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MLS Players And Owners Agree To Keep League Mired In Mediocrity

Illustration for article titled MLS Players And Owners Agree To Keep League Mired In Mediocrity

We're still in the process of digesting last night's surprise CBA accord between MLS and its players. Until or unless we get to dig into the specifics, it'll be difficult to judge exactly how the new agreement will affect those involved. Of course, the specifics will mainly be of interest for those outside the game, as the participants seem to have a pretty good grasp of the bottom line. That's because no matter how the various clauses are eventually drafted, all the words will add up to one unambiguous message: the league won in a landslide.

To understand why this was a resounding win for the establishment, you have to understand what was really at stake here. MLS players wanted the power to command salaries commensurate with their ability and reflective of the league's growth. The league wanted to continue puttering along the slow, revenue-maximizing road they've been on for the past 20 years, chiefly by protecting their single-entity status. It's only by looking at things through this lens that you can understand what's gone on.


These two objectives—free market competition and single-entity—are basically diametrically opposed. Single-entity status allows MLS to fix salaries league-wide by centralizing all contracts. When an MLS player signs a deal, it's between the league and the player, rather than between the player and a team. This means there is no real intra-league competition between teams in signing players, since all MLS teams are actually shared arms of a larger body. You sign your original contract with MLS, and then you play where MLS tells you, or else leave the league. That has been the extent of player movement.

At first glance, it might look like the new free agency system—reserved for players who've been in the league for at least eight years and have reached the age of 28—is a big win for players. After all, free agency allows players to decide where they want to play, which has somehow not been permitted under prior CBAs.

But freedom of movement is only one aspect of free agency; the other, arguably more important, one is the ability to negotiate a salary on the free market. True free agency would mean, for example, that Graham Zusi could go to the Sporting KC offices and discuss one contract offer, then send his agent out to L.A. to discuss terms with the Galaxy, and on and on until one team won Zusi's signature with some combination of the most attractive salary, most prominent role in the team, and best chance to win.

Free agency of that sort would pose a threat to the league as constituted, because it would pit the various members of what is supposed to be the single entity of MLS against each other. Negotiations of this type would make the league would look less and less like the coordinated body it tries to act like in the eyes of the law, which would then make it susceptible to an antitrust lawsuit.


This is how real free agency would threaten single-entity status, and is why the owners only agreed to the extremely limited version as laid out in the new CBA. From 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.


Under the MLS version of free agency, the league has already more or less handled every free agent salary negotiation. Before a single free agent has been wooed, the league has decreed that, no matter how much a player was making before and how much they have improved since, each of their franchises will only have to pay at most 125 percent of his previous salary.

The combined years and age thresholds limit the number of possible free agents in a league with so many journeyman traveling from league to league, as well as inhibit the rights of the homegrown players they claim to be building the league for. Why would Diego Fagúndez wait until his 12th MLS season when he's 28 to gain even a modicum of power over where and for how much he plays when he could instead push for a move abroad Europe and deal with a sensible and thriving world market?


Continuing with the earlier hypothetical, Zusi could still choose to play in L.A. or in Kansas City at the conclusion of the 2016 season (his eighth) at the age of 30, but both teams will already know exactly what it will take to get his signature. The only way to guarantee a substantial raise is to restructure your existing deal, making free agency almost as much of a burden as a boon.

Along with the basic unfairness to the players of this so-called free agency, the proposed setup only furthers MLS's inherently anticompetitive nature. If the MLS bigwigs want Zusi to stay with Sporting at the expense of the Galaxy, who's to say that they won't command their L.A. subsidiary not to offer him a contract at all? The league itself, still protected by its single-entity status, would retain the power to pick and choose who plays where, who's allowed to be on the better side of mediocre and vice versa. This may sound like an outlandish conspiracy theory, but have admitted as much and have actually exercised its central planning powers multiple times. This is the express purpose of single-entity status. MLS wants single-entity so that it—and not its constituent franchises—can make all determinations of salary and movement. These exact kind of shenanigans are the features of MLS, not bugs.


On some level, the league's players get all of this. It's why just a day before agreeing to the current CBA, the player union reps of each team voted 18-1 in favor of striking should their needs not be met. But the dangerous aspect of all collective bargaining situations is that the interests of individuals do not always align with the interests of the whole.

Proof of this can be found on SI's report about player dissatisfaction with the deal. One anonymous player is quoted as saying, "Not only did this deal destroy the future of the American player, it barely helps the current group of players." The player's reasoning for this, when there was so much solidarity right until they signed on the dotted line? "In the end, it was the best deal according to some of the guys in the room because [of] the divide of the union guys."


That takes us to the second big part of the CBA: the minimum wage hike. That too looks like a promising detail on its face. A 60 percent increase on the salary floor is not nothing, especially in a league where 38 percent of the players make less than the new minimum. (The difference between $40k and $60k is a lot bigger than the one between $100k and $120k.) Then again, when you remember that the owners' primary objective was to protect single-entity, you realize it's not as clear-cut as that.

The wage minimum and salary cap were always going to be the carrots with which MLS lured the union away from free agency. From the beginning, even while speaking so forcefully against the possibility of any kind of free agency, the owners conceded that salary increases would be involved. Those words were a signal to the union that there was more hope in pressing for concessions on the salary front than on free agency. This was because, as we said last night, the real cost to the league of the salary hike will only be about $3 million. Coupled with the only nominally increased salary cap which a significant portion will go towards salary minimum raises, the league's expenditures haven't really gone up that much.


As the anonymous player in SI hinted at, though, the promise of more money in pockets today played upon the fractures in the union. Telling the 38 percent of the players who most need the money that they'll receive a raise for agreeing to the CBA and nothing (at least for a time) if they strike is a persuasive message. That move gets the low-income players on your side, and since many of the high-income, older foreign ones' interest in MLS's internal structure starts and stops with when and where their exorbitant checks will be mailed, a substantial percent of the playing body was either won over or ambivalent towards the CBA, and more interested in getting paid than anything else.

That put the thick middle class of the league in a difficult spot. Should they continue to try to fight for what they believe is right, even when so many of their friends, coworkers, and even union leaders want them to agree, or should they settle now in order to get back to what they really care about, which is playing the sport they love? The 24-hour change from militant to meek tells you all you need to know.


This five-year agreement will be spun in all sorts of ways, depending on the interests of the spinners. For the league, it's but another positive step towards their stated goal of eventually becoming one of the premier soccer leagues in the world, despite the fact that MLS's insistence on an iron-handed central control over everything means they continue to resist the very precepts that have created every other premier soccer league across the globe. For some of the players, it's a lamentable (though not terribly so) concession, one that will probably go largely forgotten once everyone gets used to the new rules that enforce the status quo. For the American sports market, MLS will continue to go ignored or followed, depending on how you already felt.

For us, the takeaway is this: MLS remains as far away from regularly exhibiting and producing great soccer as it was before this agreement, but it has gotten closer to the other big American leagues in screwing over its players. Take that as a good or bad thing as you will.

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