The beginning of the MLS season is under threat. As I wrote this article, top pundits upgraded the odds of a strike by MLS players from “50-50” to “near-certain”. Real Salt Lake owner Dell Loy Hanson was fined by the league for calling the MLS Players Union’s demand for free agency “a go-nowhere conversation” and “a foolish waste of time”. American federal mediators have been called in, as they were in 2010. These parties love extending negotiations to the last minute: that year a new collective bargaining agreement was signed five days before the season opener. But as I write it is Tuesday, March 3, and the MLS season is due to start on Friday, March 6. This is cutting it a little close. Washington soccer reporter-king Steven Goff said that DC United players might skip their upcoming CONCACAF Champions League fixture without an agreement and everybody in the MLS press, save the curiously mute league propagandists at MLSSoccer.com, is openly biting their fingernails.
We’re used to scoffing at “millionaires versus billionaires” when professional sports tangle with their unions, but that doesn’t apply here. MLS players put up with labour restrictions few would tolerate. The salary cap means that unless you’re a fancy imported designated player your wage is limited from the start. A player can be randomly sent to another country without their consent (or even advance knowledge) and no-trade clauses are unheard of. Not just trades but waivers, re-entry drafts, expansion drafts, weighted lotteries, the borderline-corrupt allocation process — small wonder few MLS players spend more than three seasons in one city. Their employment can be terminated without notice, for any reason, and they had to fight in 2010 just to get severance pay. The famous “2+2” contract, two mandatory seasons and a two-year team option, means a player doesn’t know whether he’ll be working for two years or four. And when that contract finally expires their options are limited: MLS teams retain the rights to ex-players in the same fashion that went out of baseball and hockey in the 1970s. Even players who’ve never set foot in MLS are restricted by discovery claims and allocation orders.
In exchange for all this sacrifice, many MLS players are paid less than their fans. In 2014 seven Toronto FC players, three Vancouver Whitecaps, and eleven members of the Montreal Impact earned less than $50,000*: they’d have trouble affording decent season tickets to their own games. They also have shorter careers than your average footy-goer: even the best will be out of soccer at 40 years old, just the time an office worker’s earnings are starting to peak. Their “retirement” means going to work in a different field missing decades of workplace experience: small wonder most wind up coaching soccer at some low, and low-paid, level. If you want to get rich, playing in Major League Soccer is just about the last way to do it.
A player chasing his dream of being a professional athlete can be expected to sacrifice his liberty. Or sacrifice his financial well-being. MLS players are asked to do both. An NASL player may well bank $20,000 with no health insurance while working construction over the winter, and some sign half-season contracts promising a few months of nothing like stability. Quite a few of these cheap-ass contracts aren’t guaranteed, either (it’s negotiated by the player). An NASL union would get a pretty good hearing, at least from players who could afford the dues. But at least there’s freedom: no salary cap stomping on a player’s head, no reserve clause tying him down when his contract ends. If an NASL player has a good season he may freely sign elsewhere in the league and make good money, guaranteed, with control over his future. If he has a bad season he may try his luck in another town without persuading the team to trade a draft pick or allocation money for his rights. Despite MLS’s vastly greater financial clout, such simple options are unavailable there.
If the MLS was insolvent, perhaps its players could take one for the team. But it’s not the late ’90s: Soccer United Marketing fills swimming pools with tens of millions in expansion fees from eager investors. Big name talents like David Villa are paid league-record sums while new signings earn the wages of a McDonald’s fry cook. Last year, Jermain Defoe earned $6.18 million, Michael Bradley $6.5 million, Clint Dempsey nearly $6.7 million. Kaka, a past-his-prime player for an expansion team, will bank over $7 million. David Villa and Sebastian Giovinco are expected to both exceed $7 million total compensation. It is flatly impossible for MLS to cry poor, though God knows they’re trying.
Let’s compare them to another league with some strong teams, a fair few weak ones, and too much expansion. The top-paid NHL player in the 2014-15 season is Shea Weber, with a nominal salary of $14 million per season (slightly over the current maximum of $13.8 million). The NHL minimum salary is $550,000. So while the highest-paid NHL players are approximately twice as well-paid as their MLS counterparts, the cheapest NHL player makes more than fifteen times the salary of an MLSer on his league minimum, $36,500.
