Soccer and labor strife: It's never about the money

By Paul Kennedy

As American sports go, pro soccer has had relative labor peace.

Since the only work stoppage -- the NASL strike of 1979 -- there have been two NFL strikes and one lockout, three NBA lockouts and one NHL strike and three lockouts.

As for baseball, there have been five work stoppages, the longest a 232-day strike that wiped out the entire 1994 postseason. MLB labor relations were so contentious that the 2002 collective bargaining agreement was the first in 30 years that was reached without a work stoppage.

The difference between pro soccer and the other American sports has been that there's money -- lots of money -- to strike over.

It reminds me of a conversation I had with John Kerr Sr. in 1988. Kerr, a star on the first New York Cosmos championship team in 1972, took up union organizing after his playing career ended and headed labor organizations for players in the NASL, the indoor MISL and MLS.

The indoor MISL was the place to be after the demise of the NASL, but it was still a struggle. In 1988, the owners were threatening to shut down the league if the players did not accept deep cuts, bringing the salary cap down about 20 percent to less than $900,000 per team.

The MISL union held out, refusing to bargain until owners settled some nagging grievances: money owed five injured players, contributions to the players' pension fund in arrears, a share of a licensing fee that the league got for a deal with a trading card company and the players felt they were entitled to. Sponsorship deals were few and far between in those days.

On the big issue, slashing the salary cap, owners had the players backed into a corner, but their threat to shut down the league still rang hollow.

"The reality is," Kerr said with chagrin, "if the owners paid the players nothing, they'd still be losing money."

The only strike in pro soccer history wasn't about money, it was about recognition. The NASL Players Association had no choice. Owners refused to bargain even though more than 90 percent of players had voted for representation and the National Labor Relations Board certified the vote.

The NASL strike, agreed upon by a 252-113 vote of the players, lasted all of five days. Weekend matches went ahead, and the strike was quickly doomed. More than 100 players who voted to strike wouldn't honor it.

Some clubs fielded their entire first teams; others filled out out lineups with amateur players signed to one-game contracts. To force them to negotiate with the players, the NLRB had to take the owners to Federal court -- and they still stalled.

If MLS players strike next week, it won't be about money, either. It will be because they've been backed into a corner on a more fundamental issue.

Pro soccer has come a long way from the days of the NASL and MISL. The revenues most MLS clubs are bringing in pales still in comparison to those of clubs in the other major sports leagues with bigger TV deals or longer seasons or both.

But the money coming in is not insignificant. If MLS owners can afford to sign Designated Players, they'll likely agree to a nice bump in the salary cap and minimum compensation. That's not the issue.

For NASL owners, it was an all-or-nothing proposition in 1979: they wouldn't recognize the union. For MLS owners, it will be another all-or-nothing proposition: they refuse to grant any form of free agency.
12 comments about "Soccer and labor strife: It's never about the money".
  1. Fingers Crossed, February 26, 2015 at 10:14 a.m.

    A strike would be damaging to players, owners and the league and its probably safe to say that no one wants a strike. MLS has gathered significant momentum over the last five years and a prolonged strike could potentially roll back much of the progress that has been made. Having said that, the players have no incentive to reach a deal before the deadline. It is their primary source of leverage in negotiations so I would not expect this to get resolved until the very last minute. The league is in decent financial shape but there are teams that are still losing money. Both the players and owners are going to have to give a little. The players are not going to get unrestricted free agency. The owners will never agree to that and the league isn't financially strong enough to move to that. History has shown in every league that unrestricted free agency leads to a massive inflationary cycle on salaries. However, the owners will have to do something on player salaries, whether it is adding a new DP slot for each team, increasing the minimum salary to a respectable amount, or some kind of modified free agency (or all of those). Hopefully, reasonable minds will prevail and the two sides will come to a resolution before the start of the season.

  2. Mario Cesarone, February 26, 2015 at 10:34 a.m.

    Soccer and labor strife: It's never about the money.

