5 Reasons Why MLS Labor Deal Was a Missed Opportunity
Major League Soccer and its players union may have agreed a deal to allow the league’s 20th season to start as scheduled on Friday when the Los Angeles Galaxy plays host to the Chicago Fire.
But I worry that a crucial chance has been squandered to finally set MLS on a path that could actually make a difference to the way soccer is perceived as a second class sport in the U.S.
Both sides will claim victory for their own reasons.
The players union will say it improved conditions for its members but it effectively caved for the very reason it needed to hold firm – most of the players earn such poor salaries with their clubs they likely couldn’t afford a strike.
Last season, the final five players on a team’s roster could be paid as little as $36,500 and, according to the LA Times, about half the players in the league made less than $50,000.
I’ve been on strike for five weeks and I know the hardships it brings. You can be pretty certain these players don’t have much in the way of savings to cushion the financial blow when they’re earning that kind of money. According to reports, the union raised the minimum to $60,000 in the new deal, which is a fair wage in many professions and a reasonable increase but paltry compared to other leagues and not enough to really make a difference.
The shame is that the league faced a different kind of pressure from the likes of ESPN, Fox and Univision that just agreed to pay $90 million a season in broadcasting rights. They weren’t going to put up with a long stoppage and MLS couldn’t afford the hit in its profile and popularity a strike would cause.
The new teams from New York and Orlando are meeting at the weekend in a major propaganda coup for the league. The last thing they wanted to do was postpone it.
But the opportunity for change has gone and with it, I suspect, is the chance of MLS becoming a genuine world-class league.
Sports fans in America are spoiled. The best players in the world are on show in every major league in the U.S.…except soccer.
Devoted fans are more likely to be discussing the ups and downs of a league thousands of miles across the Atlantic Ocean with names of clubs as meaningless to most Americans as Burnley and West Ham United than the latest Chicago Fire or Seattle Sounders results.
That is simply not a situation that can be allowed to continue over time without the homegrown product withering on the vine.
As a parent who raised three children through the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) system, I can personally vouch for the fact that there is little wrong with the youth part of the equation.
Boys and girls across the country are given the opportunity to grow in a thriving, learning environment with excellent management and parental involvement I would suggest is unequaled anywhere else in the world.
The parents coach, they referee, they run the line, they encourage and they hold pizza parties for the slightest reason.
Girls and boys’ teams are run on parallel lines, another major plus for the development of the game. There is no shortage of club teams for the particularly gifted.
But the growth of soccer starts to hit problems as the children reach high school age. It is here that those parents, so solidly behind their soccer-playing kids up until now, begin to ask more searching questions from the sport.
It is quite likely that the better players are equally proficient at another sport. A good eye for a ball is, after all, the chief requirement of games from tennis to golf to baseball and that other football.
So the parents are looking towards the future for their children. They are looking at free scholarships to cover the cost of America’s extremely expensive college educations and they are looking at the salaries of the professional athletes their kids may one day hope to be.
This is where soccer starts to fall by the wayside, at least for boys. The parents will see that college basketball, football and baseball players are in a different league to the soccer collage stars in terms of the way they are treated and the opportunities they are offered. They will see that the minimum wage in Major League Soccer last year was just $36,500.
They will suggest to little Jimmy that perhaps he should concentrate on his three-point shot or his kick returns. Soccer was fun for when you were little, they’ll tell him, but it’s time to get serious.
So on the eve of the MLS’s 20th season this weekend, here are 5 things the players should have insisted on to create a collective bargaining agreement that would actually work to their benefit:
1. Give the players free agency
This is America, not Russia. Communism didn’t work; you can’t even up all the teams and expect everybody to be happy with it. The current system in which the league and its investors own all 20 teams as well as their players is stifling growth. Let the free market work as it’s supposed to and stop trying to artificially control player movement. The best players should play for the highest bidder for their services, not to balance up the squads.
2. Scrap the single-entity Big Brother MLS and turn it into an overseeing organization like the English Football Association
The business model of MLS is built on the specter of past failures and not the promise of future success. This is a country built on opportunity and with communications making it an ever smaller world who is to say the U.S. won’t one day be the biggest, most important soccer league in the world? Sure, distances are involved, but teams in the European Champions League have to fly to most games in the middle of the week and nobody’s complaining about that. Every team is desperate to be a part of it. Of course, there must be come financial controls, but individual clubs should be just that and not part of a nationwide conglomerate rife with conflicts of interest. Give the player’s contracts to the clubs they play for, not kept in a pack to shuffle when the league gets a little lop-sided.
3. Scrap the $3.1 million salary cap
The comparatively miserly wages for the majority of MLS players have done more than anything else to prevent top players in their prime from coming to the U.S. The only way to get an elite league is to attract elite players, not over-the-top marquee names in the twilight of their careers. The Daily Mail has calculated that MLS ranks 22nd among the world’s soccer leagues. A 15% increase, the salary cap increase reportedly agreed on Wednesday night, isn’t going to make an awful lot of difference.
4. Raise the minimum wage for first team players
By increasing the wages of the experienced star players, the rookies and squad fillers will see their pay pulled up accordingly. The new agreement reportedly increases the minimum from $36,500 to $60,000 but that is still meager compared to other international football leagues and other sports leagues in the U.S.
5. Stop relying on ageing superstars and encourage young homegrown stars
MLS will argue that the buy-in of superstars like David Beckham, Thierry Henry and even Clint Dempsey has raised the profile of the league around the world. Who are they kidding? Everybody knows the only reason these stars moved was because they’d virtually played out their careers and they were offered one last payday and the chance to live in a nice place. The other side of the coin was that DeAndre Yedlin was allowed to move from Seattle to Tottenham Hotspur despite being exactly the type of young player the league should be spotlighting. Only by nurturing the undoubted talent of the millions of children graduating through AYSO will the league find the kind of respect it so desperately seeks.