Sam Mellinger

In the Major League Soccer labor dispute, the field is tilted in the owners’ favor

Sporting KC veteran Jacob Peterson, the team’s representative for the MLS Players Union, said he is “not optimistic” the players and owners will reach a new collective bargaining agreement before the season starts.
Sporting KC veteran Jacob Peterson, the team’s representative for the MLS Players Union, said he is “not optimistic” the players and owners will reach a new collective bargaining agreement before the season starts. The Kansas City Star

A professional sports league is headed toward a work stoppage, one more American relationship strained over money, and you don’t need to give even the tiniest damn about Major League Soccer to find reason to follow.

Because the men and women in charge of MLS are running the same playbook the men and women in charge of the NFL, NBA and NHL have found so enriching whenever it’s time to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement with their players.

MLS officials are quite mum on this publicly, either denying comment altogether or offering prepackaged sound bites that accomplish the ultimate goal of not saying much.

But this is a smart group, one that’s built a growing sports league from scratch in the relative blink of an eye, and through a few private conversations with them and interviews with others who study this stuff for a living we can tell you exactly how those in charge are approaching this.

It is a strategy honed through high-pressure, high-stakes negotiations, one that’s helped the NFL build an apparently unbreakable profit machine, the NBA realize amazing new franchise values, and the NHL build its way back toward solvency.

Step 1: Put on a fancy suit.

Step 2: Tell the players your demands.

Step 3: Wait for them to cave.

Step 4: Go eat lobster.

“There is a common thread,” says Michael LeRoy, a professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois. “Over a period of years, sports leagues have figured out that the resolve of players to go on strike and put their short careers at risk is something they want to challenge.”

It’s not a fair fight, in other words, and no amount of tough talk from MLS players about how they’ll go on strike if they don’t get what they want will change that.

It doesn’t matter that the players have a lot of good points. It doesn’t matter that some of them make less than schoolteachers, or that the travel conditions and practice facilities and peripherals like team meals and nutrition don’t always match up with what you might think of as Major League Soccer.

It doesn’t matter that the league’s claims of losing over $100 million a year are misleading, not just because of a new and richer television contract, and not just because incompetently run Chivas USA is gone and better-run expansion teams (with bigger expansion fees) are here and not just because those annual losses are made up for by increasing franchise values.

It doesn’t even matter that the players’ top priority — some limited form of free-agency — is so reasonable it’s like a teenager asking for a small allowance.

They’re not going to get major concessions, because the league knows it doesn’t have to give major concessions. They will get higher compensation, because the league is willing to do that, but they will get no meaningful form of free-agency because the league is not willing to do that.

This is how it goes.

The NFL, NBA and NHL are each operating with CBAs seen by unbiased people as league-friendly. In the NFL and NBA, in particular, the current CBAs are even more league-friendly than the ones they replaced.

NFL players still don’t have guaranteed contracts, team profits and values are skyrocketing, and a rookie pay scale slashed contracts of young players without pushing money toward veterans. The biggest wins for the players in that bargaining: post-retirement benefits, and easier practices.

NBA players are getting 51 percent of league revenues now, compared to 57 percent in the previous CBA.

The baseball union has made itself the exception, but only through an astounding solidarity and a horrific experience around the 1994 strike that crippled the sport and forced both sides to act more cohesively.

The strength of the baseball union is often used as an example that other sports aspire to, but it’s never been approached. As much as MLS players are talking about going on strike, they had similar sounding tough talk five years ago before agreeing to the expiring CBA, which includes severe limitations on player mobility and no free-agency.

There is no indication that MLS teams believe the union will actually go on strike this year, though the league is making contingency plans to deal with a work stoppage.

A strike could be counterproductive for MLS players, anyway. In general, the players need their paychecks a lot more than wealthy owners need revenue. Plus, it’s easier for 20 owners to stay together than 600 players.

“Players in all sports are at a great disadvantage in most of these negotiations,” says Bill Gould, a professor of labor law at Stanford. “Baseball is an aberration. Players need the game. They need to play. Time is not on their side.”

To be fair to athlete unions, they are in good company in typically losing these types of negotiations. The best real world example to sports’ baseball exception might be the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which represents dockworkers on the West Coast who are paid well with free health care.

But in most cases, unions don’t win negotiations, particularly once there’s a work stoppage. People who study labor law say the longer negotiations go on, the more the field tilts away from unions.

“(The dockworkers) are militant and unified,” LeRoy says. “The reason they are paid phenomenal wages, in large part, is because they and their predecessors are willing to make great sacrifices, which is go on strike and be out of work.

“Players just don’t have that mentality. They have a short window of success. They’ve spent 20 years, sometimes more, preparing single-mindedly to be excellent at this sport. That’s the same in the NFL, NBA, MLS, you name it.

“That’s why leagues are willing to test their resolve. They win, at the end of the day.”

MLS’ first game this season is scheduled for March 6. CBA negotiations typically don’t get serious until shortly before the deadline. Until then, it’s a lot of posturing, on both sides.

That means there are two weeks left. The players have been much more public than the league. That will probably change in the coming days. The league will start to promote the benefits of what it is offering players, including higher pay, but it will not budge on adopting meaningful free-agency.

MLS has grown to the point where the players deserve a form of free-agency close to other major North American leagues. Pushed hard enough, and with enough unity, there’s a chance the players could get it. But the league is betting against the kind of resolve that would force its hand.

That’s been a good bet in other leagues. It’s been a good bet in MLS. Even if you don’t follow MLS, pay attention these next two weeks. This is how it will go the next time the NFL, NBA and NHL negotiate, too. The leagues win.

And then they go eat lobster.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365 or send email to smellinger@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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