Connor Tobin on the USL's historic CBA: Partnering for growth and protecting players

When he's not playing center back for Forward Madison FC in USL League One, 34-year-old Connor Tobin serves on the executive committee of the USL Players Association (USLPA). With a dozen years of pro experience, including stints with the Rochester Rhinos, Minnesota Stars and North Carolina FC, he's been around long enough to witness how far the standards of lower division soccer have risen, and the need for a players association to better represent the needs of the athletes. He helped found the USLPA in 2018, and after a long, complex process at the negotiating table, a groundbreaking collective bargaining agreement (CBA) was ratified in October of 2021.

SOCCER AMERICA: Hey Connor, how's your day going so far?

CONNOR TOBIN: Oh man, today has been chaotic. There was some stuff that came up for Oklahoma City and their status in the USL Championship for this next year. That becomes player issues for guys under contract and so on and so forth. Oklahoma is having some stadium venue issues so they are going on hiatus for 2022. No one wants to go on hiatus but with having to find a new venue and the league wanting to get out a schedule, it all got screwed up. But we do have guys under contract for next year — what happens with those guys?

SA: That's a good question. What does happen?

CONNOR TOBIN: We're working with the club to make sure that if the guy wants to play, do you figure out a loan move? How cooperative is the club with that? Other guys might say, 'Hey, it's really important for me to be in this area,' or if I'm an international it's, 'What's really important to me is my visa.'

SA: When and how did you get active on the players association side of the game?

CONNOR TOBIN: Oh man. I mean, one of the joys for being a lower division guy — a lifer at this level — is I had seen enough where players in the generation before had always said there was a need for a players association to protect players. I had seen enough earlier in my career, particularly in the [new] NASL days, and I had done a little research. And then the NASL fell away and USL looked to be the league for the lower divisions.

There was a huge opportunity to approach the league from a standpoint of, 'Hey, let's be partners in this. We want this to be stable. This is in the best interest of everyone.' There was a group of players that I was in with at the start of 2018 — it just so happened that I had built a relationship with Steve Gans following the U.S. Soccer presidential election that year. I had reached out to him — he had run on a platform of change — and talked to him about the idea of something that was really needed. So we connected all the parts that year and went through the process of organizing in 2018.

The carrot that's always out there is collective bargaining. So naturally, I fell into that piece.

USLPA Executive Committee Members (L to R): Connor Tobin, Trey Mitchell and Tom Heinemann.

SA: Talk about the importance of the CBA and a players association for the USL's success and viability?

CONNOR TOBIN: When you're talking about the stature of the league, how legitimate is it, how do you take care of the people that are creating the league — having a formal seat at the table for multiple stakeholders is really important. So, I don't think any league that has gone under has done itself any favors by not including players in some of the decision-making.

Now, I'm totally aware that as we grow the sport in the country, there's a balancing act in all of this and getting a lot of different stakeholders in the middle to create value and to create sustainability. But I do believe players are an important part of that.

SA: You’ve said this CBA is more than three years in the making ... tell us a bit about the process. The different parts and teams at the negotiating table?

CONNOR TOBIN: We spent almost all of 2018 organizing, not bargaining. A lot of that was not public. I don't think we approached the league as an organization until August of that year. So what we were doing was building out the communication network, talking to players about the changes that they felt they needed in the league — getting to players to gauge, 'Is this something we should go down?' 'What should be the purpose of this organization?'

Towards to the end of 2018 we approached the league and to the league's credit we got voluntary recognition to be the collective bargaining agent on behalf of USL Championship players.

One of the twists and turns of this is that during this time USL League One got announced so as we went into 2019 we actually went into a separate organization process for League One players. So we're technically, as the USLPA, an umbrella organization where we have two separate bargaining units under our umbrella.

The collective bargaining process started in February of 2019. I don't think a lot of people understand the complexity and the number of different parties that were represented at the table. If you think about USL Championship players, we have roughly 600 players. Well, how do 600 players agree on, 'What are our strategic priorities?' 'What are the tradeoff choices?' How do you get consensus around that? That's only for us internally.

