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Feb 26, 2010

MLS labor talks simmering ... for now

The tenuous labor development in Major League Soccer is the classic definition of an uneasy peace.

If this were a married couple, in polite conversation we would say they are "having serious troubles." One party would have surely moved into the guest room.

But they are under the same roof at least -- for now. Thursday's development in the ongoing labor dispute is a little hard to get your arms around, for it was movement through lack of movement.

In fact, the most significant development is that fans and media know more today about the formerly hazy issues than they did a week ago. Not much more, however.

Facing a midnight deadline, Major League Soccer issued a statement Thursday evening reiterating its stance of late, that it would not lock out players and that it was prepared to operate in 2010 under the old collective bargaining agreement. That drove the ball back into the players' end.

"We have listened to the issues raised by the MLS Players Union and the League has made detailed proposals that have addressed these issues, including in the areas of economics, guaranteed contracts, options and the ability of a player to move to another MLS Club if he is released by his current Club," the league's statement said. "These proposals, which represent substantial changes from the current CBA, will significantly increase our spending and provide substantially more rights to the players."

So the players responded Thursday night with a statement from Bob Foose, executive director of the players' union, who said he expects negotiations will resume at some undetermined point, but that "there simply hasn't been enough progress made in the negotiations to date to warrant an extension of the old agreement."

"We have advised our players to keep working for the time being, but as of Friday they will be doing so without a CBA," Foose said in a statement. "In the meantime, all options are being considered as the process continues. We are completely committed to forging real changes to the way MLS players are treated."

The sides had played nicely in this process for months, quietly engaging in negotiations with little public comment. A couple of prominent players did speak up, Seattle goalkeeper Kasey Keller being the most prominent among them. But the well-respected former U.S. international wasn't one of the men in suits sitting at a table, so it's accurate to say that both parties were able to keep the bulk of bluster and rancor behind closed doors.

That all came apart last weekend, as one side and then the other went public with their frustrations. What emerged was a picture of one significant sticking point: movement toward true free agency. The players want it. The league is stubbornly dedicated to seeing no real progress in that direction.

Part of the bedrock of Major League Soccer (since before the first ball was kicked back in 1996) has been its single-entity concept, with contracts owned by the league and not by the individual clubs, at least in a technical sense. The league's founders carefully constructed the centrally controlled system around the very premise of careful salary management, and then defended it in court at significant expense -- and not because they don't like players or deem them more marketable if they drive mid-sized compacts rather than fancy sports cars. Rather, this was the best way to moderate the danger of league meltdown through overspending. We've all seen that movie before: R.I.P., North American Soccer League.

So who gains the most benefit in this uneasy truce, one that was reached after deadlines were twice extended? They both benefit in a public-relations sense and in avoiding true battle scars, because no fatal wounds have been inflicted at this point. Only the core soccer fan has any awareness of all this -- and even then, it's only a passing awareness, as teams are still a month away from beginning the 15th MLS season. Talk of strikes and lockouts are distasteful for fans of any league, particularly in these days of an economy on the skids.

Any justification of a strike from a players' standpoint would not be greeted warmly in the general public, where life as a pro athlete at any salary looks dandy amid 10 percent unemployment.

Plus, there are plenty of MLS athletes who would soon be asking for applications at the local Starbucks just to make ends meet. A mid-level MLS player (think Chicago Fire goalkeeper Jon Busch or veteran Galaxy midfielder Clint Mathis) makes about $100,000 annually. A big percentage of players in the league (perhaps a third) earn less than $70,000. While that may be an argument for a bump in the league's $2.3 million-per-team salary cap, it's also a reminder that a prolonged strike could mean serious financial hardship for dozens of players. That knowledge would put immediate pressure on union solidarity in the event of a strike or lockout.

There's jeopardy on the league's side, too. Owners who already lose money in MLS would see their clubs suffer tremendously. Cash losses (refunds to sponsors and losses at the turnstile) might be offset in the short term by reduction in salary costs. (Salary costs, that is, not just to players but to front-office staff, who would probably be pinched by layoffs.)

But the longer-range damage could be immense. Soccer gets only the most tepid support from mainstream media anyway. A strike or lockout would reduce the sport to a punch line once again among the ranks of soccer's haters, who would have the proverbial field day. Disgusted fans could turn up their noses at the MLS brand. They have so many other options these days to watch good soccer, after all.

Particularly hard hit would be the new team in Philadelphia. Nothing says "Howdy!" to a bunch of curious new fans like watching the whole enterprise shut down straight away.

Staffers would go find other jobs, and replacing them would exact a mighty toll. You had better believe that poor performance by sales, marketing, advertising and operations staff can impact the bottom line through reduced attendance and hurt feelings in the soccer community. Clubs around the league have gone through repair periods, when they were working long hours just to undo damage done by previous poor front-office performers, straining to regain the trust of scorned fans. (That's why it's easier today for expansion teams such as Philadelphia and Seattle to launch with an excited flourish, as opposed to Red Bull New York, which is behind its Union neighbors to the south in season-ticket sales despite the implied "advantages" of a 15-year head start.)

Of course, a damaging work stoppage could still happen. By moving forward without a CBA, clauses that prohibit strikes and lockouts are no longer in effect. Technically, it still could happen any day.

Players around the league are practicing today, but it's an uneasy peace indeed.

Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Dailysoccerfix.com, and can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.

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