Soccer’s next big moves
English soccer star Wayne Rooney seems to have enjoyed his short stay in MLS with D.C. United, particularly the relative anonymity with which he could enjoy a pint or walk down the street with his family.
But Rooney openly disdained one aspect of MLS life: the travel. He publicly highlighted the issue several times during his 13 months in the league, particularly how MLS teams require players to fly across the country like regular passengers and not professional athletes.
The lack of charter flying is exacerbated by MLS’s enormous geographic footprint, and the players view it as symbolic of the fundamental issues underlying the ongoing collective-bargaining agreement negotiations between MLS and the MLS Players Association.
“Talk about the league trying to become one of the better ones and increase the quality, this would help that,” said Alejandro Bedoya, a veteran Philadelphia Union player and an active MLSPA member. “That is something that I believe needs to change. Taking care of the players, the players become a priority.”
MLS’s CBA negotiations with its players union is one of several active labor situations in America’s professional soccer scene.
The United Soccer League Championship and the USL Players Association are negotiating what could become the league’s first CBA, while the National Women’s Soccer League Players Association is proceeding cautiously, knowing that overly aggressive action could bury its fledgling league.
No group of American pro soccer players more aggressively pursued its demands in 2019 than the U.S. women’s national soccer team, which is tangled in a lawsuit with the U.S. Soccer Federation over not only equal pay but equal investment. The USWNT Players Association’s lawsuit could have far-reaching implications throughout women’s sports, not just soccer.
SBJ spoke to people with knowledge of or direct involvement in all of these situations. They agreed that the concurrent labor activity represents a moment of necessary maturation for pro soccer in the U.S., though some thought the timing could also be merely coincidental. Whether it’s coincidence or something bigger, what happens in these scenarios over the next year will have an immense effect on the sport’s near-term future in America.
“The soccer industry in the United States has seen historic growth in the last decade, and we expect that growth to continue through and after we host the 2026 World Cup,” said MLS Players Association Executive Director Bob Foose. “We have also seen a dramatic increase in the organization and sophistication of professional players, who have demonstrated that they are committed to working to secure the rights that they deserve both on and off the field.”
USWNT equal pay fight
In November, just four months after the U.S. women’s national soccer team won its record fourth World Cup, U.S. District Court Judge R. Gary Klausner ruled in a California courtroom that the team’s players, who filed a lawsuit against U.S. Soccer charging violations of the Civil Rights Act, were worthy of three class statuses.
One class status would require U.S. Soccer to pay its women players equally under the Fair Labor Standards Act, and means any player who was even called into a national team camp by the U.S. since 2015 — let alone played in a match — was eligible for inclusion in the players’ lawsuit. Another class seeks damages, including back pay, and the third class seeks the prevention of future discrimination.
The national team players — not the USWNT players union — filed the lawsuit last March seeking relief under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits gender discrimination by employers and speaks to the players’ experience as a whole, not just compensation. Court documents highlighted, for example, a lack of charter flights for the women’s team compared with its male counterpart.
Two issues are at the heart of U.S. Soccer’s defense. One is that the USWNT players union collectively bargained its current compensation system, ending up with a different deal than the men’s team players, who are paid in bonuses. In a unique deal, U.S. Soccer, which is heavily involved with the NWSL, pays women’s national team members who also play professionally in the NWSL base salaries of between $167,500 and $172,500. That payment covers their play for both entities.
U.S. Soccer’s second argument is that any difference in compensation stems primarily from the vastly different prize money FIFA offers men and women players in its tournaments. Taking those two points together, U.S. Soccer argued that some of its female players earned more than their male counterparts over the course of the last five years, meaning they couldn’t be discriminated against.
But Klausner wrote that U.S. Soccer cited no case law to support its premise and said that players’ “injury is concrete.” The players claim the only reason they were paid more during that period is because they played 19 more games than their male counterparts.
Across the globe, women’s sports entities — especially those that operate under governing bodies alongside male teams — will be closely watching the results of the USWNT players’ action. Finland, Norway, Australia and New Zealand already offer equal pay to their women’s and men’s national teams. Whether the U.S. joins that group through a settlement with its female players or a May trial remains to be seen.
MLS players want more investment
Standing before reporters in November ahead of the MLS Cup final in Seattle, MLS Commissioner Don Garber said, “MLS has transformed from a league on the rise to a league that has arrived as one of the great major leagues in our country, and I think, exists as one of the top leagues in the world.”
