Over the next few months, officials from Major League Soccer and the MLS Players Union will meet periodically in New York City to negotiate MLS's new collective bargaining agreement, the rules that set the terms of employment between the owners and the players.
The players feel it's time to finally get what they deserve. For years they quietly accepted that the American soccer market didn't justify paying MLS players the exorbitant salaries seen in this country's major sports. Now, though, they see 20,000 fans packing their stadiums and $100 million expansion fees being thrown about like candy at Halloween. The market has changed.
MLS officials, on the other hand, feel it's their duty to protect the future of the league. Nineteen years ago, no one could have envisioned the league they've built today; even in the last three years, the league has made unimaginable gains. They don't have all the right answers, but they know their path has gotten us this far. Yes, the players are getting screwed, but the issue goes beyond greed; it's not like MLS owners are hoarding the money.
Both the players and the owners want the same thing: an MLS that competes with the best leagues in the world. They simply have different visions on how to get there.
Over the last few weeks, I've spoken to Bob Foose, president of the players union, and Mark Abbott, MLS's deputy commissioner and creator of the current league system. They were as agreeable and accomodating as they were practiced and rehearsed. They knew what they wanted to say and stuck to their talking points. They'd undoubtedly used the same words many times before. It came off as both astonishingly resolute and resoundingly annoying, and reaffirmed what I already knew: this CBA negotiation is a really big deal.
MLS has grown a lot in the four years since the last CBA was negotiated. Consequently, the players are looking for improvements, including an increased salary cap, higher minimum wages, improved travel accommodations, and enhanced moving expenses. The big issue—the deal-breaker—is free agency. (Currently, even when a player's contract expires, he still cannot pick his own team, but is instead entered in a new draft when a different team can pick up his rights.)
The players have understandable grievances. MLS currently pays laughable salaries for a professional sports league, with median salary around $90,000; the players fly coach in between games, often sitting with 32 inches of legroom over a six-hour trip the day before a game in which they have to defend their livelihood; and a majority of the younger players in the league work on semi-guaranteed contracts, meaning they can be waived at any time without any compensation. (It's one thing when NFL players on a minimum salary of $300,000 get waived, another when a kid on $32,000 gets cut loose without any nest). And in addition to all of that, most MLS teams still pinch pennies in silly ways. You guys, you just made $4 million on the advertisement I wear across my chest, I shouldn't have to ask five times to get my $500 moving expenses reimbursed.
The league is past the survival stage, and it can start to meet these basic needs. If it wants to be taken seriously, it needs to start being serious.
Two years ago, when I was playing for FC Dallas, I attended the players' meeting. We sat in a conference room for two hours and went over all of the issues facing the players and the league as a whole, trying to settle on an answer to a simple question: What matters to us?
The big Designated Player signings were outside the issues being discussed. DPs don't really have to worry about these issues as much; they make boatloads of money and can pick any team they want. The middle class of players are the ones with real concerns. Still, in any group, it's difficult to get everyone on the same page. How do you do it when some guys drive new Maseratis and others pull up in their parents' old Civic?
Some players spoke up about the need for an increased salary cap, or liberated player movement. Me, I just wanted a contract that wouldn't let me be fired every day without compensation. (To be fair, my contract said I couldn't be fired EVERY day, just every day before July 1. It was semi-guaranteed, after all). The older guys also mentioned the need for an increased bonus structure. That was a completely necessary concept, but the only thing I could think about was helping my roommate make more than $32,000. I, personally, thought we had a few basic needs we had to cover; it seemed player movement and raising the salary cap were luxuries.
As is the case in most organizations, the leaders of the MLS Players Union are older, more experienced, and more successful. None of them are on minimum salaries or non-guaranteed contracts. Free agency is much more in their interest than ensuring guaranteed contracts. This concerned me when I sat in the meetings. I worried that my grievances, and the grievances of the poor majority, would go unheard.
Foose says that the union has worked hard to get a diverse group of players in leadership roles, ensuring that all concerns and statuses would be represented. Plus, he trusts the integrity of the veteran players. The logic is that they've all come through the MLS pipeline and understand the various struggles, and so they won't forget anyone. The players will fight to get the best deal that suits everyone in the league, top to bottom.
It's important to note that the players believe that free agency is a one-fix solution. When teams have to compete for players, teams won't hold all of the power. They will need to start to care about the interests of the players, who will sign with the teams that offer guaranteed contracts and fewer option years. The bar will be raised for the teams to meet naturally. There's no need to haggle over small issues when the big one will take care of all of them. Everyone gets what they want and need. The market that once devoured players now appears to be their liberator.
