits to Lisa Baird.
“I give her a lot of credit for handling this situation the way she did,” Elby said. “She initiated a lot of the conversations at the beginning and held standing calls not only with us, but the USWNT PA. She came in wanting to get to know the players, and opened herself up to speaking with the player pool if anyone wanted to reach out. It was great to see her leadership in organizing and understanding what the players needed. She wanted to know if we were going to formulate a plan and how she could do that with the players at the forefront of the conversations.”
Those conversations led the league and the Association to the facilities of Utah Royals FC.
“Once we saw that we could do a tournament there, we really started negotiating what each side needed,” Elby said. “It was a very laborious process – there were a ton of phone calls and daily communication. But, I think the priority for everyone was always safety. As long as we could figure out those protocols, everything else kind of came more fluidly when we saw safety was number one.”
Elby herself was in the bubble for the Challenge Cup – which she called an interesting experience, where “hours mean nothing. They blend together.” Despite the late nights and regular takeout orders, Elby was pleased to see the NWSL back in action and commends the efforts of the players to make a “huge statement” for not only themselves, but women’s soccer as a whole.
With Elby back home and nearing the end of New York State’s mandatory quarantine period, her focus now turns to the Association – and continuing the development and growth she’s spearheaded for the past sixteen months.
“For us as a player’s association specifically, there are many things we are working on internally,” Elby said. “It’s our job to ensure that, structurally, we grow beyond the startup phase and begin to thrive. Additionally, we have to provide as many resources to our players as possible, while advocating for them in any way we can. Finally, we’re making sure our players have whatever they need healthwise right now and that their voices are heard.”
Beyond the Association, Elby believes this summer proves a major point, stating that “a strong league exists because of a strong union, and a strong union exists because of a strong league.” With an equally successful summer off the field, Elby believes it’s all hands on deck in capitalizing on this summer’s momentum.
“There’s been so much momentum – the CBS ratings and viewership is something that shocked the world,” she said. “It’s so clear that there’s a fanbase out there – people who really care about women’s sports. I think the more visibility this league gets, the more people will start to understand the power and talent of these players.
“We want to maximize that as much as possible, and the league does too. That starts with expanding this league and it’s visibility and making sure the players are heard and seen in any kind of platform and format we can get.”