Members of the league’s players union don’t fully agree. During the MLSPA’s 90-minute conference call with reporters in November, Foose and players Jeff Larentowicz, Diego Rubio and Bedoya made clear that the players’ demands are focused on the league truly becoming what Garber said it already is — a destination league for players, whether American or international.
MLS players hold up the charter flight issue as an example of changes needed to reach the next echelon. MLS teams can take up to four charter flights per season, but many teams don’t use any of their four, according to Foose.
“It isn’t a CBA issue in the other sports and shouldn’t be in ours,” said Foose, who has been with the players union since its 2003 launch. “It is an infrastructure issue that is tied to player performance, and, if we’re going to say that we have all these aspirations, then this goes directly to whether or not those are true statements.”
MLS players also want true free agency — currently they must be 28 years old and have played eight years in the league to be eligible for free agency — and a less complicated player acquisition and compensation system. The players association wants MLS to begin taking the guardrails off its competition, allowing clubs to put their teams together however they see fit and forcing them to compete against each other for player signings more than they currently do.
“We need to stop being a league where there is over-centralization, where there is over-tinkering and where there is this notion that you design a competitive football league in a boardroom or by an accounting system,” said Foose. “It needs to be done by the people who know the game and know their franchises.”
MLS’s organizational choices in pursuit of stability have paid off. The league’s strategy has prioritized growth over profit, evinced in its expansion from 16 teams in 2010 to the 26 clubs that will start the 2020 season, with four more additions on deck in the coming years.
Growth in MLS spurred soaring team valuations — LA Galaxy was the most valuable team in 2008 at $100 million, while the Colorado Rapids were the least valuable in 2019, at $190 million — and equally enormous fees for expansion teams. The league’s most recent addition, Charlotte, reportedly paid $325 million to join.
Recent reporting from various outlets has made clear that, while many MLS owners don’t turn profits, they all receive substantial cuts of profits from Soccer United Marketing, MLS’s marketing arm, offsetting some of their losses. And players know that because they’ve done a deep study of the league’s finances as part of the CBA negotiating process.
“We just feel we need more of that revenue share among the players, to see the increased investment into our players, our teams,” said Bedoya.
The league’s media rights will be up for bid in the middle of the next CBA’s duration, throwing a challenging wrinkle into current negotiations.
“We are continuing our discussions with the MLS Players Association to finalize a new Collective Bargaining Agreement,” MLS President and Deputy Commissioner Mark Abbott said last week following meetings with the union. “We have had many productive meetings and are scheduled to meet regularly during the coming weeks. We view these discussions not merely as transactional, but also as an opportunity to spend time with players to talk about ways we can together make our league stronger. Although there are open issues, both the league and the players association are working hard to reach agreement.”
USL seeks first CBA
The USL’s voluntary recognition of the newly formed players union in late 2018 was an encouraging initial gesture, according to attorney Steve Gans.
“Both sides recognized the need to work together in establishing the league’s first ever collective-bargaining agreement,” said Gans, who represents the USLPA, “and that the implementation of a CBA would be mutually beneficial progress for both parties and for soccer in this country.”
The dissolution of NASL in 2017 left the 33-year-old USL as king of America’s minor league soccer hill, and, in January 2019, the USL was recognized by U.S. Soccer as the country’s official second-tier league. It was a seminal moment for an organization that in the last eight years has grown from a 12-team outfit to its current 36 teams. The USL’s increased numbers are impressive given that 18 teams left the league’s top division during that same eight-year stretch. Further club additions and subtractions are currently in the works.
The players’ push for unionization and improvements in their working conditions, likely including a minimum salary floor, and the USL willingly sitting down with them speaks to the league’s increasingly solid footing. Expansion fees now reportedly cost between $5 million and $7 million, a huge jump from the Forbes-reported $250,000 it cost to join the league in 2012.
“The stability of the lower leagues is stronger than it’s ever been,” said Jeremy Alumbaugh, a former executive with the USL’s Saint Louis FC and current managing director for Chattanooga FC.
For the USL, Alumbaugh said a CBA “wasn’t a priority 10 to 15 years ago; the priority was stability and longevity of clubs.”
Unlike MLS, the USL gives its owners more freedom in how they operate, which helps explain the varying degrees of success and failure in the league over the last decade. A USL CBA could establish baseline standards for business operations and player compensation and conditions, forcing the weakest franchises to improve.
“Anything that’s going to add stability to lower leagues of play is a positive,” Alumbaugh said. “I think it’s safe to say it’s going to be good for the game.”
