By Ridge Mahoney
It’s time to analyze the analysis of the Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations as explained, or not, to members of the American press.
This is not done to take potshots at any of the three sides in this issue: the league, the players union, and the media, since all have their axes to grind and/or prejudices to perpetrate. And there haven’t been a lot of specific details provided, other than a few figures who sparked a firestorm of interpretation and interpolation, speculative at best and flat-out wrong at worst.
But as the great scribe Mark Twain once said, “There are lies, there are damn lies, and then there are statistics,” so once uttered, numbers as well as statements can be as ephemeral as the air into which they dissipate.
So here goes:
MLS President Mark Abbott made a big deal of the league proposing to increase player compensation by $60 million over the proposed five-year agreement. MLS Players Union executive Bob Foose fired back that the math worked out to a mere 4.8 percent increase per year – not in the salary cap per se, but player compensation, which can take many forms – whereas some consternation was expressed in the press as to why the players didn’t jump at an increase most laborers in the current economic climate would swap for their hi-def TV in a heartbeat.
Abbott did not specify that increase would be in salaries: it could be tied to allocation money, that undocumented pile of cash that slushes amongst teams, and other payments – playoff money, housing allowances, automobile allowances, signing bonuses, incentive bonuses, league award bonuses, draft bonuses, loyalty bonuses, bonuses paid for not speaking out in public on CBA negotiations, etc. -- that might or might not be spread across the board to all players.
The league has been aggressively bidding for Generation adidas players – whose contracts are usually guaranteed for at least the first year, it must be pointed out – yet has hardly been as generous with other classes of players. League officials deny it, but most players drafted after the first round in the past few years, or who bypassed the draft to take a shot overseas and then returned, start out at the minimum salary or close to it, unless they came back through the allocation process.
The teams are in a tough spot. Wasting a first-round pick on a player who might go overseas doesn't make much sense, but drafting him later greatly restricts what the league is willing to pay him and thus keep him.
While Abbott, without providing specifics, claimed the league had made concessions on the three major sticking points of guaranteed contracts; unilateral options; and freedom of movement for players, waived, terminated or out of contract; he adamantly reiterated the league’s anti-free agency stance. He did not address the fact that a salary cap restricts salary costs, so it’s not feasible that MLS could spend itself into bankruptcy by wild-eyed bidding for players.
In professional sports leagues there are myriad forms of free agency, only a few of which constitute outright, free-wheeling bidding wars. What the league really fears is not a few teams amassing the best talent through sheer financial clout, but -- aside from damaging the underpinnings of a single-entity system -- players fleeing poorly run teams to well-managed operations as soon as they can. A protectionism policy on parity is hardly the hallmark of a growth industry, which MLS purports itself to be.
No source has confirmed a blog posting about the two sides agreeing to a salary cap of $2.6 million and guaranteed contracts of up to three years for certain players. One player rep said the data might have been included in a proposal submitted by the players that the league rejected. Or is that salary-cap bump legit, a bonafide 13 percent increase that Foote is ratcheting down to 4.8 percent by his own murky methods of mathematical manipulation?
Going public about the impasse has forced MLS to increase the ante. On Monday, the league drilled an overhead smash into the players’ side of the court by announcing, in a shift of policy, that it would operate in 2010 under the current CBA and won't lock out the players. Commissioner Don Garber stated at the SuperDraft that the way the CBA is written the league can’t operate under an expired agreement, but now that too now appears to have been a bit of grandstanding.
Abbott declined repeated requests from this reporter to explain the relevant CBA wording but the league office did try to reach me Saturday and wasn't able to. Still, the players have only a few days to return this latest salvo and keep the game going.
Operating under the current CBA would cost the players this year, at least, in their battle for improved conditions and it would also prevent them from striking during the season. Union reps evaded questions about a strike fund that players could draw from, and it’s safe to assume there’s not much in the way of “mad” money stashed away somewhere.
And the clock keeps ticking ....