Labor Woes Pushing MLS to the Brink

The Major League Soccer season is scheduled to start on March 25 when the Seattle Sounders host the expansion Philadelphia Union.

Of course, with the owners and players trying to hammer out an collective bargaining agreement to replace the one that expired back in January, that date is hardly written in ink.

It is encouraging that MLS president Mark Abbott is on record as saying there won’t be a lockout, but it has me wondering.

If things like free agency are really as important to the players as recent quotes from Jimmy Conrad and Pat Onsted suggest, could we have a strike on our hands?

It doesn’t take very long to go over the history of work stoppages in major sports in the United States – and the adverse affect it had on the the respective sports.

In 2004, the NHL scrapped its entire season. The results for that league in terms of revenue and fan interest are still being felt.

Baseball’s mid-season work stoppage in 1994 resulted in the death of the Montreal Expos (now the Washington Nationals), and the rise of the steroid era (as owners looked the other way in the name of putting fans back in the stands and reviving TV interest in the sport.)

All of that makes me wonder what might happen is the MLS players decide to decline the league’s offer to start the season under the existing CBA?

Frankly, I’m not sure the league could survive a lost season.

The economy, while better than is was a few months ago, is still running at less than full power. Even under perfect labor conditions, you’d have to figure that this might be a down year in terms of revenue for clubs. If the 15th season of MLS doesn’t happen, you’re going to have owners, both old and new, looking for the escape hatch.

Sponsors and TV partners would be left out in the cold as well, something they wouldn’t be likely to forgive and forget down the line.

Fan support will be affected as well.

Hardcore MLS supporters will be heartbroken and understandably bitter, and by extension, slow to embrace the league when it irons out its labor wrinkles.

Casual sports fans will shrug and watch more baseball, setting back the growth curve of American soccer for a decade or so.

I’d like to believe that Abbott and union boss Bob Foose understand that a work stoppage is the last thing that either side wants or needs.

But I said that about the hockey and baseball disputes, and we know how those turned out.


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