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Wednesday, January 27, 2010
MLS and players can't afford to disagree

Steve Davis

An ominous deadline approaches on Sunday for Major League Soccer and its associated labor interests, who are working to achieve an accord. The parties' collective bargaining agreement expires at the end of the week, so dreadful images of strikes and lockouts may be increasing for fans and all involved principals.

Meanwhile, for the rest of America, the thinking surely goes something like this:

Lockout? Strike? In pro soccer? And in this economic climate? These guys can't be serious.

The truth is, they probably aren't. All along, threats of strikes and lockouts have been about the only real bargaining chip anybody has in this process, as one source close to the situation said. In truth, the sides have never seemed that far apart, but they have drawn tough lines on sticking points of player rights issues.

Indeed, there are promising signs that labor peace will land on time and that good sense will prevail. The only solution here is reasonable compromise that will tamp down the brush fire before it starts truly sucking the oxygen out of the air in domestic soccer, and the hope is that leaders bring this matter to a sensible conclusion. And soon.

The sides met in New York for about eight hours on Tuesday and were set for another round of talks Wednesday.

Media reports have typically (and accurately) downplayed the strike or lockout factor, although the DEFCON level has risen lately. One report recently heralded that a strike "could wipe out the 2010 MLS season," a claim that seems wildly disproportionate to the actual threat of such a nuclear option. MLS officials, team owners and labor interests all understand how potentially destabilizing such action would be to the entire pro soccer platform.

"Obviously, we're not one of the bigger sports, where we can go by the wayside for a time and expect fans to come right back," said Pat Onstad, the veteran Houston Dynamo goalkeeper and a labor representative for his side. He pointed to the NHL's fiasco and the trouble hockey has had in rallying past the labor discord that wiped out the 2004-05 season. "In the last couple of weeks, I think both sides will tell you progress has been made, and we're all cautiously optimistic of getting a CBA in place before the deadline."

The real danger all along for MLS has been only that the principals might get personal or allow the process to be hijacked by outside interests. But parties on both sides have handled the negotiations privately and, by all appearances, professionally. Any rancor seems to be coming from media or from peripheral voices like that of FIFPro, a worldwide player representation arm. Bob Foose and Eddie Pope of the MLS Players Union have been mum on the process, keeping all negotiations behind closed doors and declining media interviews. Generally, so have the primary negotiators from the league, MLS commissioner Don Garber, president Mark Abbott and player personnel director Todd Durbin.

The rhetoric from beyond reached crescendo status when FIFPro issued a Jan. 5 statement, primarily contending that Major League Soccer's unique single-entity system differs substantially from traditional league structures and stands in violation of several FIFA regulations.

MLS responded strongly; Abbott criticized what he termed inaccuracies in the statement and insisted that his organization is fully compliant with FIFA regulations. (FIFA, for its part, seems content sitting on the sidelines of the ongoing MLS labor dispute. And there is zero indication that U.S. Soccer has any interest in intervening.)

The complaints of the players union generally revolve around rights. Specifically, the union complains that 80 percent of contracts are not guaranteed and that contracts are routinely terminated by the league during their term.

In the bigger picture, FIFPro complains that MLS operates as a "cartel." But what the labor interest calls a cartel, U.S. courts have recognized as a legal single-entity structure, by which players enter into contracts with the league rather than with individual clubs.

The league's single-entity structure gives MLS and its clubs ample leverage in contract negotiations. For instance, the league can exercise multiple, unilateral one-year options on player contracts. Players can be transferred within the league (we call them "trades" in the standard, domestic sports parlance) without player consent.

The structure also inhibits movement within MLS for a player whose contract expires.

"What we are looking for are the same basic rights that players enjoy in other leagues around the world," Seattle goalkeeper Kasey Keller said in a statement released three weeks ago by FIFPro. And he has a point -- up to a point.

There is one rather striking fundamental flaw in that argument: MLS isn't like other leagues in the world.

For most of us, a reference to "other leagues" means the long-established associations in England, Germany, Italy, France, Spain, Brazil, Argentina, etc. Certain clubs in those associations may languish in debt, and individual clubs' abilities to generate revenue certainly vary widely. But in general, teams enjoy financial footing that the U.S. pro soccer establishment can only dream of.

Simply put, MLS sides aren't making money. They might get close in Los Angeles, thanks to merchandise sales related to a certain handsome English international. And they might be getting there in Toronto, although initial stadium construction costs will eat away at annual profits for years to come.

Claims that Dallas turned a profit in 2005, the year its stadium opened, were often in dispute -- or at least misunderstood. Any black ink, ownership said at the time, was only in annual operational budgets, not accounting for the substantial ($65 million) stadium note. In any case, huge decreases in concert revenue, season-ticket sales and sponsorship dollars mean the finances in Dallas are as dismal as in other MLS markets. Suffice to say, MLS clubs don't live anywhere near the tony neighborhoods where many foreign clubs dwell.

So, MLS player-personnel mechanisms are in place for a reason -- to limit additional financial strain and exposure of clubs that aren't making money in the first place. Major League Soccer is growing, slowly. But it's really not so far away from the dangerous contraction eight years ago that almost saw the league vanish.

And it seems fair to point out that a women's professional soccer league did fail: Rest in peace, WUSA, which was founded in 2000 but folded in 2003.

MLS players-union reps have always said they understand fiscal realities, and that they're not drawing hard lines on salary per se. Foremost in their minds is creating a little more job stability all the way around.

"We're just saying this: If you're going to give a guy a contract for $34,000, can you turn it into a guarantee for $34,000?" Onstad said.

That certainly seems fair. And this business of players' MLS rights being held by a club even after a contract expires really should change. In some cases, a club can essentially say, "We don't want you, but we're going to hold on to your rights anyway, unless someone knocks our socks off with an offer." That seems unfairly restrictive, and the players are right to seek movement there.

Essentially, the league enjoys almost all the leverage in contract negotiations. Currently, until players reach star status (think Landon Donovan or Juan Pablo Angel), the league can more or less tell the player what he'll make, how long he'll make it, where he can play and how long he can play there. The system is arranged to be protective and restrictive, and it's necessary to a point. The players want to move the needle of leverage just a little.

The alternative is pretty unattractive for both sides.

Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog,, and can be reached at

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