Last year the mean MLS player salary was $226,454.26, though that includes the marquee designated players. Remove the fifteen players making over a million dollars and that drops to $131,524.39. The median salary, $90,000, shows even more clearly how the biggest earners skew the numbers. Decent enough money for all that, but it leaves 145 players league-wide making less than $50,000. The NHL average salary, by comparison, is $2.58 million: more than eleven times better than his MLS equivalent even by the most generous measurement.
So the players have a superb argument against the league. Fans, on the other hand, might just want soccer to come back. In practice, that means cheering for the owners, and every Facebook call of “come on lads sort it out” seems to amount to “give up the fight, you’re paid to play a game and we’re waiting”. Labour disputes bring out the most jaded and cynical, especially in North America where athletes make stratospheric amounts of cash and (at least in the NHL) are locked out every couple of years. Such apathy is common, but this time could not be more misplaced. The fans have almost as much to gain as the players do.
A few benefits would be visible on the field. True free agency would inevitably increase the quality of the league. Players frozen out of MLS, rights were owned by a team unwilling to deal, would be able to return. This won’t affect top talent but can only mean an improvement for the bulk of the roster. Moreover, any increase in the market power of ordinary players results in additional spending on said ordinary players. A world where depth fullbacks make $80,000 instead of $50,000 is a world where more, and better, players are in your price range. The salary cap would have to increase, or DPs would have to lose out: bad news for overpaid has-beens who get millions because they’re good marketing value. Good news for most of the men on the field, and the fans who watch them.
In the end, though, such concerns will appeal mostly to the die-hard and have an affect that’s real, but relatively minor. The pitch is not the main battleground. This CBA battle is, ultimately, a conflict between a restrictive, centralized MLS that infuriates and even attacks those who should be most important to it and a players union that, even if by accident, is fighting for long-awaited liberalization.
Look at how the negotiations have lined up. As is standard with the league, obfuscation and misinformation has flowed like a river of sewage. Despite record attendances, enormous expansion fees, and spending like Qatari oil sheiks on new players, MLS commissioner Don Garber insists the league is losing over $100 million annually. It would, of course, be unthinkable to reduce the $56,272,755.51 MLS paid its fifteen best-paid players in 2014, even though that’s just slightly less than the total guaranteed compensation for every non-Designated Player in MLS. Owners like Hansen and MLS PR flacks insist that free agency is impossible with a single-entity structure, but there’s no logical reason why. Goff (that man again!) said that MLS actually offered free agency restricted to incredibly limited criteria; under this proposal, the entire 2016 free agent class would be Houston’s Brad Davis. Fun though it is to imagine TSN’s MLS Free Agent Frenzy special, with Jason deVos and Luke Wileman texting Davis every couple minutes for four hours, you can’t call that a serious offer.
Insisting free agency is legally impossible, then offering free agency but restricting it to one guy. Oh, turns out free agency is possible after all, the owners just don’t want it. Saying that the league loses nine figures every year despite banking a reported $170 million in expansion fees for New York City FC and Orlando City, and enormous player spending that suggests somebody’s got cash. The official league press not mentioning the union’s stories, just in case MLSSoccer.com readers start to do some thinking (these negotiations have put paid, forever, to anybody crying “MLSSoccer.com isn’t propaganda!”). Does this sound typical of MLS yet?
Of course a victory for the players’ union won’t change MLS’s soul, to the extent it has one. But true free agency — no discovery, no allocation claims, no lingering rights in re-entry drafts, nothing — would inevitably mean a more transparent league. Who owns that guy’s rights? See whose roster he’s on. If he’s not on one, nobody owns them. Little room for uncertainty or even fraud: many fans have noticed how MLS’s allocation rules seem to change every time a marquee player should join a particular team. Secret laws and numbers cooked up in New York City conference rooms and never, ever shared with the public in case they detect inconsistencies affect every single MLS transaction. Nothing the players can do will change all of that this year, but every time they push on the door they let a little more light in. Eventually, not tomorrow but in ten years, it will be open. Provided the players are victorious.
(notes and comments…)