MLS Labor Dispute Threatens Start of Much-Hyped Season

Jermaine Jones (left) is one of two Revolution players set to face Panama on Sunday as members of hte United States men’s national soccer team.
Jermaine Jones of the New England Revolution (left) and Robbie Keane of the LA Galaxy faced off in the MLS Cup in December. –Getty Images

Major League Soccer has loudly heralded its 20th season, and why shouldn’t it? Twenty years of fair health and growing interest is something to celebrate. The league is expanding to 20 teams for 2015; it’s unveiled a spankin’ new logo meant to signify its growth; and it’s welcoming a number of big-name players into the fold this year.

Business seems to be good. MLS has established a new league record for average game attendance in three of the last four seasons, including last year, and it’s also about to see its TV revenue triple due to a new deal with ESPN, FOX, and Univision. All of this comes on the back of a memorable 19th season, in which the league’s most successful team—the LA Galaxy—won their record fifth title, sending its most recognizable player—Landon Donovan—out a winner (defeating, sadly, our local New England Revolution).

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With all of that in mind, the countdown to the season’s opening game on March 6 should be characterized by excitement. Instead, the clock is ticking with anxiety. The opening game between the Galaxy and the Chicago Fire is in jeopardy, as is the Revolution’s opener two nights later against Seattle. The league’s collective bargaining agreement with its players expired at the end of January. Fifteen days out from the opener, the league and its players find themselves in the middle of a full-fledged labor dispute, with players saying they’re ready to strike.

From afar, it’s hard to imagine the season not starting on time. Would MLS, which has an oft-stated goal of becoming a top-five soccer league in the world by 2022, really allow for that kind of PR hit with all the momentum it brings into the season? At 20 years old, MLS is in a precarious position. It’s grown significantly, but it’s still a rung below America’s most popular pro sports. Even short work stoppages tend to serve as a big black eye for pro sports leagues. Non-MLS fans who wouldn’t notice the start of the season under normal circumstances may well hear about a delay to the start of the season—and it wouldn’t sound good.

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But the impasse between the two sides is hefty. MLS has practically paved the crossroads it stands at all on its own by celebrating its success and championing its future. It attributes much of that success to cost-saving measures from its infancy. Players, who see all the recent growth and all the new money, think it’s time for a change to some of those measures.

Way back in the 1990s, a nascent MLS had seen previous pro soccer efforts in the country go belly up as finances ran out of control. To mitigate the financial risks, the league took an organizational approach, which has since fascinated sports economists by giving itself a strong degree of control over its finances and protection from antitrust complaints. MLS operates as a single entity, with a set of “operator-investors’’ helming its clubs. To put that into perspective, it means Bob Kraft, very technically speaking, does not own the New England Revolution. He owns shares of MLS, and he operates the Revolution through his company, Kraft Soccer LLC.

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It may sound like a minor distinction, and in many ways it is; the Krafts sell Revolution tickets, handle marketing, sign the team’s own sponsors, have their own local broadcasting deals, own the team’s home field (Gillette Stadium), and so forth. But the system carries major implications for roster management and player movement.

Revolution players are not employees of the team. Instead, they are contracted to the league. The upshot is that MLS teams do not compete with one another for player services, because such competition would show that the league, in fact, is not operating as a single entity. Instead, the league plays a large role in deciding how players wind up where they do, and how much they get paid. To do otherwise—to give players free agency—could destroy the league’s claim to being a single entity.

Roster composition is not out of MLS teams’ hands. The league uses a complex set of rules to determine player movement, which cannot be described succinctly and which are sometimes bent, but that good teams manage to master. They can trade players, they choose who to draft, they can opt not to bring a player back once their contract runs out. And for a certain class of players, called designated players, teams can indeed offer as much as they’re willing to pay. (Some observers think the designated player rule already blew the league’s single-entity status out of the water when it was instituted in 2007.)

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But in the vast majority of cases, players have little say about where they wind up. Even once a player’s contract expires, a team can retain its rights to him by basically saying it wants to keep him around. If the team opts to move on, the player is subjected to the league’s “re-entry draft,’’ in which they can be plucked by a team who then assumes their rights. The re-entry draft, believe it or not, was considered progress for player rights when it was instituted during the last round of labor negotiations in 2010.

This time around, players see the big new TV deal and the seven-figure contracts being handed out to designated players, and say the 20-team, 20-year-old league is in a different place than it was in the ‘90s. They want more money in general—a higher minimum salary ($36,500 in 2014) would be nice—but they’ve made it clear over the course of negotiations that the opportunity to move around is tantamount. They’re not calling outright for an end to the single-entity structure, but players want a say in deciding where they play, and the ability to generate a market to cash in on that decision.

They seem pretty serious about it, too. “Should we get to a point before the season where things and negotiations aren’t where they should be, we are ready to strike,’’ Toronto FC star Michael Bradley said.

“I think at this point a strike is imminent if we don’t get what we want. And that’s kind of where we stand,’’ said Seattle Sounders player rep Brad Evans. The players’ union head, Bob Foose, has said without free agency, discussions are a non-starter, which is tough to square with league comments from earlier this month, essentially saying free agency just isn’t going to happen.

This kind of rhetoric is standard fare for any kind of labor dispute. And things may yet thaw. Federal mediation was brought in last week. That indicates there are major sticking points, yes, but it’s also indicative that both sides want to land on a solution. In 2010, the last time the league’s CBA expired, a deal was struck five days shy of the season’s start, after players had already voted to strike. That’s precedent enough to think this round could be solved at the last minute, perhaps with a compromise that gives players more control over their fate without jeopardizing the league’s single-entity structure. One hypothetical solution, proposed by UCLA law professor Steven Bank, has been circling the soccer-loving Internet in recent days. And a source told The Guardian: “I can think of at least 15 different ways to structure deals which will ensure MLS still gets the kind of economic parity they are so desperate to keep hold of.’’

But for now, two weeks out, discussions seem to be moving pretty slowly. The players are on-key in saying they’re ready to strike, NBC reports. In the short term, according to ESPN, the two sides are focusing on hammering out smaller issues so that they can then turn their focus to the types of things that could wipe out the start of the season—the types of things that get at the very structure of the league.

They have 15 days.

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