Then we talk about the league and its teams, right? They're not monolithic. So the league has a vested interest on how this goes. But we have different clubs — you can segment clubs into, 'Are they MLS 2?' 'Are they independent?' 'What's their business model?' There are times it felt like there were 30-35 different clubs and desires.

So we talk about, again, how do we define collective value? It's very very difficult. There's no comparable league in terms of the economics, in terms of the business model within a franchise system. So, yes, you can go look at other collective bargaining agreements, but in a lot of ways, we had to design a lot of unique solutions around it. And that's a really hard process to go from zero to one, to have people to agree across a vast range of constituents on what that looks like and what are the consequences of it.

(Editor's note: MLS has had a CBA since 2004. After nine seasons, the NWSL still does not have a CBA. Minor League Baseball, the biggest of the USA's lower-division pro sports organizations, has never had a CBA. Key points of the USL's CBA: A minimum compensation structure -- beginning at $2,700 a month in 2022 to $3,100 in 2025; new standards for player contracts (covering such things as per diem payments and appearances) and arbitration and grievance procedures; new standards for working conditions (start dates, number of games, days off, bereavement and family leave.)

SA: You mentioned collective value. What does that look like from a player's perspective?

CONNOR TOBIN: First and foremost, we want a formal seat at the table and we want to feel like our voice matters — like we at least have some say in decision-making here. Getting recognized from a legal perspective — giving us the opportunity to bargain over workplace environment and conditions that we fall under helps us do that.

I think in terms of players — we're heard loud and clear. there are certain economic standards that needed to be set. There was never any sort of floor in anything. There was a bunch of stuff in the day-to-day experience — again, there is a wide range of clubs — that we started to standardize and say, 'Hey, you're a professional player in this country, even if you're lower division, we know you're entitled to this level of experience.'

There was such a wide range of things that were going on in the last 25 years, so that was really important.

SA: You say you're a lower division lifer — could you speak of how the lack of floor and the lack of a promised experience affects a player at your level?

CONNOR TOBIN: Yeah, man. It's weird for me because I've lived that situation, right? I played for Minnesota back in the NASL in 2013 — to make ends meet, we had five guys living in a two-bedroom apartment. I had my mattress behind the couch with a seat over it.

At the same time, I look back on that and those are great memories for me — but I also was very cognizant that this is not what professional soccer seems like, and I don't want the next kid to make that tradeoff choice of having to make a financial decision when determining whether to pursue their passion.

There's tons of examples of this — what axis do you want to look on? A lot of our bargaining committee and executive board are veterans so we've had a range of experiences. I look at things like, 'What happens when a guy has an injury and disagrees with the club about the extent to that injury? Who gets to pursue a second opinion?

I knew a guy for a team I played for complain about knee problems and it took 3-4 months before they actually got an MRI — turns out he had played for that time on a torn ACL/MCL. That's a bit of a horror story but it could be other small stuff. Other clubs say, 'You gotta be at the airport at such and such time. Well, you're not getting reimbursed for parking.'

We've never had standards and we've never been able to say collectively, 'Hey, this is not something people should be experiencing.'

SA: What do the USL clubs see in terms of collective value? What were they looking for?

CONNOR TOBIN: For me, it's how do we grow this sport in our communities. We grow the sport and grow the eyeballs that are on it. People coming to games, engagement with people, fans — we're growing the revenue of the sport, which is good for the owners who own the franchises and it's good for the league who sells the franchises. And it's good for players because we should be cut into that upside as well. Collective value is how do we stabilize things and promote growth. How do we do things to give the sport in our USL communities a chance to continue to expand and really embed themselves and be community assets.

SA: Talk about the impetus for this CBA?

CONNOR TOBIN: I think there is a range here of different motivations within this. A big part of this is people saying, 'We're getting to a tipping point with the sport in this country that to continue to move it forward we have to continue to professionalize and up the experience of what this is at these divisions.'