The common sentiment among MLS followers is that the league simply needs to start paying players more. This is certainly true. In soccer, like in any industry, you get what you pay for. If MLS wants to be one of the best leagues in the world, they'd better be willing to spend for it. But the league can only spend what it brings in, and the numbers about what MLS teams make are fuzzy.
League officials claim the league is still losing $100 million a year. The players find this statement incredibly misleading. There are owners that bought into the league for a $30 million dollar price tag, and now the entry fee is upwards of $100 million. If your property has grown in value $70 million over six years, the $5 million you lose per season is somewhat irrelevant. As a result, the players will ignore the "loss" accusation and try to get a revenue share of the amount of money the league brings in.
Again, the league responds that they are in no position financially to make such a compromise. They have built a thriving league on the current structure and changing the system risks deflating the league. Some owners lost a tremendous amount trying to get the league off the ground and are still in the red. American soccer is growing, but the market isn't that big yet. Like any business, expanding beyond what the market suggests is dangerous.
So like all employees, the players would like to get a bigger piece of the financial pie. But understanding that employers are always weary of divvying out more money, the players have the option to go for the other big fish that's not tied directly and instantaneously to dollars: free agency.
As players see things, league growth is simple. If players have more freedom, teams have more freedom. If players get treated better, players are happier. That makes MLS more appealing, and more players will want to play under the improved working conditions. That'll increase the quality of players the league can attract, and as a result the league will grow. This won't work the same magic that offering top-level wages would, but it's something.
The league office, unsurprisingly, would disagree with the players' assessment. The chain of logic, they suggest, fails when we think about MLS actually signing the new players.
MLS feels it needs to maintain a single voice to compete in the ultra-competitive world football market. It doesn't matter if a player wants to sign in MLS if the league can't compete with the other suitors at the negotiating table. It might sound nice to give teams more freedom, but MLS executives believe the future of the league lies in their ability to compete in the world market as a unified body. As a result, the single-entity, one-voice model is the best way to move forward.
To put it simply, the league officials are choosing to put their attention and resources towards the players it hopes to sign in the future ahead of the players it already has.
This, of course, drives the players negotiating this CBA crazy. The players work their butts off for their team, their career, and for the league, and the league is more concerned about players that it doesn't even employ yet. The league sacrifices the lives of the people they own now for the people that they may get in the future.
You can't blame the owners for having developed a business plan—growing a business is hard and you have to make some tough decisions—but you shouldn't be surprised the players are up in arms.
The players will point out that there's a strange contradiction here. The league talks about being a "destination league," both for players and for fans, yet they do nothing to make the league attractive for players, which would, ultimately, make it more attractive to fans.
The owners' logic fails, according to the players, when the league assumes that players want to come to MLS. The present circumstances do not facilitate player interest. A strong, unified voice in negotiations doesn't matter if players don't want to sit across the table from you.
In the players' minds, they feel they have an advantage right now New investors are dishing out a lot of money to be a part of the league; current owners are spending record levels of cash to give their teams an edge; some owners themselves seem to be tired of the shackles placed on them by the league. The players feel united on the need to vastly inprove their conditions while the owners are divided. This is their time to go for it.
The players could probably get a lot of little victories such as increased minimums, improved travel accommodations, and fewer option years pretty easily. But they feel this is their chance to make big strides.
As you'd expect, Mark Abbott, the MLS executive, completely disagrees with that statement. He says owners are unanimously devoted to the current system, that the league is still losing money, and that they are in no position to make resounding concessions to the players. Their position is that they have built a long lasting, effective system and will continue to ride its proven growth.
Neither side hopes to see a work stoppage, but at some point you can do the math yourself.
The two sides don't just disagree on what they want; each disagrees with the other's thought process. Over the next few weeks they will sit at the bargaining table and try to come to an agreement. Although the discussions will undoubtedly get heated, it's not about one side "winning," but both of them working together to help the other meet their goals, which, fortunately, happen to have some overlap. It's a bit like sex: they both want to get to the same place, and it'll be best achieved if they work together to get there. Whether they'll do so is the question.
Bobby Warshaw graduated from Stanford University with a degree in political science, and then was drafted in the 1st round (17th overall) by FC Dallas in 2011. Bobby currently plays for Baerum SK in Norway, and sometimes contributes stories to his hometown newspaper, the Patriot-News, in Mechanicsburg, PA. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter, @bwarshaw14.
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