It’s appropriate that USL and MLS are engaged in CBA negotiations at the same time, because their futures are intertwined after signing a player development agreement in 2013. Nine MLS clubs’ reserve teams play in the USL Championship, including Real Salt Lake’s affiliate, Real Monarchs, which won the USL Championship title in November. Three more MLS reserve sides play in USL’s League One. MLS reserve players competing in the USL are still members of the MLS Players Association and covered under the MLS CBA.
As for USL players, their demands haven’t been fully expressed publicly. Gans said only that “the USL is currently in receipt of a proposal from the USLPA addressing the issues most important to players across the USL Championship.”
“We’re excited about the progress being made,” USL spokesperson Ryan Madden told SBJ. “The negotiations have been collaborative and communicative throughout and we’re very much looking forward to the first collective-bargaining agreement in league history.”
Both sides echoed that optimism in a joint statement issued last week after the meetings: “Over the past two days, representatives from the USL and USLPA held meetings in downtown Tampa, Florida. The meetings were constructive and beneficial for both sides. Proposals have now been submitted by each party, and while progress was achieved on certain substantive issues, a number of others still require further conversation. Additional meetings are now scheduled for February and both sides look forward to finalizing and implementing the first collective bargaining agreement in league history.”
The two sides released a joint statement following the meetings in Tampa.
“Over the past two days, representatives from the USL and USLPA held meetings in downtown Tampa, Florida. The meetings were constructive and beneficial for both sides. Proposals have now been submitted by each party, and while progress was achieved on certain substantive issues, a number of others still require further conversation. Additional meetings are now scheduled for February and both sides look forward to finalizing and implementing the first collective bargaining agreement in league history.”
NWSL seeks stability
Yael Averbuch, co-executive director of the NWSL Players Association, said her group takes a nontraditional approach to labor relations. That’s in large part because no American professional women’s soccer league has lasted longer than three years until the NWSL, which just completed its seventh season.
The league had a successful 2019, growing its average attendance by more than 20% and bringing major new sponsors into the fold, including Budweiser, following the FIFA Women’s World Cup win during the summer. It’s currently without a figurehead after league President Amanda Duffy announced last week that she’s joining the Orlando Pride’s front office.
The NWSLPA, which represents the league’s non-national team players (USWNT players have their own union), formed in 2017 and officially unionized in late 2018. Balancing the players’ goals and aspirations with the reality of the league’s still shaky financial footing has been one of the group’s biggest challenges.
“We understand where the league is and stability is the No. 1 goal for everyone, including us,” said Averbuch, a former NWSL player and U.S. women’s national team member. “We want to work with the league as partners and allies in progress and look out for the experience of the players and make sure it’s continuing to grow in terms of financial compensation, professionalism and all the things surrounding that.
“But never at the detriment of the league.”
The state of American pro soccer labor movements
U.S. women's national soccer team
Averbuch said the PA’s input was considered during the crafting of recent changes to player compensation and acquisition rules that the NWSL announced in November, though the players were not represented in the room when decisions were made. The league raised maximum salaries to $50,000 (from $46,200) and minimum salaries to $20,000 (from $16,538), while inflating the league salary cap 19.3% to $650,000. The NWSL also introduced allocation money for the first time, funding available beyond the salary cap that teams can use to pay elite foreign players.
A representative from the NWSL said “a more flexible cost structure provides teams with fewer financial resources the ability to remain competitive, while at the same time allowing the rules to evolve, which provides time to assess the impact of the changes, and if needed, make appropriate adjustments.”
With most American-based women’s soccer players not making the kind of money usually associated with professional sports, the NWSLPA at least wants increased life security for its members. So, the group was pleased to see the NWSL drop its cap on housing and auto expenses that teams can provide players, end one-year limits on contracts, and remove restrictions on the number of guaranteed deals teams can offer.
“Focusing on the players’ stability and their ability to plan their lives is really huge,” Averbuch said.
Those subtle but important changes become even more critical as the future of U.S. Soccer’s organizational and, more critically, financial support of NWSL — the federation said it had contributed over $18 million to the league — is becoming less certain. U.S. Soccer’s contract to manage and operate NWSL was supposed to wind up by the end of 2019, but the deal has been extended at least another year, according to NWSL.
“I think of it as kind of like sending your kid off to college,” Averbuch said. “So, it’s a big transition period for the league to now move into this next phase, whatever that looks like.”
Editor’s note: This story is updated from the print edition.