Twenty-four hours after it looked like a work stoppage was inevitable—and 48 hours before the beginning of the season—Major League Soccer and the Major League Soccer Players Union announced that they had reached a tentative deal on a new collective bargaining agreement. Here are the highlights of that agreement.
Players whose contracts expire will become free agents, allowed to negotiate with any team in the league, provided they are 28 or older and have played in the MLS for at least eight seasons. These are friendlier terms than the previous ones the players rejected, which called for free agency only for players over 32 that had 10 years MLS experience with the same team. It is not the open and unfettered free agency the players desired, but it isn't magnitudes worse than what MLB players have, for instance, who have to play for six seasons (with no age minimum) before they can become free agents.
At the same time, the new CBA places caps on how much the salary of free agents can increase. Via the Orlando Sentinel:
Players who are making less than $100,000 have a capped increase of up to 125-percent of their previous salary, players making between $100,000-$200,000 have a cap of up to 120-percent, and players making more than $200,000 have a cap of up to 115-percent.
This is apparently how the new CBA will reconcile free agency with the fact that MLS is structured as a single-entity, where the league owns all player contracts. Free agents will be able to solicit offers from every team in the league, but the caps ensure that salaries can only rise so fast. Previously, players whose contracts expired were redrafted by teams at their current salary level. The only real leverage veteran players had was to threaten to play abroad; now they can at least marginally play competing MLS teams against each other.
One of the biggest things holding back the quality of play in MLS is the absurdly low minimum salary, which stood at $36,500 last season. The league can spend millions of dollars on players like Frank Lampard, Clint Dempsey, and David Villa, but if the dudes they're passing to can't train during the offseason because they have to work a roofing gig to make ends meet, it doesn't really matter. 61 of the league's 572 players (11%) made the minimum last season according to data from the MLS Players Union, and 219 (38%) made $60,000 or less.
That $60,000 number is the new minimum salary, meaning that almost two out of every five players will be receiving a raise of some sort. A quick back of the envelope calculation shows that this will only cost MLS about $3 million—or one year of Jermaine Jones—but should pay immense dividends. It is also possible that American players who otherwise would've chased contracts in some second or third tier European league will instead stick around and fight to make an MLS roster, knowing that the minimum contract now provides a viable living.
The salary cap was set at $3.1 million in 2014, and the Columbus Dispatch reports a 15% increase, to around $3.5 million, in 2015. A big chunk of this extra cap room, somewhere around a third of it, will be taken up by paying players a larger minimum salary, leaving an extra couple hundred thousand dollars to throw at other players. There hasn't been any reliable reporting that I've seen outlining salary cap increases in future seasons.
The previous collective bargaining agreement was a five year deal, signed in 2010. The owners were reportedly interested in an eight year deal this time, but the players held firm at five:
We don't really know yet, but probably (maybe?) the owners? Free agency was such an important goal that MLS players repeatedly threatened to strike over it, with player representatives even voting 18-1 in favor of striking just one day ago. Limited free agency (albeit with a cap on salary increases) along with raised minimum salaries would suggest that the players—while not getting everything they wanted—would be happy with the deal. But that doesn't seem to be the case.
Sports Illustrated quotes an unnamed player who was involved in the bargaining with some pretty harsh words for the deal:
"Players are disappointed and upset with the union reps and Bob Foose," the player said, referring to the MLS Players Union executive director. "Not only did this deal destroy the future of the American player, it barely helps the current group of players."
Longtime American soccer reporter Ives Galarcep concurred with this:
The players' beef seems to be twofold. First, the conditions of their employment didn't markedly change. The league will still operate with a single-entity cartel structure, limiting player leverage, and the new free agency rules will only ever apply to a small minority of players. In all likelihood, the league will continue to alter things like dispersal draft and designated player rules opaquely and on the fly.
Even if you accept that the players didn't have the necessary power to force a major change to MLS's business model, the monetary gains they won are pretty miniscule. Less than a year ago the league signed a new television deal which increased annual television revenue from $18 million to $90 million, an increase of 500%. Yet even with this torrent of new money flowing into the league, the salary cap only increased by 15%.
Two years ago, MLS commissioner Don Garber said that he wanted MLS to be one of the world's best leagues by 2022. But average salaries in the MLS are only 22nd highest among soccer leagues around the world, and that is not going to noticeably change under this CBA, which will expire in 2020. Given the history of American soccer leagues and a claimed loss of $100 million, MLS isn't necessarily wrong to proceed cautiously. But the simple fact remains that it doesn't have a chance at becoming an elite world league anytime soon under the current model.
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