Lost in the news of major DP signings and the Frank Lampard fiasco is MLS’ ongoing CBA negotiations. Now as teams begin preparations for the 2015 season, the war of words has begun on both sides. MLS’ current structure is by no means perfect, even if the discussion on single-entity is avoided entirely. But the issue that could derail the start of an important term is free agency, or the lack thereof in MLS. According to a key player such as Michael Bradley, the issue may be worth striking over. Is that worth it for the MLSPA, or is the league right to hold firm as they’ve done for years?
Currently, MLS has free agency in a very warped form. Most player contracts in the league have team options, which if declined puts a player into something called a re-entry draft. It has 2 stages where players can be taken either on their old contracts or with the possibility of a new one. If they don’t get picked up, then they do become bonafide free agents. But there are also waivers, rights retentions, and the variety of different contract rules that make understanding MLS a mess.
The argument from MLS HQ is that the league is still too young for complete free agency as seen in Europe and the rest of the world, and those salaries for free agents would be inflated to the point of garishness. It’s part of “cost certainty” in order to allow the league to grow at a controlled pace, and at an even pace. The players argue that the lack of free agency deters many players from coming to MLS, and deflates the ability of the league to attract bigger and better players when it can because of the lack of a true free agency.
Cutting through the rhetoric… both have their points, but both are missing the bigger picture. The 4 major North American pro sports do not have “true” free agency, instead opting for a system based on either time of service (MLB, NFL) or age (NHL) when determining un-restricted free agency. MLS can establish unrestricted free agency based on years of service or age, whatever they’d choose to negotiate and keep that within a single entity structure that already exists. If the MLSPA is truly gung-ho on true free agency without strings attached, then not only will there be a strike, but it could last a long time.
Tied in with free agency is the debate about salaries. Some, like Chicago Fire homegrown player Harrison Shipp, are not fans of the salary inequality on MLS teams. He singled out Sebastian Giovinco in a tweet where he said, “I wonder if (he) knows that he will literally make more money in 2 days than some of his teammates will the entire year”. The disparity between players making the league minimum (somewhere around $35,000 a year) and those making exorbitant DP salaries is immense, but this exists even on major European teams, but not necessarily to this degree. The market for those players making the minimum in MLS doesn’t exist coming out of college or signing HGP deals in the US (NASL isn’t offering better money to drop down a level, USL Pro is a B-league at this stage), or in Europe due to work permit issues for solely American nationals outside of Scandinavia, which is why those salaries can be deflated. While the minimum salary in MLS is likely going to increase in these CBA negotiations, the disparity between top earners and the grafters of the league isn’t going to get much smaller.
The debate about free agency and salary disparity in MLS is one that the start of the 2015 season hinges on, and with so much riding on this season, MLS and the MLSPA can ill afford to get these negotiations wrong. Both sides will leave with unfulfilled goals from the bargaining table, but the one non-negotiable item should be starting the season on time, regardless of whether it’s Michael Bradley or Harrison Shipp calling for a strike.
Cutting through the bargaining tactics and rhetoric, more eyeballs are going to be on the league this season, which is something MLS has desperately needed for years.
Don Garber and company better hope they’re watching soccer on March 6th from Carson.
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