MLS owners have leverage in CBA talks with resolute Single Entity structure in place

don-garber

To hear this disaffected Major League Soccer player tell it, hope is all but lost. Sounds like the gap between what players want in collective bargaining and what the league may be willing to concede is too vast, and some sort of work stoppage creeps toward maddening inevitability.

“We feel like we’ve made a huge effort to be reasonable, to propose things that are within the confines of the single-entity structure. At this point they’re not even humoring us with something tangible. If things stay where they are, then it’s inevitable that a work stoppage is going to happen.”

Here’s the thing: Those were words from former U.S. international Jimmy Conrad back in 2010, during the league’s previous flirtation with a potentially ruinous strike, before the current Collective Bargaining Agreement was signed.

As you know, there was no strike. Compromise was achieved, although the league and the MLS Players Union did take things into serious “squeaky bum time.” With the assistance of federal mediator George Cohen, the sides reached agreement five days before expansion Philadelphia was set to meet Seattle to open the season.

Now, less than three weeks before Major League Soccer’s landmark 20th season, here we are again. The familiar strike rhetoric having risen sporadically over the last few weeks as MLS approaches a March 6 scheduled season opener.

Players-side advocates may wince at the word “rhetoric,” but I think it’s important here. What’s going on with strike talk, most pronounced about a month ago from U.S. international Michael Bradley, sounds like “Negotiating Tactics 101.” I have some faith that the players union understands the landscape, that labor peace will be upon us and that a glorious first kick for the milepost 20th season (Chicago at L.A.) takes place with righteous punctuality.

But you never know about these things; a labor dispute 10 years ago forced cancellation of the NHL’s entire 2004-05 season. (Spoiler alert: ownership prevailed, although everyone was a loser in a fiasco that cost pro hockey dearly.)

The fact that we don’t know much about ongoing MLS negotiations says good things about prospects of resolution. Sides are mostly behaving in agreements to keep talks private; when the parties start extensively “negotiating” through the press, then we can all be worried.

OPPOSING VIEWPOINT: It’s becoming increasingly difficult to justify MLS’ flawed Single Entity policy.

Major League Soccer’s collective bargaining agreement covers a wide range of player issues. Some are fairly mundane, everything from approved hotels to per diem to 401(k) plans. Other elements of the CBA carry more weight, like guidelines on league discipline or drug testing, or the current mandate of a 6-week break for players. (We can only assume that Jurgen Klinsmann has quietly formed a lobby bent on reducing such a laggardly paced window.)

But those details will be hashed out in due time; nobody will strike over how many game tickets are issued to each player or which off-season activities are considering “hazardous” under the CBA.

The contentious issues are improving player salaries on the low end and, especially, free agency for veterans. If there is a strike, it will almost certainly be over the ongoing drive for free agency.

The current CBA expired on Jan. 31, but both sides demonstrated good sense in agreeing to no preseason strikes or lockouts. Not yet, at least. We’ll see who gets tough before the league’s landmark 20th season is set to kick off on March 6.

Picking sides in this one isn’t like labor fights in NFL, NBA or Major League Baseball, properties which exist on an entirely different financial planet.  In a less complicated world, it would be easy to look at MLS and say, “Players on the low end deserve more money, and everyone should be free to negotiate the best possible deal, wherever that may be.”

But reality bites. Professional soccer in the United States happens in a world where: A) clubs don’t make money, and; B) while MLS may be steadily climbing, the days of consequential instability are hardly a distant memory.

So it’s not so much picking the right side; this feels more like picking the wrong that’s more right. In my mind, the “wrong that is more right” is that MLS probably cannot afford the potentially destabilizing undertow of true free agency.

Maybe the world looks different in 10-20 years; perhaps outright free agency is more practical then. MLS certainly is moving in the right direction, with 20 well-funded teams. Two more are set to join in 2017 and there is a line of investors jostling for position as one or two precious spots remain before the league caps itself at 24 teams pending further notice. The best sign of increasing durability: Fifteen clubs will play in stadiums this year built for, or remodeled expressly for, MLS teams. That is amazing progress from just 10 years before.

The underfed 2005 version of MLS looked nothing like today’s heartier soul. That year, when just 12 teams competed, only four had stadiums to call their own. Back then, MLS was still more or less paying to be on national TV. Compare that to 2015, the first year of a new national TV deal that pays the league about $90 million annually.

So there certainly has been amazing progress, and players absolutely deserve some sort of incremental bump in salaries. Best guess: that will happen, as the league minimum (currently $36,500) moves moderately north.

As for that free agency quest: the facts are hard to avoid here. Officials from a league that admits to losing $100 million annually would be fools to acquiesce to a system of free agency that has fallen somewhere between “difficult” and “ruinous” in the far more affluent European leagues.

Rarely will I find myself in position of siding with very rich men. But in this case, MLS ownership has a point that a form of free agency already exists for U.S. soccer players, who are part of a global market. That is, they are free to “better deal” MLS, to cut their own agreements in Europe, Mexico, South America or elsewhere.

Labor negotiators may contend that landing jobs overseas simply isn’t practical for everyone. Well, they are correct – and that very fact underscores the danger for players. If they push too hard, they could be jumping into the ocean from the only ship in sight; there wouldn’t be a sufficiently sized vessel around to save many of them.

There simply isn’t a long list of European teams lining up for players who currently occupy the 8th, 9th or 10th spots on MLS rosters, and certainly not for those lower on the talent totem pole. Good case in point: former New England Revolution defender A.J. Soares. The versatile 26-year-old was a four-year Revs’ starter; he took his spot along the back line in last year’s MLS Cup match.

If we look at last year’s Revs’ personnel, Soares would probably rank somewhere between Nos. 6-10 as a New England roster asset. He was listed at $160,000 guaranteed last year. While nobody would confuse that for “NBA money,” it’s a great living by the standards of the great unwashed. (The median MLS salary is just north of $90,000.)

Out of contract in New England, Soares seemed to have an “in” with Verona, a Serie A side of lesser glamor. Something went sideways and he ended up training in Norway, where he may or may not be offered a contract. His situation now looks tenuous at best.

Yes, there are quite a few Clint Dempseys and Brad Guzans, U.S. born-and-bred types who successfully crashed the high-paying Euro soccer party. But those really are the exceptions; it’s just not that easy to break into European soccer.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but if MLS were to suddenly go away, a lot players earning anywhere from $40,000 – $180,000 annually would be out of a job, standing alongside the rest of us, looking for positions in law or landscaping or marketing or whatever.

The most likely outcome – especially now that a federal mediator is once again on the case – is a few steps further along the path laid out in 2010, a re-entry draft system that served as baby steps toward limited free agency. Much more than that seems unlikely. MLS, to employ the game’s vernacular, is “stuck in” on its single-entity architecture, convinced in its structural necessity to ensure long-term viability.

It’s difficult to see a scenario where MLS owners allow themselves to be dislodged fully from that position, and the Players Union probably understands that.

We’ll know in less than three weeks.

Editor’s note: Steve Davis writes a weekly column for World Soccer Talk. He shares his thoughts and opinions on US and MLS soccer topics every Wednesday, as well as news reports throughout the week. You can follow Steve on Twitter at @stevedavis90. Plus, read Steve’s other columns on World Soccer Talk

 

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11 Comments

  1. StellaWasAlwaysDown February 18, 2015
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