Politicians scrutinized Canada Soccer officials about their contentious deal with Canadian Soccer Business in a hearing in Ottawa on Monday, and made it clear they’re not done probing. The heritage committee called three more people for questioning later this month, including former Canada Soccer president Nick Bontis.
Three leaders from soccer’s national body defended their contract with CSB under questioning from MPs Monday – a deal top players believe hamstrings the organization’s ability to capitalize on their popularity.
Conservative MP Kevin Waugh framed the issue in plain language.
“The men boycotted the game in Vancouver last year, the women nearly walked off the field in the United States. You got a big problem here,” Waugh said. “The problem is they want to follow the money.”
Canada Soccer testified the deal was properly approved by its board of governors, and said it is in talks to “modernize” its terms.
General secretary Earl Cochrane testified that prior to the CSB agreement, Canada Soccer was spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to broadcast women’s and men’s games because no Canadian broadcaster was willing to pay for it.
According to the agreement, CSB pays Canada Soccer a guaranteed annual fee, beginning with a $3-million payment in 2019 and escalating each year, topping out at $3.5-million in 2027 for the rights to its broadcast and marketing assets.
“There are drawbacks of the agreement with CSB. But we hope to resolve those issues shortly,” Cochrane said. “We are listening and responding to what the players and technical staff need.”
Cochrane said Canada Soccer hopes to modernize two things in the deal. They want to access to incremental revenue, and to renegotiate the duration of the contract.
Liberal MP Anthony Housefather probed the Canada Soccer representatives to clarify whether the board formally ratified the contract, when it did so, and how thoroughly it scrutinized the terms. Housefather demanded to know “who did the shoddy negotiation of this agreement?”
Board member Paul-Claude Berube testified that the board approved the deal on March 27, 2018, and the deal took effect Jan. 1, 2019.
“I can tell you clearly it was supported and for good reason,” Berube told the committee. “If the agreement would no longer be useful to us on a long-term basis, we could certainly undertake to bring it to an end, but that’s not what we’re aiming for. Our aim is to renegotiate.”
It was the second time this month the committee heard testimony about Canada Soccer’s ongoing labour dispute with its top players, including their differing stances on the CSB deal. On March 9, the committee questioned four members of Canada’s women’s national team: Janine Beckie, Christine Sinclair, Sophie Schmidt and Quinn.
In that two-hour hearing, the players alleged Canada Soccer is not financially transparent, has a culture of secrecy and does not give the women’s program resources that are equal to the men’s.
MPs on Monday expressed frustration that they didn’t get all the officials they requested for this hearing. While Cochrane did testify as they requested, he was joined by two board members they did not invite, instead of Bontis, whom they did.
The committee motioned for Bontis to appear before March is through, after he missed Monday’s meeting for a personal reason. It also called for chief financial officer Sean Heffernan and another former Canada Soccer president – Victor Montagliani – who is now president of CONCACAF.
In a letter addressed to the committee last week – a copy of which was obtained by The Globe and Mail – Bontis’s lawyer said he would be in no state of mind to testify at Monday’s meeting, after receiving news of a death.
Over the past year, Bontis was the victim in a criminal harassment case, the letter said, which led to the Hamilton Police Service charging a person, and Bontis learned last Wednesday that the person had unexpectedly died.
Cochrane told The Globe and Mail that Bontis had initially committed to testify and that his plans only changed after hearing that news. The former Canada Soccer president stepped down from the volunteer role in February, following letters from the provincial and territorial associations expressing doubt in his leaders and requesting his resignation.
The committee did press Canada Soccer’s three representatives on Monday for a reaction to something Sinclair testified about Bontis.
Sinclair, soccer’s career leading international goal scorer, recounted a specific interaction she had with Bontis last year. Sinclair alleged that after she outlined the compensation asked on behalf of her team, Bontis later referred back to it as, “What was it Christine was bitching about?” Sinclair said she’d never been “more insulted.”
Cochrane said the comment “does not represent how we view Christine Sinclair, and the esteem which we hold her in.”
Board member Stephanie J. Geosits added that, “That comment was unequivocally out of line and contrary to our values.”
Canada’s women’s team is ranked No. 6 in the world and preparing for this summer’s Women’s World Cup. It has been without a labour contract since the previous one expired at the end of 2021. It agreed in principle with Canada Soccer on compensation for 2022 but is still without a deal going forward that addresses the other issues the team has raised.
The 53rd-ranked men, fresh off Qatar – their first World Cup appearance since 1986 – are negotiating their first formal labour agreement.
All three parties are also discussing an overarching collective bargaining agreement that would assure pay equity. Both teams have taken job action in the past 12 months.
The hearings are part of the heritage committee’s Safe Sport in Canada research. It probed Hockey Canada executives in 2022, which led to significant change in that organization’s leadership.