That way, if you're a kid growing up playing in this country, not only can you say, 'I want to be a soccer player,' it's actually viable and people can make a living doing this. I think there's a recognition from everyone that this is the natural next step to continue to progress things.

SA: How did Covid impact the negotiations?

CONNOR TOBIN: Oh man. Covid certainly extended the negotiation process. We had to deal with return to play. What did that look like? At the Championship level that was not just, 'What are the protocols?' It was actually what the impact on the business was going to be. Initially wage cuts were proposed. How do we navigate that? That was quite a contentious point.

A lot of players were not very happy. From our end, that certainly unified players. Walking through that process — not that we didn't have trust from our players — definitely moved us forward in terms of players realizing the value of us having a players association that was for players and by players.

Front and center of this whole thing was the pace of change. We knew this league was going to evolve. How quickly do we evolve? Getting that right and really, how do move the economic conditions in a meaningful way. But don't move so quickly where we destabilize and lose 10 franchises.

A lot of the issues where the was disagreement was due to things like player movement, how substantial is the economic floor going to be, and what the terms would be. It's really hard to pinpoint this stuff because some of the minutiae this gets down into took a lot of time. The things that seem straightforward had a lot of time and intentionality in there. That doesn't mean we haven't covered every single issue — CBAs are always living and breathing documents, so it's about improving the next iteration.

SA: What were some of the biggest wins for the players in this CBA?

CONNOR TOBIN: Creating standardized economic conditions cannot be understated here. The next big piece is standardizing the experience — some people might not appreciate what this is, but it's like, let's say a club wants a player appearance. How much notice do you get? How far away does it have to be to get reimbursed for mileage? What's the time limit? The final piece — not every player will feel it — is the tangible player protection piece of this. When you do have a contractual issue, having a body to turn to and a process that is more accessible and expedited has real and significant value.


SAWhat is the short-term view of the USL and the long-term view of the USL? How does the CBA account for both of those realities?

CONNOR TOBIN: Short term, does this get everyone walking in the same direction? No, but it starts to. When you think about the range that clubs operate on, and the range of divergent business practices — what this CBA does is orienting all the players, clubs, leagues in a general similar direction.

In the long-term future, I think there's a bunch out there to continue to make sure to narrow where people are going and my opinion the more focused we could be about that, the bigger opportunity we have to grow this league and these clubs.

SA: The five-year deal is the first collective bargaining agreement for a lower-division soccer league in the USA. What does that say about the status of U.S. professional soccer these days as compared to, say, 10 years ago when there was a lot more uncertainty around the lower divisions of the game? What does it say about the future of American soccer?

CONNOR TOBIN: It's an interesting question because every offseason there tends to be this crazy period. Sometimes it's leagues coming and going, clubs coming and going, clubs going to different leagues, etc. It's funny to talk to younger players about this and it's hard for them to wrap their head around it when I tell them, 'This is amazing compared to what was 10 years ago.'

Look at the sheer volume of teams around now. We keep on taking two steps forward and one step back, but progress is hardly ever linear. If we take a big enough view of lower-division soccer, there's no question in my mind, over the last 10 or 15 years, that we have moved forward. Can you imagine 15 years ago if someone was building a stadium like what Louisville has built? Or what the Switchbacks have built? There's so much more development and if we take a step back and pull our heads out of the weeds a little bit — there has been a lot of growth.

It's still brick by brick and connecting people, developing those relationships — that's how we get sustainable. I've said all along, clubs and players are partners in this. Clubs provide the benefit to the communities, but it's the players doing the work on a lot of this. I'm hopeful of where this is going and having a CBA pushes us to continue to work together in meaningful ways to grow that sense of community.

2 comments about "Connor Tobin on the USL's historic CBA: Partnering for growth and protecting players".
  1. James Madison, December 9, 2021 at 2:49 p.m.

    Fascinating story.  Very comprehensive thinking guy.  The soccer world needs more like him.

  2. Robert Robertson, December 9, 2021 at 4:41 p.m.

    I am confused about USL and MLS Division2.  Are they more or less in competition?  What are the lower levels.  Thanks

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