Posted on 24 February 2010 by Nathaniel E. Baker
Don’t get me wrong, in principle I agree with Major League Soccer players. They deserve either guaranteed contracts or some semblance of free agency. They deserve higher minimum salaries. They deserve a higher salary cap. They deserve better accommodation on road trips. They deserve these things and probably several others as well.
But guess what? This isn’t about those principles. It’s about something bigger, namely sustaining top level professional soccer in the United States. That is what the players are threatening to undo with their strike.
Okay, so maybe some MLS team owners are making money on the players’ behalf. Show me one (functioning) for-profit business that isn’t. More importantly, how many millions of dollars have these ownership groups sunk into the league over the past 15 years? How long were they operating at a loss? Were? Apparently all but three teams are still losing money.
To limit this hemorrhaging somewhat, MLS created a single entity structure. Its legality was challenged–and upheld–in court. Owners understandably want to stick with this structure and are committed to doing so. Well, they have it with the current collective bargaining agreement so they’re willing to continue operating with it in place, at least for the 2010 season.
Obviously the players are none too happy about this. They were expecting raises and improved “working conditions” for 2010 and would not get either in this scenario. Union leadership would rightly be decried as ineffectual. Having already threatened a strike, however, the union may need to go this route to save face. If they don’t, it’s likely owners will withdraw whatever concessions they’ve offered so far in negotiations.
Some players say these concessions don’t amount to anything anyway. Fine. But here’s the thing: The players have no leverage. First of all, let’s see them get everybody to agree to go through with this. For an overwhelming majority of them, a strike will mean no income. A few might get job offers in Europe or Latin America or elsewhere, but the league would still need to consent to a move. If it does (doubtful), work permits are extremely difficult to come by for players who are not capped by their national teams (which again is most of MLS). That leaves NASL and the second division. I’m told there is no legal restriction on MLS players joining these leagues if there is a strike, but how willing will those teams be to hire striking players? And if players think salaries and working conditions in MLS are tough, let’s see how they like the NASL, where several teams are on the brink of bankruptcy.
More importantly, how can they know a strike will even have an effect? MLS could hire replacement players. There are 17 million soccer players in the United States. Think they’ll all honor the picket line, if MLS calls with a job offer? Think again. (Note to MLS: I can play goalie and will gladly do so as a replacement player).
But the greater harm would be to the viability of professional soccer in this country. Because with a sparking new arena in its biggest market, a successful franchise in Seattle and another due to begin play in Philadelphia, MLS is finally finally on the verge of a breakthrough with the American public. A strike would put an end to this. It would set U.S. soccer back 15 years to an era when playing professionally wasn’t even a real option.
The argument that the current structure needs to be dismantled for the good of professional soccer in the U.S. is nonsensical. Fact is that the players have clearly said they are willing to work within the confines of the single entity structure. If they go back on their word now they’ll look like hypocrites. But that’s the least of it. The league simply cannot afford to have teams engage in bidding wars for players. Do people really think MLS can turn into the English Premier League overnight if it simply “removes the training wheels“? A few more expensive players per team might do a bit for quality of play over the short term, but over the long term the only thing that can accomplish that is a more ingrained soccer culture and youth development. And the only thing that can bring that is a sustainable professional league.
More importantly, who knows if the league’s existing owners and investors would even agree to continue their involvement if the single entity system is scrapped? They’d probably drop out altogether. Where would professional soccer be then? Back to 1984 is where. Some critics of the single entity structure may not be old enough to remember what it was like being a U.S. soccer fan in those days. But if they were to ask some of us who lived through it they would undoubtedly get a very sinister answer.
So yes, the union has overplayed its hand with talk of a strike. And overshot its goals. They’re not going to get free agency for all the reasons mentioned above. Yet, if it weren’t for that the two sides would really not be far apart. The league has claimed it is willing to give some ground on guaranteed contracts and player movement. Players should have jumped on that instead of playing hardball for something they weren’t going to get in the first place. It might be too late now. Doesn’t matter. Players should return to the bargaining table, hat in hand, and try to salvage whatever they can. They’ll probably end up with something they feel is grossly unfair and exploitative. Too bad. That’s what most regular folks have to deal with nowadays–provided they’re lucky enough to have jobs in the first place. And we don’t get to play a sport for a living.