2020 is already a remarkable year for soccer players in North America. The Major League Soccer Players’ Association (MLSPA) won significant improvements to their collective agreement, including a higher wage budget, a share in media revenue, an increase in the minimum wage, and greater player mobility. The United Soccer League Players’ Association (USLPA) added USL League One players to its membership after voluntary recognition from the league, affording a collective voice to more players, many of whom suffer from well documented precarity and low wages. On the heels of these achievements, sources are indicating that Canadian Premier League (CanPL) players have begun organizing amongst themselves to form a union.
The debut season of the CanPL has undoubtedly been a wild success. An unprecedented media deal worth $200 million over 10 years was signed, match attendance has been promising, and many matches were broadcasted nationally through the CBC. Fans were particularly impressed with the standard of play, with CanPL teams holding their own and even managing a win against MLS opposition in the Canadian Championship.
These performances brought joy to fans across the country in a time when Canadian soccer is on the rise both on and off the pitch. Indeed, a key goal of CanPL was to reinforce this rise by providing professional opportunities for players. However, despite the many positives, there are concerns that player contracts are failing to match these aspirations. Atlético Madrid CEO Miguel Ángel Gil Marín let slip at the unveiling of expansion club Atlético Ottawa that the league has a salary cap of $750,000. Assuming that clubs are spending to the cap, the average player salary sits at $30,000 a year. There are murmurs that many players earn even less. There are also concerns about strenuous working conditions.
It is for these reasons that players are hoping to build a collective voice in the form of representation through a union, to work with the league towards greater professionalization. And while concern for players should alone motivate fans to support this drive, there are also plenty of other reasons to support player unionization as fans of the sport, whether it is to improve the standard of play and player development, ensure greater transparency of league rules, or to ensure that the league is sustainable for a long time to come.
Ensuring that Soccer can be a Viable Career
CanPL has provided possibilities for Canadian players that have not existed before. Players now have a platform to reach even more lucrative opportunities, as is apparent with Joel Waterman signing for Montreal Impact and Tristan Borges with OH Leuven after impressing in their first season. But in order for the league to reach their full potential, wages need to improve so that soccer can be a viable career for players. CanPL salaries as they stand are dwarfed by those in Chile, Australia, and South Africa. The minimum salary for MLS is almost three times the average for CanPL. While it might not be fair to compare a fledgling league like ours with established leagues elsewhere, it is important to recognize the standard CanPL will have to build towards to establish itself.
While expectations need to be realistic regarding player wages, it is also unreasonable to expect players to subsidize the league by accepting poverty wages. Indeed, some players have decided not to make this sacrifice. Wandrille Lefèvre is one of the best players in the Canadian pyramid not playing in CanPL, with a strong resume after playing five seasons for the Montreal Impact. Despite being in his prime, Lefèvre chose to remain part-time with AS Blainville in order to continue working as an accountant. Players have also apparently foregone CanPL careers for coaching and other work. Canadian soccer is losing good prospects as players are forced to wrestle with the decision to gamble for a career in soccer or financially support themselves and their family. The union can work with the league on CanPL’s mission “to prevent Canadian players from falling through the cracks” by ensuring that players are paid a living wage and that pursuing a soccer career is not a gamble.
Player Development and Professionalization
Trey Mitchell of the USLPA argues that a union can help build a “league that players can seek to play in and not struggle, not one where they have to worry about making ends meet”. Considering the low wages, making ends meet can be a struggle for CanPL players, necessitating second jobs. Cavalry FC star Sergio Camargo recently discussed applying for work on his YouTube channel, and other players are known to take up additional coaching or retail work in the off-season. While the CanPL season is shorter than other leagues – though not by much, with the MLS season only running a month longer, the CanPL off-season still only lasts four months. That is certainly not much time to supplement incomes and it would be preferable if players are allowed to focus on honing their craft.
It is also important to recognize that the offseason is also not necessarily meant to be ‘time off’ for players; it is meant to be a time to recuperate and maintain their fitness levels. English Premier League player Steve Cook even went on vacation with the Bournemouth fitness coach to ensure that he started the following season in good shape. CanPL players will in essence be juggling two jobs if forced to take on additional employment during this off-season. And according to a recent Fédération Internationale des Associations de Footballeurs Professionnels (FIFPRO) report, medical research has indicated that players require a “minimum of four to six weeks of complete rest” during the offseason to physically recover from a season. CanPL Players and coaches alike have already expressed concern that fixture congestion during the season was causing injuries. Along with the unparalleled travel associated with this league, and substantial research showing that players need adequate time to recover between matches, it is abundantly clear that having a union to fight for better work conditions can lead to a more professional approach to player development.
One of the major complaints about the league from fans so far has been the lack of transparency. Outside of leaks, the league has never confirmed the salary cap. There have also been major questions about player acquisition rules. A union could potentially mean that player-related rules will be made public. The collective bargaining agreement (CBA), the contract negotiated between the employer and the union, which includes remunerations, benefits, and other employment-related conditions, must in the case of Ontario, where the league is headquartered, be submitted to the Ministry of Labour for publication. In other words, the league will be required to disclose rules it had previously made hidden.
The MLS is another league with convoluted rules and fan frustration regarding the lack of transparency. But in the case of the MLS, the MLSPA has helped shed light on the inner workings of the league by releasing a salary guide each year, containing base salary and guaranteed compensation data for every player under contract. The MLSPA website explains, “The Salary Guide is released by the MLSPA each year to provide visibility and transparency for both players and fans”. While there are no guarantees that a CanPL players’ union will release a salary guide, it may well consider it in its interest to undertake a similar initiative.
Bringing the League Forward
David Clanachan, the CanPL Commissioner, and other league officials, have always maintained a desire to approximate international football versus reinventing the wheel, emphasizing authenticity and integration into the global world of soccer. Labour unions are a fixture in soccer worldwide. There are 63 players’ unions under the FIFPRO umbrella alone, representing over 65,000 soccer players. FIFPRO, alongside individual unions, have been at the forefront of modernizing the game and ensuring that players’ voices are heard.
It is through its member unions’ advocacy that clubs can no longer force players to re-sign on unfavourable terms at the end of contracts in England, force contract renewals in Spain, and enforce ‘life contracts’ preventing player movement up to the age of 35 in France. These challenges paved the way for the famous Bosman ruling, the result of a court challenge backed by FIFPRO that now ensures that players are not held hostage by clubs as their contracts expire (see Routledge Handbook of Football Studies, p. 103). Today, FIFPRO and member unions continue to advocate for changes in football, including greater protections against wage theft, freedom of expression, mitigation of the physical and mental toils of the game, and stamping out of racism and other forms of discrimination.
A union ensures that players have a proper channel to express their grievances, a proactive approach to prevent exploitation and abuse. But beyond addressing grievances, Connor Tobin argues that the USLPA’s “intention is to find meaningful ways that we can impact the livelihood of players in the league and do so in such a fashion that it’s also beneficial to the league and makes it stronger and more sustainable and hopefully at the end of the day a better product on the field”. A CanPL players’ union can serve a similar purpose and be a channel for players to shape the future of CanPL, helping the league cement itself as an attractive destination for players from home or abroad.
It is for this reason that the league should recognize that it is in its interest to work with the players in their efforts to unionize. Ideally, this should come in the form of voluntary recognition, instead of engaging in a drawn out public fight that could tarnish the reputation of the league and sour its relationship with players. Likewise, it is in our interests as fans of the league, as people who want soccer to grow in this country, to support our players on and off the pitch.