MLS CBA deal: who got what? who gave up what?

An agreement in principle was reached between MLS and the MLS Players Union early Wednesday evening on a five-year collective bargaining agreement, ending the threat of the league's first work stoppage.

The historic agreement includes restricted free agency, "more movement," MLS Commissioner Don Garber noted on Sports Center, "than we probably thought we would provide when the league was launched."

That does not mean all players were happy. Far from it.

Besides the five-year term -- the same as the agreement that expired at the end of January and less than the eight years MLS was reportedly seeking -- no other details of the agreement were released by MLS or the MLSPU Wednesday evening, But these key aspects were reported by Paul Tenorio of the Orlando Sentinel:

-- Players 28 years or older with at least eight years of service in the league will become free agents when their contract expires or options aren't picked up by their current club.

-- The catch to MLS free agency: a cap on the free agency's salary increases, increases of 15 percent to 25 percent based on his current salary.

-- Players will earn a minimum of $60,000 a year, up from a minimum of $36,500 in 2014, with increases in the minimum in subsequent seasons.

The salary cap -- the maximum amount of money each club can spend on player salaries each year -- will increase 7 percent from $3.1 million in 2014 to $4.2 million in 2019, reported Steven Goff of the Washington Post. Remember: the salary cap only covers a portion of a Designated Player's salary and doesn't cover players on Generation adidas or Homegrown contracts or low-end players, the so-called non-senior players taking up slots 21-30. Clubs also get allocation money and league subsidies to cover some salary costs.

WHAT THE LEAGUE GETS. MLS essentially gets cost-containment for five more years. Free agency will only modestly disrupt a team's budgeting. The small incremental increases in a free agent's salary will keep teams from bidding against each other and driving up his salary. The 7 percent annual growth in the cap is something clubs can work with.

All the CBA negotiations are believed to have concerned internal free agency. There has been no indication of any changes to the mechanisms for entry into MLS, whether from abroad (designated players, discovery claims, allocation orders, retained rights) or via the U.S. college or youth ranks (SuperDraft or increasingly via Homegrown route). Just because a player is a free agent on the world market, MLS clubs won't be able to enter into a bidding war to sign him. In this regard, MLS remains similar to other American sports leagues.

More than what MLS owners get, though, is what they avoid: a strike. Orlando City will debut on Sunday before a sellout crowd of 60,000 fans at the Orlando City. That moment to show off MLS to the Orlando market -- and national television audience -- would have been lost if there was a strike.

A strike would have been cost the owners, even if it did not end with the players getting anything more than the owners than they already agreed to give them. Most critically, a strike would have been a stain for pro soccer, which for all the progress MLS has made, is still viewed as something less than a major league in many circles.

Early on Wednesday when a strike seemed very possible, ESPN anchor Bob Ley, the network's long-time soccer host, said a strike "would break the needle on the stupid meter."

WHAT THE LEAGUE GIVES UP. All through the bargaining process, MLS officials had insisted that the free agency was incompatible with the single-entity system upon which the league was founded and the basis on which owners bought into the league.

Real Salt Lake owner Dell Loy Hansen went on Salt Lake City radio and termed the union's call for free agency "a go-nowhere conversation." He was fined a reported $150,000 for his comments.

The league's reported opening offer of 32/10 -- free agency for players 32 years old with 10 years on the same team -- was a threshold so severe that only one player (Houston's Brad Davis) met it, but it was a start. The 28/8 threshold is not so far off from some of the free-agency benchmarks available in other American sports leagues. (What is different, of course, are the modest salary bumps.)

In the future, owners won't be able to start the negotiations at no free agency. The players will be able to work off the 28/8 threshold and bargain for better terms.

The owners wanted an eight-year CBA but took five years, so they didn't lose anything. If anything, it was a bargaining ploy to make a "concession" that didn't hurt.

WHAT THE PLAYERS GET. The union effectively used Garber's reference to MLS becoming a "league of choice" against him in pressing for players getting their own choice in playing where they want. Players get some freedom of movement, a matter of fundamental fairness, especially for those who had invested their entire careers in MLS and stuck with pro soccer and the league from the lean years of the early and mid-2000s to its recent go-go years.

The monetary gains players will get remain modest. The big winners are MLS's lowest-paid players, typically players signed out of college. They'll now get a minimum salary of $60,000 a year. That's peanuts compared to the minimum salary of $507,000 in MLB or $435,000 in the NFL, but it's a significant bump from the current minimum salary of $36,500 -- or the $975 a month (!) that some players made after the first CBA was signed in 2004.

Players won the battle of public opinion in the growing soccer market, effectively painting owners as two-faced, spending large sums on Designated Players on the one hand and crying poverty on the other. It might not have gotten players that much this time around, but it lays the foundation for the next go-around in 2015.

WHAT THE PLAYERS GIVE UP. Not all players are happy with the deal. Ives Galarcep of Goal.com tweeted that player reps from seven teams voted against the final agreement -- and Liviu Bird of SI.com quoted a player who had been at the negotiating table as saying the team reps had voted 18-1 to strike 24 hours before they turned around and accepted a deal far off their bottom line. “Not only did this deal destroy the future of the American player," the player said, "it barely helps the current group of players.”

MLS players didn't give up any free agency rights because they didn't have any to behind with, but few players will be able to meet the 28/8 threshold. Of the 220 players Soccer America projects to start on the opening weekend of play, just 29 players or 13 percent would qualify for free agency if they were out of contract.

The concerns going forward are the age requirement and caps on salary increases for free agents. Most college seniors would be able to meet both tests of the 28/8 rule in the same year, but as MLS moves forward, the bulk of American players entering the league will be Homegrown players who have played little or no college soccer. A player like U-20 captain Kellyn Acosta of FC Dallas would need to play 11 seasons to be eligible for free agency.

Players who oppose the deal insist the terms of free agency give them no leverage to extract more money out of their current clubs. There may be some truth to that but the priorities were choice first, money second.

What the union gave up by folding was the strike-threat weapon. If the players didn't strike this time, will the owners take a strike threat seriously the next time? Some players will blame the reps, union bosses, even the mediator, for that. But the reality is that players held the weaker hand and would likely not have gotten a better deal by striking.

MLS's disparate player groups -- the Designated Players, the many foreigners happy to have found a new home and steady paycheck here, the American lifers who lead the union, the new generation of ambitious HG stars and those reserves who will head off on loan to USL clubs -- make it almost impossible for them to speak with one voice against an MLS ownership group disciplined in sticking to the essential principles of their single-entity league.
2 comments about "MLS CBA deal: who got what? who gave up what?".
  1. Adam Tondowsky, March 5, 2015 at 9:43 a.m.

    What is the salary cap going to be?

  2. Zoe Willet, March 5, 2015 at 5:15 p.m.

    Someone needs to find a better way than a strike. I myself have been through two, and imo they do not produce positive results for either side.

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