    This is a joke, right?
    Its always about the money and who makes it! By the way, what happened to NASL and MISL? Neither of them lasted as long as MLS or were as strong after 19 years. Ok the players should get a fair cut but Single Entity must survive so that Professional Soccer can survive.

  3. Raymond Weigand, February 26, 2015 at 11:46 a.m.

    I find it funny that you only mention free agency as the finale ... and yet ... you don't want to address it ... kind of like the ownership. When the union publishes the wages for the players and 2/3 of them make less than a school teacher or postman ... I think the ownership probably surmise that teachers and the postman are over paid. The consequence to this type of economic based decision ... there are better players out there who choose just not to play ... and the ownership is okay with promoting their inferior product ... because it is the right business strategy for their bottom line. Perhaps it is the fans who should strike?

  4. Footballer Forever, February 26, 2015 at 12:48 p.m.

    It is obvious MLS has increased revenue in the recent years and with the recent tv revenue contract; However, the league is not completely solid to allow free agency as demanded. Minimum Pay increase no doubt is merited. If and when the next CBA comes thru and US tv ratings has increased to the point of even more revenue then open the gates to free agency, but not now. The whole growth of football will suffer as it did when the NASL folded and we don't want/need that. I got my MLS live subscription purchased and will make decision to travel to OCFC inagural game only if CBA decision is resolved sooner than later.

  5. Jeffrey Organ, February 26, 2015 at 2:18 p.m.

    So you are an MLS owner. The league asks you to invest significant amounts of money in expansion fees, contribute substantially to building a stadium since cities seem to play tough when it comes to building soccer facilities, lose money for an indeterminate amount of time and then run their teams to serve the interests of US Soccer. Then your fan base screams for better quality of play and more star power. So to meet this demand you invest in players that you really have no hope of paying for with team revenues in the short term.
    Then the journeymen US players (since international players don't care) use all of this against you, citing things like the new TV deal. This "rich" deal, that after you remove US Soccer and the league's cut and divide among 20 teams, will not add up to much.
    Seems like a labor of love for the owners because there will be a long payoff If it ever happens. I will get behind players free agency when owners start selling their franchises for hundreds of millions and get billion dollar TV contracts. Until then the players should focus on raising minimum salaries for the large portion of their membership who need it, increasing the salary cap and addressing quality of life issues like travel.

  6. James Madison, February 26, 2015 at 5:41 p.m.

    For the uninitiated among us, how can free agency be accoommodated within the single entithy concept?

  7. Scott Johnson, February 27, 2015 at 2:13 a.m.

    What worked for the NBA, many years ago, is a salary cap tied to revenue: players got a certain cut of the gate and TV receipts. Of course, like many things, the American way of doing pro sports (where various means exist to enforce parity across the league) and the European way of doing things (where the rich stay rich and the poor clubs stay poor, FTMP) are different; the MLS may have to adapt to European norms of team management at some point--particularly if it ever hopes to attract prime talent, rather than be a de-facto minor league.

  8. Andrzej Kowalski, February 27, 2015 at 6:11 p.m.

    $3mln salary cup is no good for MLS because MLS is losing middle level players hwho go to Europe.

  9. Andrzej Kowalski, February 27, 2015 at 6:16 p.m.

    This is not DPs but the middle level players who decide about the level of play, because soccer is a team play and every player needs a good service to perform well.

  10. Andrzej Kowalski, February 27, 2015 at 6:20 p.m.

    If MLS will rise salary cup at such a tempo it will take 100 years to catch up with the best world leagues.

  11. Andrzej Kowalski, February 27, 2015 at 6:24 p.m.

    MLS needs to rise players payrolls in such a tempo that it will catch up in 30 year universary with French league in this regard.

  12. Andrzej Kowalski, February 27, 2015 at 6:29 p.m.

    Average players payroll in english league is 38% if EPL revenues, in MLS 15% .

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