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Labor rhetoric increases
by Paul Kennedy, February 21st, 2010 4:36AM

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TAGS:  mls, soccer business


[ANALYSIS] Any notion that a new collective bargaining agreement between Major League Soccer and the MLS Players Union was imminent was blown out of the water on Friday and Saturday.

After weeks of silence, union reps bemoaned the lack of progress on major issues and questioned MLS's seriousness.

On Saturday, MLS president Mark Abbott went public, explaining the league's position on various labor issues and putting the ball very much in the union's half.

If there is to be no MLS soccer this spring, that's a decision the players will have to make.

"We've communicated that the league doesn't have an intention of commencing a lockout," Abbott told the Associated Press.

The main issues involve bargaining power -- the power the league enjoys over players in contract negotiations.

GUARANTEED CONTRACTS. Not all player contracts are guaranteed until the middle of the season. That means teams have the power to force players with non-guaranteed salaries to make concessions if they want to stay on the team through the end of the season or simply cut them.

Also working in the league's favor is the summer transfer window -- MLS's "secondary" window but in fact the more important of the two windows. Players become available from abroad after their contracts have expired at the end of June, and their availability increases the bargaining power MLS has over players whose contracts are not yet guaranteed.

The number of mid-season roster moves MLS teams make have accelerated in recent years as they pick up players on the cheap -- on free transfers or on loan deals from clubs abroad -- and unload others.

In this way MLS is unique among major Americans sports leagues in that a huge supply of players available from outside the league works to suppress the bargaining power of MLS players.

MLS teams want the flexibility to keep contracts not guaranteed. Players want the security of contracts guaranteed year to year.

OPTION CLAUSES. Multiple-year and unilateral options also work in MLS's favor, meaning players don't know from year to year if they will have their contract picked up. That means, like with guaranteed contracts, teams have the leverage to force concessions out of players if they want their option picked up.

The longer a team can stretch out the time it has to make a decision on a player means the shorter the time a player then has to find another team, reducing his bargaining power.

On guarantees and options -- terms bargained between players and the league -- Abbott said Saturday that MLS "would guarantee a significant number of contracts, not all contracts" and "would limit the number of team-allowable options that we have in player contracts."

FREE AGENCY. The big issue on which MLS is not budging. Currently, there is no free agency within MLS, based on the single-entity status on which it was build and which withstood the challenge in protracted legal proceedings that began shortly after its launch in 1996.

Players aren't free to sign with another MLS team at the end of their contracts -- whether it's a player on his way up who played out his contract with the intention of moving abroad or a player on his way down who's unwanted by his current team. Any other team within MLS must negotiate with the player's current team if he is to move within MLS.

This issue is at the heart of much-publicized cases involving longtime stars Kevin Hartman, who's stuck in MLS limbo, and Steve Ralston, who joined USSF Division II AC St. Louis. Their previous MLS teams -- Kansas City in the case of Hartman and New England for Ralston -- no longer wanted them but no other team could sign them without the permission of their teams.

On the issue of free agency, MLS doesn't want to bargain away what it won in court at considerable expense.

And it doesn't want to give away what in part attracted investors to pay increasingly high ownership fees for in recent years. They were buying into a single-entity league with built-in cost containment.

MLS's view is that the international market in which it operates increases the opportunities free agents have to negotiate more lucrative deals -- they can and do so but just not at MLS's expense. At least monetarily.

In promotional terms, the loss of MLS's top young players to teams abroad -- whether as free agents or on transfers in anticipation of losing them for nothing as free agents -- is a very serious problem for the league.

WHAT'S AT STAKE? The MLS doesn't open until March 25 when Seattle hosts Philadelphia. That means the league and players have four and a half weeks to reach an agreement before the season starts.

That doesn't mean there are no significant events that arise before then.

The Columbus Crew is scheduled to host Toluca of Mexico in the first leg of their Concacaf Champions League series on March 9.

And the New York Red Bulls are scheduled to open Red Bull Arena on March 20.

This is also a World Cup year, though MLS will have a smaller role on the national team than at any World Cup since its launch in 1996. As few as three spots on the World Cup roster could go to MLS players.

WHAT'S NEXT? Negotiations are scheduled to resume on Monday in New York. The deadline for a new agreement in Thursday.



