The 2015 MLS regular season is slated to start in less than two weeks, but an unsettled labor situation between the league and the players may prevent that from happening.
MLS and the MLS Players Union have been negotiating on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) for months, well before the previous agreement ran out at the end of January, but both sides remain very far apart on the key issues of player salaries and free agency. Progress seems inevitable on the first point of contention, but granting any form of free agency to players has been a non-starter for MLS.
ESPNFC.com soccer writer Jeff Carlisle has been on top of the story throughout the preseason, and in his latest commentary has set odds that a labor stoppage will occur prior to the start of the season at greater than 50/50.
Both of the San Jose Earthquakes representatives to the Players Union, Clarence Goodson and Ty Harden, stated earlier in the preseason that the players were unified in their demands and would strike if necessary.
"We are optimistic that a deal can be done and that communication lines will stay open," said Goodson, "but we as a player group are extremely supportive of one another. We are a strong group, and if it comes to it, we are certainly prepared to strike."
Since those remarks, the only progress that has been made on a new CBA has reportedly been on simple items, such as moving and relocation costs, as well as player appearance fees. Both MLS and the Players Union have agreed to bring in a mediator to propel the discussion forward, much like both sides did when the previous CBA was negotiated, and ultimately agreed on, in 2010.
A strike by the players would be the first labor stoppage in MLS history, but such an action would not be an unusual tactic for professional athletes in American sports looking to leverage their financial standing. Players from the "Big Four" sports of football, basketball, baseball, and hockey have staged strikes in the past, and some of their representative leagues have even locked out their players during contentious negotiations.
In the current negotiations, MLS seems to be taking the "high road" approach, limiting official comment on the matter so as to paint a potential strike as the responsibility of players. A delay to the 2015 season, regardless of which side is more at fault, would be devastating to the growth momentum the league has enjoyed in recent years.
Does the sticking point of free agency have a middle ground compromise that the two sides can reach? In 2010, the league offered up the Re-Entry Draft as a process to give players some flexibility in moving among teams in the league. The process has had only limited success since players are still subject to selection and not the other way round.
MLS, however, has no interest in opening the door any wider on the more traditional free agency enjoyed by professional athletes in the other American sports leagues. Its single-entity structure, upheld through a court challenge early in the league's history, would take a major hit if free agency were employed. Instead, MLS seems more likely to bend on player compensation and the size of the Salary Budget - the salary cap - that team rosters are built on.
More money in their pockets today might be enough for some in the MLS players rank-and-file, but a new CBA is expected to be in effect for five years, hamstringing the players financially. Veteran players, the ones that would likely have the opportunity to take full advantage of a free agency system, seem to have much more to gain by striking, so it is incumbent on them to coalesce unanimous support for the Union's negotiations stance from the entire player pool.
And if the players do decide to strike, how will they deal with the financial impact of lost wages? According to figures put together by NYU professor Ted Philipakos from data available from the U.S. Department of Labor, the MLS Players Union currently has assets totaling about $5.5 to $6.0 million dollars, a paltry amount when, for example, compared to the NBA players union total of $190 million.
The MLS players would not likely be able to stage a lengthy strike and still supports its membership with such a small war chest. Given that the league has 20 teams, and each roster has up to 30 players on it, the total number of MLS players under contract is very close to 600. Given the possible $6 million in assets the union holds, that would give it $10,000 to allot to each player as financial support during a strike.
Perhaps the Players Union would find another mechanism to protect its players financial situation in the event of a strike, but the numbers don't give it much leeway in conducting a lengthy walkout. MLS may very well be taking that into account as it negotiates to prevent the inclusion of free agency in the new CBA. Neither side is likely to gain in the short term if there is a work stoppage.
And what about the fans? American soccer's most ardent supporters will likely show some patience in the event of a players' strike, as the terms of a new CBA are worked out, but casual fans have plenty of other domestic and international soccer options to turn to. Leagues in Europe, already television viewing "destinations" for countless fans in the U.S., will likely see the most gain in siphoning off MLS followers.
On the surface, a player strike seems more of a "two steps backward, one step forward" proposition, unless it can be resolved quickly and with few scheduling disruptions. In San Jose, the Earthquakes have brand-new Avaya Stadium as a drawing card, but casual Bay Area soccer fans might be turned off by a strike and take their time before giving Quakes soccer a shot when a work stoppage is resolved. There are simply plenty of sporting options for locals to partake in to worry too much about MLS.
There may be a lot at stake for both the league and its players, but here's hoping that the current posturing by both sides can be resolved in the next 12 days, and the 20th season of Major League Soccer kicks off as scheduled.