The 20th season of Major League Soccer is scheduled to start Friday, and with it, the start of eight-year television deals with Fox, ESPN, and Univision worth $90 million a year.
The league’s new expansion teams, Orlando City and New York City FC, are to face off Sunday on ESPN2 in front of more than 60,000 fans at the sold-out Citrus Bowl.
But all that good news might get buried, for at least a little while, if MLS players go on strike over free agency and higher salaries.
The players’ union and the league have been negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement for weeks, and have been in talks with the aid of a federal mediator since Sunday in Washington. But a strike could be called as early as Wednesday to keep the teams that are scheduled to play Friday from traveling to game sites that would be shuttered.
No side looks good when a season is delayed or interrupted by a labor stoppage. Players, especially those at the bottom of MLS’ modest payrolls, could struggle without their salaries. The league’s wealthy owner-investors will save the expense of paying players for a while, but will absorb the brunt of the criticism for appearing miserly. But work stoppages have become a labor tradition in sports: players fighting for better pay and freedom of movement, and leagues trying to preserve their profit margins while maintaining the status quo — most notably in baseball with former commissioner Bowie Kuhn’s love of the indentured servitude of the reserve clause.
At its core, the MLS dispute is about the ability of players to sell their services to the highest bidder. The practice is common in sports and in international soccer. Just not in MLS.
So while players want salaries increased — the league minimum last season was $36,500 — and each team’s salary budget, or cap, raised from the current $3.1 million, what they have been demanding most is the ability to bargain with other teams when their contracts end. The last labor deal, reached on the eve of the 2010 season, allowed such “free” players to be redrafted by other MLS teams, but only at their current salary and with no say about which new team they would be assigned to.
For months, the players have warned that they would not agree to any deal that did not include some sort of free agency. For just as long, sometimes publicly, the owners have said they would not agree to it.
According to The Washington Post, the league on Tuesday, for the first time, made a free-agency concession. The offer was said to have proposed granting free agency to players who are 32 years old with 10 years’ experience with the same club. That class of players currently numbers zero.
Later reports put those requirements at 28 and eight years’ service — with any club or clubs — which if nothing else suggested the sides were still negotiating to save the start of the season.
MLS’ system is antediluvian, born of the league’s odd-duck structure. As a single-entity league, MLS owns all player’s contracts, which keeps a draconian brake on player movement (and thus compensation). In this way, the system acts like soccer’s version of the much-reviled reserve clause, which tethered a baseball player to his team in perpetuity unless he was traded, sold or released.
Prohibiting free agency helps MLS control player costs, which have soared in other leagues here and abroad as television money and other sources of revenue have skyrocketed. A sensible person can see why a league that claims to lose $100 million a year would want to manage labor costs.
But being penny-wise has prevented MLS from becoming an elite collection of soccer teams, even as it spends richly on a small group of marquee players like Irish striker Robbie Keane; American national team players Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore; and World Cup winners Kaká and David Villa.
Yet even as MLS says its players cannot become free agents within its single-entity confines, it argues that its players can find freedom by leaving the country to sign with foreign clubs. The argument that it competes for players against the rest of the world was part of its successful defense against a federal lawsuit in 2000. But in reality, MLS players have not been in great demand among international leagues that play at a higher level, and even the ones that do leave — with few exceptions — still have their MLS rights controlled by their former team if they choose to return.
Even some on the management side acknowledge the league needs to evolve. Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch, who played 14 seasons in MLS, said at the team’s media day Tuesday, “I think the league’s made strides, and the players deserve to grow and benefit from that.”
By pointing to freedom abroad, MLS demonstrates that restraining salaries in a sports landscape where free agency is rampant will naturally lead those without it to push hard for it.
Yet The Daily Mail has calculated that the average player salary in MLS ranks 22nd among the world’s soccer leagues, a fraction of the average in top competitions like England’s Premier League and Germany’s Bundesliga.
No wonder MLS players want more. The question remains: How far will they go to get it?