Harsh words were spoken over the weekend on both sides of the MLS collective bargaining table, leaving many to fear that a deal will not be struck by the February 25 deadline. And, indeed, the parties may push their respective negotiating postures to the brink of a work stoppage or even walk away from the table altogether come next Thursday. However, fans can rest assured that MLS players will be on the field for opening day — no matter what happens over the next four weeks. The alternative is mutually assured destruction.
The players still want all contracts to be guaranteed and remain intent on gaining free agency. Player representative Pat Onstad led the charge saying on Friday that he has been mentally preparing for a strike for months. Jimmy Conrad added “[if a strike] happens, then we’re unified on what we’re passionate about and what we think needs to change. We will stand by that until it does.”
The league’s chief negotiator, MLS president Mark Abbott, responded Saturday that MLS will bend on contract guarantees (though not for all contracts) but that free agency is off the table, stating, “That is something the league is not prepared to do.” In other words, the parties have made progress on some issues, but are miles apart on the biggest issue, free agency.
The separation on the free agency issue is fully consistent with historical precedent and strike rhetoric is to be expected at this stage in the negotiations. With four days left under the deadline, it is entirely appropriate for both sides to show their convictions. That means the union must demonstrate its willingness to strike and management needs to convince the union that it is prepared to endure a work stoppage. The closer to the deadline, the more important the posturing becomes.
But, internally, both sides must accept that failing to start the season with MLS players on the field assures failure for the league and the union. Major League Soccer owner/investors lost $350 million from 1996 to 2004, according to Business Week. The initial losses were a down payment on a path to eventual profitability. MLS Commissioner Don Garber has predicted that the 2010 season may be the first in which the league as a whole ends up in the black. Indeed, the league’s never had a better opportunity than 2010 to solidify its profitability — it is a World Cup year, there is an expansion franchise in Philadelphia with Portland and Vancouver to follow next year, and MLS has a newly constructed soccer mecca for the strategically vital New York Red Bulls. Failure to capitalize on this unique chance would spell disaster for MLS.
Yet, as much as the league needs to play this year, the players stand even more to lose from a prolonged work stoppage. It is important to remember that, prior to the launch of MLS, players had zero options to play outdoor professional soccer in the US. The establishment of MLS provided players the opportunity to a make a living playing soccer at home.
In fact, the guaranteed compensation roster for MLS players in 2009 reveals that the players’ salaries are not as miniscule as one might believe. Onstad and Conrad, for example, earned $181,650 and $225,000, respectively, last year. Similarly, for example, Ricardo Clark made $248,050 in guaranteed compensation, Jeff Cunningham took home $219,255, Dave Van Den Bergh made $227,000, and Red Bulls rookie Jeremy Hall was paid $104,000 in guaranteed compensation. Indeed, while 49 players earned under $30,000 in 2009, the league average for guaranteed compensation in 2009 was $135,234. The median total salary was $77,008, meaning that if you lined all MLS players in a row with David Beckham on one side and the lowest paid player on the other, the one in the middle — Houston’s Craig Waibel — earned just over $77,000.
MLS players do not make NFL or NBA salaries for sure, but most earn considerably more than their next best alternative. The US Open Cup has proven that the talent gap between MLS and Division 2 soccer in this country is not particularly great. While players could look to the NASL or USL for employment in the case of a strike, it is doubtful they would all find work and most could not secure as high a salary as MLS has paid. Further, while the designated players could play in leagues outside the United States, many MLS players would not have that alternative. The fact remains that MLS players need Major League Soccer to thrive; risking the league’s demise does not suit the players’ goals.
Finally, little has been written about the significant role the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) is playing in these negotiations. The USSF has expended tremendous effort to secure the 2018 or 2022 World Cup for the United States. The last thing that bid effort needs is for the US’s top league to implode. Recall that FIFA emphasized the need to develop a stable professional league when deciding to grant the 1994 World Cup to the US.
All in all, the tough talk fans are bound to hear coming out of MLS collective bargaining must be taken with a grain of salt. It is par for the course for this type of negotiation. But, unlike other work stoppages in other sports, an MLS strike benefits no one. All stakeholders understand that a strike dooms the enterprise, and thus, MLS fans should expect to see their favorite teams kick off on time come opening day.