We discuss the official arrival of the USL Players Union and what it means for the league.
Last week, the United Soccer League announced that the clubs in USL Championship have recognized the USL Players Union and will begin negotiations with them. This brings USL in line with other major American sports leagues, including MLS, and is another important step forward for the league. It also will, hopefully, begin to address the major issue of how players are compensated in one of the world’s largest professional soccer leagues.
While this announcement is welcome news for the league and its players, there are some potential outcomes that USL fans should keep in mind. The league and the sport in the US are in a state of flux, and the first lower-division union is bound to shake up the status quo. Let’s take a look at some of the potential outcomes and what it would mean to USL fans, players, and owners.
Labor Unrest Could Kill Momentum
Baseball, hockey, basketball, and football have all experienced labor strikes that have prevented seasons from starting, or greatly impacted their competitions. With USL still on sort-of shaky ground, a similar situation would be devastating for the league, and soccer in the United States.
The league has been expanding at a rapid rate, bringing soccer to new fans almost every recent season. USL’s ventures into markets like Birmingham, AL, and Albuquerque, NM represent the league’s ambition, as they feel that their product will thrive in smaller markets. If, however, they are unable to start their season or have to alter their competition due to labor unrest, the momentum gained through expansion will quickly dissipate. And once it is gone, it will be hard to gain back in those markets, since they are not yet well established.
Both the players and owners will need to keep this in mind during this, and subsequent, negotiations. Unlike the other professional sports leagues, USL still has a lot of foundation to lay before it could afford to absorb a pause in competition. It will be imperative that all interested parties do what is best for not only themselves but the game as well.
More Teams Look at the Drop
Richmond Kickers, Penn FC, Rochester Rhinos, and Toronto FC II are all teams that have “taken the plunge” and moved from the Championship to League One. While there is a multitude of reasons for each team’s decision, one consistent theme that arose was the rising cost of operating a Championship team. Between stadium requirements, coaching/staffing, marketing, and other costs, many owners who originally bought in before the promotion to D-2 status are feeling the pinch. With a new CBA almost guaranteed to raise player salaries, the squeeze on some of these teams will get even tighter.
As the required budget for operating a competitive Championship team rises, don’t be surprised to see more teams follow in the footsteps of the four who dropped down after this past season. The revenue streams for owners are still not strong enough for the smaller teams to support many more expense increases. With League One offering a more affordable option, at the levels some of the older owners are used to, it would not be shocking to see the CBA become the final straw for teams on the bubble.
While this may seem like a negative point for fans of the smaller, independent clubs, it can also have a positive, though unintended consequence. Some owners may be inclined to take the drop, as has already happened. Once the League One route is closed, however, a new wave of ownership could make its way into the league. New clubs that have formed, and existing ones that have been purchased, are far more likely to invest in player academies, soccer-specific stadiums, and other measures to make the team viable for the long-term. As older ownerships feel the pinch, others could see the opportunity and push another wave of growth for the Championship.
Salary Structure Will Change
As things stand today, the USL does not operate with a salary cap. And unlike Major League Soccer, there are no sets of rules regarding player rights, designated players, or inter-league trades. This setup has been attractive for players with an eye for Europe, who have concerns about how MLS might interfere in their move. With the new CBA, however, it would be reasonable to expect that things will change.
It is highly unlikely that the league would want to copy MLS’ arcane and complex salary rules. Also, the league most likely will (at first) try to avoid bringing along other American sports practices like inter-team trades or a draft. The introduction of a salary cap, however, should be anticipated. Owners will want to raise salaries at a controlled rate, and the cap has been an effective measure of doing that in other American sports. It’s also going to be important for the league to make sure that the smaller teams can keep up with the changing landscape. All of this will limit how much players can make while giving teams and supporters something else to keep track of during the year.
One positive change a salary cap would bring would be to close the gap between the top and bottom earners. Some USL players can earn more money as a starter for a top team, while others don’t make enough to live independently. That gap has been a black mark on the league and represents the dangers of the current system. A salary cap, combined with a salary floor, will take a step towards validating USL’s claim of operating a premier competition.
FIFA Could Be Coming Soon
USL fans have dreamed of playing their clubs in the world’s most popular sports game franchise for a long time. Each time a new edition comes out, the game is scrutinized to see if the United States finally gets its second division represented. With a CBA in place, the league will take a large step closer to making that a reality.
In a recent interview, the league mentioned that there have been discussions about placing USL into the game. One major hurdle has been how to distribute payments for player likenesses, which can be easily addressed during negotiations. With that in place, USL will be in prime position to receive much greater exposure than they have ever received. And as FIFA players start to explore this league, the potential for growth and revenue increase will only add to the foundation USL has laid.
Smart Risks Are Better for Everyone
There are many positives from this announcement for all parties involved. USL, by voluntarily welcoming this change, appear serious in improving the conditions for their players. They also appear serious in making the Championship a legitimate force in not only American soccer, but all of the American sports. The players are cautiously optimistic that they will finally receive the pay they deserve for the work they put into the league, along with insurance and other benefits that many of us take for granted.
As long as both sides take measured steps toward building the league, the future is bright. Not all issues will be resolved in this CBA, and expectations should be reasonable. The USL is still finding its legs, and a smart approach will give it, and it’s players, a base to build a brighter future for everyone.