Pandemic leaves USL and its players in difficult place

The USL Players Association and USL are locked in one of the most difficult labor negotiations any U.S. sports league and its bargaining agent have waged since the coronavirus pandemic hit in March.

The USLPA went public with its latest position on Tuesday when it released a statement that many USL players make less than a livable wage and rejected the USL's proposal for "extreme wage decreases."

The negotiations between the USL and USLPA are complicated because the parties are dealing with the economic reality of the shutdown that is in its third month with no end in sight and still trying to finalize a collective bargaining agreement. The players might not have a CBA in place, but they have signed standard player contracts that don't contain clauses like Major League Baseball has in its standard player contracts that give MLB clubs tremendous leverage over their players in case the baseball season doesn't start or is cut short.

In November 2018, the USL recognized the USL Players Association as an independent labor union and the exclusive bargaining representative of the players. In February 2019, the USL and USLPA began negotiations on a collective bargaining agreement. As recently as in January, the USLPA termed meetings with the USL in Tampa as "constructive and beneficial" and stated it looked forward to further talks to finalize an agreement.

Then the coronavirus arrived.

The USL Championship was shut down after the first week of the season and has not played since. Teams in the USL Championship (and third-division USL League One, which recognized the USLPA in February) are particularly vulnerable because their dependence on game-day revenue makes playing games behind closed doors problematic.

Two weeks ago, Bobby Epstein, owner of the second-year Austin Bold, told the Austin American-Statesman that "unless fans can come to the games, there’s little reason to have them."

The USL Championship has grown to 35 teams since its launch in 2011, ranging from MLS second teams and MLS affiliates to independent teams, many owned by sports entrepreneurs like Epstein, who owns Circuit of the Americas, home of the United States Grand Prix. The diversity of backgrounds of the USL owners is one of its strengths, but finding consensus among them in a time of crisis isn't easy.

Ten USL Championship teams averaged more than 6,000 fans a game in 2019. They include Nashville SC, which joined MLS this season, and Sacramento Republic FC, which will move to MLS in 2022. The USL also includes Louisville City FC, which was slated to opens Lynn Family Stadium, its new $65 million stadium, when play was halted. On the other hand, there are six teams, including Austin, that averaged less than 4,000 fans a game in 2019.

Unlike MLS, which is a single-entity owned collectively by its 26 teams, the USL is a franchise business, formed in 2009 when NuRock Soccer Holdings bought the league from Nike and Rob Hoskins became chairman and Alec Papadakis was named CEO.

The talks between the USL and USLPA have reached the point that the league and players have exchanged formal proposals on how to get through the 2020 season.

The Athletic reported that the USL wants changes to the standard player contracts, inserting return-to-work protocols and force majeure clauses protecting the league if play resumes or if the season is called off, and a pay-cut down to as low as $1,500 a month and, if play resumes, incremental cuts of 20 percent above as little as $1,000 to as much as 80 percent on earnings above $4,000 per month after the first $1,000.

The USLPA responded that the standard player contract was enforceable throughout its entire term whether or not play resumes. But it added that the players recognized their role within "a second division ecosystem that has been unstable for years," and outlined a counter-proposal.

Players would take a 10 percent cut in all remaining salaries over $2,000 a month in return for ...

1. The league itself matching the players’ salary cuts;
2. An agreement from clubs to a minimum salary of $20,000 beginning in 2021; and
3. The league agreeing to increase its bargaining frequency to every 14 days until a collective bargaining agreement is reached.

The USL's recognition of the USL Players Association in 2018 was heralded as an important step for the league. Neither party expected the circumstances that make finalizing a CBA now so difficult 18 months later.
mls, usl
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