The likelihood of Switchbacks FC's next home game being its first at the new downtown stadium in 2021 is growing due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and stalled labor negotiations between the United Soccer League and its players union.
"Amidst all the variables currently in play, the Switchbacks desire to find a path back to playing games in Colorado Springs with limited fans this summer," club president Nick Ragain told The Gazette on Thursday.
The USL acknowledged the United Soccer League Players Association (USLPA) as the players’ bargaining agent in 2018, but the sides are still without a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) more than a year later. The most recent discussions about what a return to play this season looks like, which are separate from CBA negotiations, started with the USL reaching out to the USLPA about pay cuts May 7.
Though negotiations exist between the league and players' association, it's been a challenging start to the year for many clubs, too. With the likelihood of a limited home games, front offices are dealing with decreased revenue. The Switchbacks' front office remains hopeful fans will enter Weidner Field in some capacity before the anticipated opening of the new downtown stadium for the 2021 season.
According to The Athletic’s Jeff Rueter, the most recent negotiations have seen the USLPA offer a 10% pay cut for any player making more than $2,000 per month in an attempt to ease the financial burden the suspension of play has had on teams and in turn requested a league-wide minimum annual salary of $20,000 starting in 2021. There currently is no minimum salary. The league’s counter offer Tuesday featured a 30% cut on every dollar a player makes in excess of $1,500 per month, guaranteed only two weeks of severance play should the 2020 season not resume and did not include a minimum salary for next season. There was reportedly no mention of any financial relief to clubs coming from the league, another request from the USLPA.
“I think we as players feel that the proposal that we received was - I’m trying to think of the right word here - wasn’t appropriate,” said Connor Tobin, a 33-year-old Fort Collins native who plays for Forward Madison FC and serves on the USLPA’s executive committee.
Jordan Burt, a right back in his sixth year with this Switchbacks and the club’s USLPA player representative, hopes younger players will be better protected by any future agreement between the league and its players.
“When I was in North Carolina as a rookie, I had zero idea about the professional soccer ecosystem and was willing to take any opportunity to sign a contract, no matter what it was. This resulted in me spending the first two years working part time for a software startup,” Burt told The Gazette on Wednesday. “This isn't uncommon in our league but I think the biggest reason we need representation is because too many players get taken advantage of. Raising the overall level of professionalism is only going to make the league better and U.S. soccer better as a whole.”
Agencies representing USL players, including Ascension Athletes and First Wave Sports International, released statements Tuesday that read “these proposals were one-sided and designed to supersede each USL Player’s valid and enforceable contract,” and expressed support for the USLPA’s “position to reject the initial USL proposals’ terms and disapproves the manner the USL presented them.”
As the #StandWithThePlayers hashtag was shared on social media by players throughout the league Tuesday, including many on the Switchbacks’ roster, the USL released a statement.
“We come to work every day to grow and improve our league. That was our mindset when we first voluntarily recognized the USLPA and that continues to be our mindset today,” the release reads. “It’s important to remember that collective bargaining is difficult even in the most normal of times, and that the COVID-19 crisis has only amplified that difficulty.”
Tobin called himself a “lower-division lifer” after playing in many iterations of the USL and North American Soccer League and complemented the USL for its recognition of the players’ association, something that he said had not happened before, and the growth of the league itself.
“You don’t have to look too hard to see that the league has really been on a great trajectory,” Tobin said.
That progress has included growth from 14 teams in 2014, the year before the Switchbacks started play, to 35 participating in the 2020 USL Championship season. The USL has also added amateur youth leagues, created a League One, which Forward Madison is a part of, and rebranded its professional development league into League Two. The growth boosted business. According to The Athletic’s report, the USL has made roughly $77 million from 15 independent teams joining the Championship since 2017, while adding roughly $8 million in annual dues from the top league in the USL pyramid.
Meanwhile, Tobin said many players still take on outside work to supplement their income.
“I’ve done a range of stuff,” he said, mentioning coaching and offseason jobs. “Maybe at some point I’ll write a book because there’s pretty funny things in there.”
Burt and Tobin both played for Carolina RailHawks, now North Carolina FC, in the North American Soccer League, which folded in 2017.
“We really believe in the value the (clubs) provide, and I think from the players’ end, not only do we want to play, but we want to make sure that those clubs survive, and we’re willing to play a part in that,” Tobin said. “But the solution to this needs to be probably a more balanced solution than what was originally proposed.”
The connection between the Switchbacks and its fans is one of the reasons Burt stays with Colorado Springs, despite the club's recent struggles.
“I love this community and I love the Switchbacks. It means the world to me to know the Trailheads by name, to be able to work with Pride soccer players, and to work for a club that is so community oriented,” Burt said. “I am here for the people I get to interact with because of soccer and those relationships fuel me to keep playing. I speak for the entire team when I say we are grateful to be a part of this team and community and believe that if the league, the players, and the clubs act in good faith for the future of the USL, we all will come out on top and grow through this trying time.”
Reporting by The Athletic and SocTakes indicates there is no “force majeure” clause, which would provide the league a way out of paying contracts due to extraordinary events, in the standard USL contract.
Nipun Chopra, of SocTakes, reported the USL could attempt to void contracts should the 2020 season be canceled by claiming impossibility. A lawyer unaffiliated with the USL or USLPA quoted in Chopra’s report said the validity of the league’s impossibility argument could ride on the wording of contracts and added there is no real precedent for the current situation. The USLPA said “the standard player contracts are valid, enforceable and guaranteed contracts throughout their entire term whether there is a playing season or not,” in a statement released Tuesday.
“I think now during some of this, we’re seeing some of the importance of having a platform for players,” Tobin said.