The Canadian Premier League is well into its fourth season, and like snowflakes, fingerprints, and my excuses for missing deadlines, no two are the same.
First, we had the spring and fall/Clausura e Apertura season with a two-legged final (yay Forge!). Then we had the Island Games, First Round, Second Round, and Forge Round. And finally, we had the single-season, partially-bubbled, single-game, knock-out semis and final. I forget how that ended.
But however you slice it, the league has been around long enough to see a lot of firsts. First international transfer of a player, first back-to-back champions, first Concacaf Champions League qualifier, the first team ever not named Forge winning a title, etc. You get it. I am on the Forge beat. But there is one first the league is still waiting for: its first recognized Player’s Association (PA).
News came out on August 11th, that Canada Soccer was voluntarily recognizing the CanMNT’s PA. This was seen all around as good news. It followed the decision to voluntarily recognize the CanXNT’s PA (Canadian Soccer Players Association). And with Canada Soccer being the governing body that sanctions professional play in Canada, this is an obvious step in the right direction towards the recognition of PFACan, CanPL’s player’s association. So, let’s do this, right?
Not so fast.
There are many reasons why this may not be in the league’s immediate plans, and some evidence that it is going to take some effort to make it happen. But why wouldn’t this be the way to go? Let’s look at some of the most oft-cited reasons for the delay.
- COVID-19: All right, we started with a doozy here. It would be hard to argue that Covid-19 didn’t throw a wrench in the works. The league’s spokesperson was on record stating the ownership group was a strong one, and willing to soak up losses in the early years. But a worldwide pandemic and soccer without crowds weren’t in the mix. So, it’s fair to say that this is a bonafide reason to put most everything on the back burner.
- Costs: Legal teams, agreements, and meeting halls, all cost money. That money is in short supply when you are starting out in a new business. Okay, two solid reasons so far.
- Time: This league came together pretty darn fast. All hands were on deck to get the job started. Did anyone really have the extra hours in the day it would take to hammer out a CBA? I mean, teams had to be named, marketed, built, and trained. Another valid reason for a backburner.
- Privacy: When you are building a competition, especially right under the nose of the big three Canadian MLS teams (not to mention those in the NASL/USL and PDL), you’ve got to hold your cards close to the vest. A CBA with a PA would have run the risk of spilling a lot of trade secrets before their time. Wow, were there really four good reasons?
So, there you have it. The CPL has had a few good reasons for holding off on the recognition of a union. And those reasons still exist. Plus, there are some I am unaware of, I am no business tycoon, but as a writer, I have developed a healthy skepticism. As a result, I have seen some of the cracks begin to show in the league’s façade. Hopefully, I can make a general case.
A Players Association started to look like a good idea as time went on, and as you may have guessed the very reasons I disingenuously cited above, began to become the very reasons for the union. COVID-19 was a scary time. For investors, a lot was on the line, and a whole year of lost revenue and awareness of the league was a non-starter. The show had to go on, however, and it did.
But cracks have started to show in the walls to recognition. I think the first was probably around the Island Games forced by COVID. Usually, something as major as moving a league into a hotel away from friends and family for a month-and-a-half leans heavily on player input. Without a PA, that was always unlikely to happen here, and the pandemic allowed teams to dip into federal COVID-19 business relief funding. That didn’t necessarily square well with a 25 percent salary deferral request from management, especially when it went on to become a pay cut.
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The pandemic also caused the Winnipeg bubble to start the 2021 season. Again, this flexible and nimble move allowed a new league to stay relevant, but players would have a say about it. Everything from player safety in the heat and inadequate transportation – to learning about the season schedule on social media – led players to feel underappreciated. Even supporter groups jumped in with eight of them releasing a joint statement. Players needed a voice, and that was seen in the pregame protest in Winnipeg when players wore PFACan shirts on the pitch. Time to talk.
A monetary reward was also not necessarily a reason to play in the CPL, and that began to show as young players began to retire early from the pro game. Luca Gasparotto was York9’s ironman, playing every possible minute of their first two campaigns. His exact words were, “It’s hard to make a living off what contracts are in this league.” It should be noted he signed his contract before COVID-19 was a thing. Followed by future accountants, coaches, and soccer school owners, money was an issue. It seemed the league was basically an internship with the hope of a pro career in the future. The problem with that is that the CPL is tier one Canada soccer. It may be a modest one, but it should be a career.
So why didn’t the players just force the issue? We have seen CanMNT do just that with Canada soccer. But CanMNT is made up of players making hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars per year. Even with Fifpro’s backing, it is unlikely PFACan had the kind of money legal battles cost, even ones you would expect to win. Advantage owners.
The elephant in the room, of course, is ironically the very thing that got CanMNT a union. While those of us hooked by the CPL have long known about Canadian Soccer Business (CSB), many others didn’t. That included Canada’s men’s and women’s teams. There is probably some concern about how much the CSB – and as a result – the CPL owners are taking in as marketing managers of CPL and the CanMNT/XNT.
One would assume that any CBA would include a peek inside the mysterious contract that allegedly pays out sponsorship dollars above and beyond $3 million/year into the CSB. With the national teams at all-time highs, that seems like a good time to be in charge of the pie, and a bad time for unions to come poking around.
At any rate, being the only major pro sports league in North America without a Players’ Association is becoming a bad look in the current soccer climate. Hopefully, that means we are just around the corner from recognition.
Not so fast.
We probably need a commissioner before that happens. We’ll discuss that later.
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