MLS players' strike: Explaining reasons behind the potential work stoppage
Things have never been better for MLS. The league continues to grow both in terms of the number of teams and attendance. Frank Lampard, David Villa and Kaka are all poised to begin their first seasons in MLS. Nothing can halt that kind of momentum, right?
Actually there's something that could stop the league dead in its tracks -- a strike by the players. Jeff Carlisle answers all the pertinent questions on the matter.
Q: Why would the players strike?
A: MLS and the MLS Players Union are trying to hash out a new collective bargaining agreement. The old one expired on Jan. 31, and there are some big issues the two sides are attempting to hash out before the season is scheduled to start on March 6.
Q: Where do things stand right now?
A: MLS has been very quiet, but the MLSPU has made it clear that when it comes to the key issues, the two sides remain very far apart in terms of getting a deal done.
Q: So what are the sticking points?
A: The MLSPU's aims are twofold. One is increased compensation for players, and the second is free agency.
Q: Increased compensation? Wait a minute. Hasn't MLS been throwing money around like a Kardashian lately?
A: MLS has indeed been splashing cash on players like Jozy Altidore, Sebastian Giovinco and Kaka. But the MLSPU is trying to raise salaries for the rank and file. The minimum salary is $36,500 per year. It's not unusual for players on those types of deals to take side jobs coaching youth teams, or doing every single public appearance they can get their hands on to make some extra money.
Q: OK, but haven't salaries gone up significantly over the years?
A: They have, but that's mostly at the top end of the pay scale. Based on data released last April, the average salary is about $207,000 per year, but the median is still around $91,000.
Q: Fair enough, but MLS commissioner Don Garber says the league loses around $100 million per year. So how can the MLSPU be asking for higher salaries?
A: The MLSPU contends that the value of the clubs is rising, and that one only has to look at the expansion fees being paid by new teams -- the second L.A. team set to begin play in 2017 reportedly paid over $100 million -- to see that this is the case. Other revenue streams are rising as well. The latest TV deal will pay the league $90 million per year. True, that's a smidgen of what the English Premier League is getting, but that's about a three-fold increase over the old deal. The MLSPU feels that salaries should be tied to this increase in revenues and club valuations, not profits.
The good news is that this is an issue where a middle ground can be reached.
Q: What about free agency?
A: That issue is more black and white. The MLSPU wants to allow players to pick and choose where they play after spending a certain amount of time in the league. But MLS wants nothing to do with any form of free agency. Since MLS' inception, its single-entity structure has meant that the league owns all player contracts. This has resulted in the league being able to dictate to players what a performer's relative worth is, and avoid a scenario whereby teams are bidding against each other for players. This has helped keep salaries down and helped achieve cost certainty when it comes to paying salaries to non-Designated Players.
MLS also contends that players have options to play abroad if they don't like what they're being paid in MLS. The MLSPU counters that for many of its members, playing abroad is not a practical option.
Q: Haven't there been instances of teams bidding against each other for DPs?
A: In essence, yes. Michael Bradley had four different suitors when he rejoined MLS in 2014, though Toronto's offer of $6.5 million a year ultimately blew everyone away. More recently, Jermaine Jones was involved in a tug-of-war between Chicago and New England before a coin flip. But MLS has taken steps recently to make sure there isn't a repeat of that scenario.
Q: Isn't cost certainty achieved through a salary cap?
A: One would think, and it marks the single biggest weakness in terms of MLS' arguments against free agency. MLS insists that cost certainty can only be achieved by speaking with one voice when operating in the international player market. But in terms of non-DP players, it's a zero-sum game. If one player gets a raise, that either comes out of the pocket of another player on the roster, or any extra cap space the team might have.
Q: So what is MLS' hang-up then?
A: Ultimately it's about control and avoiding bidding wars among teams. There are legal considerations as well. The league's single-entity structure survived a court challenge back in 2000, though the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit said MLS' structure was a hybrid approach and didn't constitute a pure single entity. If MLS allows free agency and thus begins to operate even less like a single entity and more like a traditional North American sports league, it could leave itself vulnerable to a fresh challenge to its structure on anti-trust grounds. Protecting that system remains paramount, and MLS sees no reason to bargain away what it won in court. For that reason, free agency is anathema to the way the league wants to operate.
Q: Are the players really determined to strike over this issue?
A: Publicly, the players' message has been very consistent in that yes, they are prepared to strike if the new CBA doesn't contain at least some form of free agency. It's possible that this is merely a negotiating ploy to extract concessions in other areas, but all indications are that the players feel this is the key issue for this CBA.
Q: Is there any hope of avoiding a work stoppage?
A: Yes. On Thursday, the two sides engaged the services of a federal mediator to help them work out a deal. The should potentially help them accomplish a few things. It's important to note that the mediator's prime role is to be an impartial facilitator. The mediator's decisions aren't binding in any way, and either side could walk away from the negotiations at any time if they don't like where things are heading.
In terms of the negotiations, the mediator can fulfill a variety of practical roles. One is that a side uses the mediator essentially to negotiate with its own constituents. You might do that if what you're trying to do as a union is convince your membership that this is a fair deal. Or you might do it as a negotiating unit for teams if you're trying to convince your ownership that they've got to give on something. There could also be personal issues that they're trying to overcome between the negotiators.
Q: Is the mediator's presence a good sign?
A: Yes. While the presence of a mediator isn't a guarantee of anything, it does signal a willingness on the part of both sides to move off of their entrenched positions. It's also an indication that so long as the mediator is present, neither side will move toward initiating a work stoppage. Five years ago, the presence of mediator George Cohen was widely hailed as being instrumental in getting a deal done.
Q: You keep talking about the players going on strike, but would the owners lock them out?
A: There has been no indication from MLS that they would be willing to take this step. A year ago, MLS did lock out the league's referees at the start of the season when CBA negotiations broke down, but again, there has been no indication that MLS will take that approach here.
Q: Don't these types of negotiations tend to go down to the wire?
A: Yes. Five years ago, the CBA was agreed upon less than a week before the start of the regular season. It appears likely that will be the case this time.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.