0 comments
  1. Nalin Carney
    commented on: February 21, 2010 at 8:51 a.m.
    I fully support the players and their stand. When they are out of contract the league or the teams must let them go. MLS continjues to think small.....too bad! This economy is based on free enterprise and the league is not. too bad. Thanks Nalin

  1. Glenn Manning
    commented on: February 21, 2010 at 9:53 a.m.
    DOES ANYONE IN MLS REMEMBER THE BASEBALL STRIKE?? PLAYERS UNION OR MLS EXECS?? ANYONE? MY BROTHER STILL TALKS ABOUT LEAVING THE GAME AS A FAN FOREVER...AND HOW LONG AGO WAS THAT?? AAND FOREVER IS A LONG TIME! GUYS NOT THE WAY TO GROW THE GAME...Lets Play!

  1. Mark Simms
    commented on: February 21, 2010 at 11:02 a.m.
    Omigosh - the MLS garnishes these huge franchise fees and player transfer fees and these poor American players make peanuts. Some of them get $30-40k per season ? Ridiculous. Soccer in the US remains controlled by people with selfish interests...not those of the players or fans. No wonder it's never "taken off".

  1. cony konstin
    commented on: February 21, 2010 at 11:28 a.m.
    There was a civil war that was fought to end slavery 1865!!! I believe that both sides have forgotten this. I know the MLS has lost a lot of money over the years to make this league work but if they can not pay players a lot more than they are making then they need to get out of the pro soccer business. This is a disgrace to human beings to pay these players pennies on the dollar. What the MLS pays to most of their players is abomination. In 1975 Willie Mays was the highest paid baseball player. He was making $125,000 per season. That was 35 years ago. The union is a joke if they can't get what the players deserve and that is a fair pay to US standards of living. A pro athlete's life is very short. You can't pay players chicken feed an then expect excellence. The MLS is no more than a semi pro operation. They need to either close up shop or pay the players a salary that a pro can honestly live on.

  1. Joseph Szorcsik
    commented on: February 21, 2010 at 12:19 p.m.
    The salaries in MLS are low. But to compare that to slavery in 1865? A little dramatic there aren't we? Noone is forcing these players to play. There is more money to play abroad. If you are good enough, go for it. If you aren't, take what MLS gives you, or go back to school and get a real job. Players are not worth simply what they think they should be paid. Players are worth what a team can afford, and is willing, to pay them. Why are most rookies playing in the MLS for $30-40k/yr? Because no other team would offer them more. So guess what? That's what you are worth right now. Should guarunteed contracts be required prior to mid-season? Probably. Should players have more movement ability so teams can't hold them hostage even after they are done with them? Sure. But before you start crying that teams need to pay players more, remember teams need to have the money to pay them. The league needs to remain financially viable. Take these teams for example. Portsmouth has the word liquidation swirling around it in the news. Manchester United and Liverpool, two of the greatest names in the game, are in dire financial states. Crystal Palace collapsed and fell from the Premiership. Coventry spent 34 years in the top flight, but succumbed to overspending and fell. These are big names in arguably the games most successful league. Before we cry about what the league should do, let's remember what the league MUST do to stay viable. If you don't like it, buy season tickets so they have some money to pay to players.

  1. Kerry Ogden
    commented on: February 21, 2010 at 1:44 p.m.
    I support the Players 100% and they need to stick to their guns. Overspending happens in American sports as well as soccer but you don't see the NFL,MLB,AHL,etc.. backing down on paying premium wages.The same should be true for soccer. A clubs biggest cost come from the owners of staduims leasing at rediculous prices, then the contractors who charged the premium price to build the stadium. Get these costs down and you can afford to pay players a better wage and owners can make a decent profit.As far as players only worth 35k/yr, someones is smoking something, the cost for a player and his family alone is expensive let alone having to make adjustments to a new life.There is alot that can be argued either way but in the long run the league is going to have to cater to the players or soccer in this country will be gone!!!

  1. Paul Bryant
    commented on: February 21, 2010 at 2:07 p.m.
    As an American-born player you just cannot simply get picked up by a European team no matter how good you are. Unless you meet certain criteria,such as playing for the U.S. National Team a certain percentage of games played the previous 12 months, hold a foreign passport, or trace your lineage back two generations to somewhere in Europe, you will not receive a work permit. I understand the leagues' stance. They have a business model that needs time to work. On the other hand, the free movement of labor is one of the hallmarks of the free enterprise system. I have read the recently expired collective bargaining agreement. The best thing in it was the 401(k) plan in which the team matches contributions up to 2%. MLS, throw the players a bone.

