Contract dispute could hurt Canada's World Cup push, game's growth: experts

·7 min read

VANCOUVER — Experts say the well of goodwill created by the on-field success of Canada's soccer teams in recent months is quickly drying up amid a heated contract dispute between the men's national squad and Canada Soccer, the sport's national governing body.

A friendly game between Canada and Panama was called off at the last minute on Sunday when the athletes refused to play. Training sessions in Vancouver on Friday and Saturday were also cancelled due to the prolonged negotiations.

"This is probably the last thing Canada Soccer wanted to have happen," said Tom Mayenknecht, a Vancouver-based sports marketing expert. "This game was essentially a de facto celebration of the historic qualification for (the 2022 World Cup in) Qatar, and this is the exact opposite of what I think they needed."

The players returned to training in Vancouver on Monday after issuing a statement saying they had not reached a new agreement with Canada Soccer.

"We move forward in hopes that Canada Soccer will work with us to resolve the situation," the statement said.

Hundreds of fans clad in red and white jerseys were left lingering outside of B.C. Place after Sunday's game was cancelled.

While fans are sympathetic when an ailment like a sore throat or COVID-19 keeps their favourite singer or athlete from performing, they're less understanding when an event is scrubbed because of contract issues, said Moshe Lander, a sports economist at Concordia University.

“It doesn't matter how principled it is," he said. "It just rubs people the wrong way."

The contract dispute could also hurt efforts to draw in new soccer fans during a crucial time for Canadian soccer, Lander added.

“When you're trying to drum up interest in soccer, and really kind of get people excited … you can't afford to have these public relations snafus, even if they are principled," he said. "It's not the time to do it.”

Canada's national soccer teams have seen huge success on the world stage recently, with the men's team qualifying for the World Cup for the first time since 1986 and the women's side capturing gold at the Tokyo Olympics last summer.

And with Canada co-hosting the 2026 World Cup alongside the U.S. and Mexico, the sport is primed for big growth across the country, Mayenknecht said — but only if Canada Soccer and the players can work through their issues.

“I feel the danger, the slippery slope that this whole thing represents, is that you don't take full advantage of the next five years," he said.

"That's also historic, the fact that you've got not only the qualification for Qatar, but you've got the guaranteed qualification for (the 2026 World Cup). And that back-to-back, I can't say enough, from a business point of view, how golden an opportunity it is to completely remake the Canadian corporate DNA when it comes to investment in soccer.”

The men's team issued a statement on Sunday saying they've been in talks with Canada Soccer over a new deal since March and called a proposal the organization put forward on Thursday an "archaic offer."

The players said they want more transparency from Canada Soccer, changes in the organization's leadership, and World Cup compensation that includes 40 per cent of prize money and a "comprehensive friends and family package'' for Qatar.

In the statement, the athletes apologized to fans and said they hope Canada Soccer will take "decisive steps" to work with the team so they can be back on the field Thursday, when Canada is scheduled to host Curaçao in a CONCACAF Nations League game at B.C. Place.

Canada Soccer president Nick Bontis told reporters on Sunday that the organization cannot afford to meet the players' demands, but has presented the athletes with a "fair offer."

"Canada Soccer has been working with the players in good faith to find a path forward that is fair and equitable to all," he said.

The players also said they want a review of a 10-year deal between Canada Soccer and Canadian Soccer Business that gives the latter the ability to represent both the men's and women's national teams in all sponsorship and broadcast deals.

Bontis defended the agreement on Sunday, saying it is "pivotal" to building the sport in Canada.

Canadian Soccer Business chair Scott Mitchell issued a statement saying he "fully supports" the call for more transparency from Canada Soccer.

"We are proud of our agreement with Canada Soccer and what it means to the Canadian soccer ecosystem,'' he said. "We are prepared to be fully transparent about our agreement which has included an unprecedented amount of revenue to Canada Soccer in the past 18 months in the forms of sponsorship and international media dollars.''

It's not unusual for national sports organizations to sign outside deals to handle sponsorships or broadcast rights if those areas are beyond their expertise, said Mike Naraine, an assistant professor of sports management at Brock University.

“The problem that that creates, though, from a sport business perspective, is that you're now beholden to that corporation, to that conglomerate, and you're essentially under the gun for the length of that contract and trying to break that contract," he said. "It's going to be costly, it's going to be too much money. And so you pretty much have to suck it up.

"And that's the problem in getting into a long-term contractual deal."

Canada Soccer's sponsorships are "negligible" compared to other national sports organizations across the country, Naraine added.

"Curling Canada just found a gambling sponsor. There's no reason why Canada soccer couldn't do that," he said. "But again, they can't do that because Canadian Soccer Business (controls) sponsorship.”

The contract dispute is not the only recent public misstep for Canada Soccer.

The organization was also heavily criticized last month for inviting Iran to play a friendly in Vancouver.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the invitation "wasn't a very good idea." Families of Canadians killed when an Iranian surface-to-air missile shot down a flight in January 2020 said they felt disrespected by the planned game.

More than 40,000 tickets for the Canada-Iran game were sold before it was cancelled by Canada Soccer on May 26. Panama was named as the replacement opponent on May 31.

Between the Canada-Iran game and the contract dispute, Canada Soccer is "completely derailing" all the momentum built up by the national teams' recent success, said Naraine.

"These are momentous occasions for the game and the country," he said. "And to have the Iranian situation and to have this pay situation, again, is another egg on the face of Canada Soccer."

With less than six months to go before the World Cup kicks off in Qatar, Canada is losing valuable training time as the contract dispute continues.

Bontis said head coach John Herdman had 16 training days available at the beginning of the current international window. By Sunday, that number had been whittled to 14.

There's little time for Canada Soccer and the players to reach a deal if Thursday's CONCACAF Nations League game in Vancouver is going to go ahead.

What's at stake in getting a deal done, though, is bigger than what happens on the field, Mayenknecht said.

"The small financial losses of not having the game are minor compared to the loss of goodwill that could happen, including players deciding to not want to represent their country in future qualifications. And that's why it's such a slippery slope," he said.

"You want to do what you can to also give the players a sense of process that they may not be able to get everything that they're asking for, but shows Canada Soccer has heard them and Canada Soccer will certainly commit to doing business in a way that gains the trust of the players.

“The longer this thing is an open wound, the harder it will be to rebuild the trust.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 6, 2022.

Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press

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