Like all Colorado Rapids and MLS fans, I hope with all my heart that there will be no labor stoppage to delay the 2015 season. The upcoming season is full of excitement: it follows a fantastic 2014 World Cup and the warm afterglow of many USMNT players coming home to MLS; it includes two new teams with big name DP talents fronting the franchises; and with new TV contracts and a huge growth in interest in soccer, it feels like a giant leap forward for Major League Soccer.
A labor stoppage of anything more than two weeks would be absolutely devastating for MLS. One need only to look at the huge hit in popularity and public visibility of the NHL after the lockout in 2004; before, it had gained the popularity of the ‘big three’ pro leagues in the US of baseball, football and basketball. After, ESPN wouldn’t pay to broadcast its games and it wound up on the Outdoor Life Network, between bass fishing programs and ‘Bowhunting with Ted Nugent’. It is just now returning to the American consciousness.
However, workers have very little power in any industry with which to negotiate. The only power a worker or group of workers can exert on management, unfortunately, is to strike. If MLS owners will not address MLS players grievances, the players have little choice but to hit the picket lines.
The fundamental question of MLS entering this CBA (and of any industry at odds it’s workers) is: what percentage of the cost/profit of our industry should go to the workers who supply the product? Some leagues, like MLB and the NBA, renegotiate caps, rules, and minimums each CBA. The NFL fixes the salary cap based on a percentage of profit: 55% of media revenue, 45% of NFL inc. revenues including post-season, and 40% of local revenue. The players in MLS just want a legitimate cut of the recent profits of a league that recently sold an expansion franchise for $100 million and made a broadcast deal for $90 million a year, triple their previous deal. How much of the pie the players get is the big issue, and the others are secondary details, although important details.
After the big issue of 'what's our cut', the MLSPA and MLS has three big sub-issues to resolve. I would argue that on each issue, the players grievances are serious and demand a fair resolution that grants them significant rights under a new CBA. Refusal by owners to fairly redress any of the issues will likely result in a strike. And the owners would be primarily responsible for a strike if they won't grant the players these reasonable requests.
The first is free agency. Players want the kind of freedom in their industry that most of us in the working world enjoy- the right to go to another company and/or another city for better pay. Players can already experience free agency, but only if they are willing to go to another country. It only makes sense to extend free agency inside MLS, so the AJ Soares of the world can test their luck domestically before going to the Tippaligaen. Anything less than structured, limited, but real free agency is not going to be enough.
The second is minimum pay. The MLS young player minimum of $36,500 is unacceptable for the top tier soccer players in the US, especially when the same team will have a DP making $4.5 million. When an MLS team pays the guy in the locker next to you 124 times what you make, it probably feels pretty crappy. Moreover, a study found that MLS has the most salary inequality of any major American sport. That player cannot leave, however, because the team holds his rights, and he can’t really ‘refuse to play’, because there are a thousand guys in USL who’d kill to take his spot. I’ve read numbers tossed around that a reasonable minimum salary should be anywhere from $45,000 to $70,000. $55,000 for young players and $70,000 for veterans sounds fair to me.
The third is each MLS team’s allocation, or what would be called in any other league the salary cap. The cap is around $3.1 million this year. But with a tripling of the TV deal and the overall growth of the league, this number has got to grow significantly in this CBA. Stumptown Footy put this at $4.5 million, and I think that’s reasonable.
What all fans agree on is that the new CBA cannot financially undermine the league like the overspending of the 1980’s NASL did. MLS is just starting to turn the corner of being both stable and viable. And while the new CBA shouldn’t undermine the league, the league also need to respect the players, and remember that they are the product on the field we come to see, not Josh Kroenke or Phillip Anschutz.