  1. George Hoyt
    commented on: February 21, 2010 at 3:36 p.m.
    Free agency seems to be the most significant issue here. Player's salaries are what they are. If you can earn more elsewhere, go and get it. Yes, there are work permit issues and player eligibility issues in other leagues, but once again, these things can a do get worked out. MLS certainly needs to avoid the pitfalls currently engrossing other leagues around the world and have built there policies legally with longevity and viability in mind. That said, players deserve more freedom to negotiate in their own behalf. Perhaps they can buy their free agency from MLS at pre-determined levels written into a player's contract. I envision this adding on to a purchasing team's "transfer" fees (a stupid idea to begin with if you ask me) but could also be bought outright by a player or anyone willing to pay it. These fees would hopefully be made realistically according to a player's salary/ worth in the league. Any way you look at it, it's a serious impass that needs resolution sooner or later, hopefully with out a stoppage in play. Any time I hear of strikes in other leagues, the perception I have and I suggest any casual observer may have is that the players are greedy. I get strikes for auto/factory/mine/ any other actual work. Professional players, on the other hand, are part of an accesory to our culture, not a necessity. They are entertainors. I don't think the outrageous prices being paid to players world wide are good for anyone. They cannot be sustained over the long haul and are destined to bring on an early demise to the systems harboring them.

  1. cony konstin
    commented on: February 21, 2010 at 3:48 p.m.
    Joseph Szorcsik I tell you that there are around 325 players in the MLS that if they saw you burning alive they would most likely spit at you to try to put the flames out. I hope I am not wrong about that but you never know what exactly those 325 players would be thinking after they have read what you wrote about them. These players are not pieces of meat. They are athletes who have dedicated several years of their lives to be very good at what they do. Throwing them a few bones to keep them happy is not the answer. Maybe the league should not exist if they are going to treat these athletes like second class citizens. I hope the Union has the family jewels to fight for these guys. Let's see what happens through this process.

  1. Clayton Berling
    commented on: February 21, 2010 at 5:05 p.m.
    This all smacks too much of the political problem we have in this country (and probably most others.) There are two sides of the table with each having significant needs and problems. For a settlement to take place they need to stop taking an all-or-nothing approach to change, but recognize that movement in both directions must take place or we end up with gridlock and disaster. Take a multiyear approach to movement so that both sides are considered. They need each other even though they may not think so in the heat of battle. Is this a "Polyanna" approach? I'll accept that, but the alternative is not in the public's/fan's best interest or for the "good of the game."

  1. cony konstin
    commented on: February 21, 2010 at 6:11 p.m.
    Clay in many ways you are right but the beautiful game is a players game and without players you still have rich owners with empty stadiums for them to stare at. The players are the ones who make the spectacular so they need to be paid well. I am sorry $30,000 a year is a joke. It's wonderful that we have this league but I stand with the players 100%. It is better to die standing then to live on your knees--Emiliano Zapata. I have adopted this motto since I was 10 years old when I march with Cesar Chavez in San Francisco. I hope the union doesn't roll over and die. I hope they fight tooth and nail for these guys.

  1. Joseph Szorcsik
    commented on: February 21, 2010 at 11:53 p.m.
    LOL Cony. Come on. You say you are 100% behind the players and in the same post say they should close up shop on the league. So they will watch me burn for saying the league may not have the money to pay them more...but they will love you while they search employment ads since they all just lost their jobs? I'm sure the stadium workers, marketing people, coaching staff, television/radio guys, etc. etc. etc. will love you too. I would love to see the players make more. They deserve more. But it's not always about what they "deserve". If the clubs can't afford to pay them that...it can't happen. I know, the standard response, a whole bunch or rich guys, they can afford it. Between the league's inception and 2004, MLS lost $350 million. In 2008, only three teams were profitable. But who cares? Give the players more money and, go further in the hole and collapse. Guys like Schelotto and Keller may enjoy the extra few bucks in thier last year or two. But what about the scores of future players that will be without a league because they didn't practice fiscal responsibility. If you really love the players, buy the Direct Kick package from DirecTv, buy jerseys, go to the games, actually support the clubs. When this country makes soccer a top sport like MLB, NHL, NFL, NBA, etc., then there will be money to give the players. I'm not saying they players shouldn't get more in this deal, without looking at team statements, 2010- projections, etc., I don't know what should be done. But don't just spout out "The players need more" without understanding the impact that would have on the viability of the league. And don't ever again say "Just close up shop"...noone wins with that one.

  1. cony konstin
    commented on: February 22, 2010 at 12:18 a.m.
    Joseph Szorcsik The guys who own these teams are not nickel and dime thugs. Some of these guys just got bailed out by both Bush and Obama. These guys have more money then the Catholic Church. They can afford to give these players better pay but they won't because they feel they hold all the marbles. The owner of the Portland Timbers, his dad is worth $700 million. I think he can afford to pay his players a descent wage to live on. If these owners want this game to grow they need to take care of the US players. I don't support the foreigners playing here. I am nationalist. I believe in my country and in my people. The US players who are in MLS and are getting paid the bare min. is insulting and anti-American. The Union is asking to little for the players. They need to step up and fight harder for the players.

  1. Joseph Szorcsik
    commented on: February 22, 2010 at 9:56 a.m.
    "I know, the standard response, a whole bunch or rich guys, they can afford it." I called it. Don't talk about the economics of the game. Don't worry about making the teams, and the league profitable and viable. Just tell the rich guys to give everyone else their money. If the MLS is not going to be profitable, there will be no clubs. You said without players the rich guys would only have empty stadiums? Without the rich guys forming clubs and building stadiums, the MLS players would be the best players in Sunday afternoon bar leagues. I'm not trying to side with the owners, but you do need both the players and owners to make this work. If the new deal doesn't allow teams to be profitable, there will be no league. No league, Noone wins.

  1. cony konstin
    commented on: February 22, 2010 at 10:38 a.m.
    The owners will do what they want. If they want to treat the players with more respect they will give something to the union. If they want to continue the status quo they can because they hold all the cards. In the end let us hope that the owners will do what's right for the players and not what's right for their egos. These owners know what they got themselves into. It is call soccer which is just like any other game. You want to spend money to play big time pro soccer then you know you are going to lose a lot of money in the process so don't be a cheapskate with the players give them something more to live on and they will play harder and better.

  1. Joseph Szorcsik
    commented on: February 22, 2010 at 10:45 a.m.
    First off, the owners are already losing money. Second, I give the players more credit than you do. I don't think they are holding back just because they aren't making enough. If they really are holding back, then we have our solution. If they play harder and better now, the game will be better, more people will pay to come watch, and the owners will have more money to pay the players. Thanks Cony, you have solved the problem. MLS players need to quit being lazy and play harder. (I am being facitous, I watch almost every MLS game...effort isn't the issue right now)

  1. Roger Carpenter
    commented on: February 22, 2010 at 10:55 a.m.
    Hold the line! Stay in the fight. They can only push you as far as you let them. My family and I will support the players all the way. Solidarity in the Bond!

  1. cony konstin
    commented on: February 22, 2010 at 11:02 a.m.
    Joe The owners already get our support. We give them our money. The players now need our support. If you read most of the blogging about this issue 95% of the people support the players. So drink the coolade and join our family.

  1. Boone Yakis
    commented on: February 22, 2010 at 12:26 p.m.
    I have to agree with Joe here. Quoting how much an owner is worth is completely irrelevant. Just because they have money it doesn't mean that they should give it away. The team needs to be profitable. That's why they own the team. To make money. As long as the team is losing money the players should thank their lucky stars that the league still exists and they get to play soccer for a living. If they don't like it then they can join the rest of us in the real world. I do think free agency needs to be fixed.

  1. Joseph Szorcsik
    commented on: February 22, 2010 at 1:19 p.m.
    Thank you Boone. Cony...95% of you apparantly aren't supporting the players enough. If you went to more games, bought more jerseys, actually supported the game in America, we wouldn't be having this debate. The clubs would have more money and the players would be getting paid more. Put down the coolade (Actually spelled Kool-Aid), and go watch a game. And Boone, I agree free agency needs to be fixed. Actually if you look at the posts here, it's all about the salary. The players union isn't even talking about that right now. It's free agency, mid-season guaruntees for contracts and unilateral options. Those are all valid arguments worth sticking to your guns for. Demanding money that isn't there to be had? Even the players union realizes that's unproductive.

  1. Roger Carpenter
    commented on: February 23, 2010 at 9:05 a.m.
    I do support the players. I however have not purchased any game tickets for 2010. And I will not until there is a CBA! Solidarity in the Bond!

  1. Paul Bryant
    commented on: February 23, 2010 at 8:13 p.m.
    Roger I'm with you. I will not buy any tickets until the CBA is agreed to.


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