The Full 90

With start of season nearing, MLS labor situation still unsettled

Sporting Kansas City huddled before the start of the Sporting Kansas City and Philadelphia Union Major League Soccer match at Sporting Park in 2014.
Sporting Kansas City huddled before the start of the Sporting Kansas City and Philadelphia Union Major League Soccer match at Sporting Park in 2014. Kansas City Star

Two weeks from now, Major League Soccer’s 20th season will allegedly kick off.

I say allegedly, because, well the owners and the players are involved in a thorny dispute over the new collective bargaining agreement. A dispute seems very likely will lead to a strike — or, at least, that’s what the players have thus far threatened.

While there are a ton of complicated topics in this discussion (salary structure, roster rules, travel allowances, etc.), it boils down to this: The players have seen the money spewing into the league via expansion fees and TV rights and want some variation of free agency (right now, a complicated two-stage re-entry draft is as close as league players can get to that). The owners feel that goes against the nature of the league and its single-entity structure.

The players have tipped their hand that they will go to the mattresses and strike; the league has made it’s case that free agency goes against the league’s best interests.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber recently said:

“Our system is one that our owners fought hard to protect, it’s one that they bought into, particularly the new owners who have bought into the league, and that’s that our owners will not bid against each other for player services. And that’s a key aspect of our entire system. We fully understand the players’ position on this issue. We’re going to try to work hard together to resolve, or to reach an agreement, and we’ve got some time to try to do so.” (Via Soccer By Ives)

Garber has also made the claim that the league and its franchises are losing $100 million annually.

The players are “not optimistic” a deal can be done before March 6; the league appears to feel they can reach accord.

Those two positions certainly seem to point to impasse coming. Recently, the two sides brought in a federal mediator.*

*I honestly have no idea if that’s a good sign or not. On one hand, it means they are so far away they need a fed to step in and help. On the other, it means both sides appear to be trying to move things along with some sense of an impending deadline.

So, who will win in the end?

As my colleague Sam Mellinger pointed out in an excellent commentary piece, the playing field in labor negotiations is almost always tilted in favor of the owners. They always seem to come out on top. No matter how unified the players seem (or how dug in they might get on their position), a lot of them need their paychecks to survive. (And, as Grant Wahl pointed out, some high-salaried international players might push that point.)

Labor strife is nothing new in American sports — not even MLS, which came close to striking in 2010 before a deal was struck close to the deadline.

Just in the last 11 years, the NHL has had an entire season canceled (2004-05) and a season shortened in 2012-13 due to a lockout; the NFL player’s union was locked out for five months prior to the 2011 season; and the NBA shortened the 2011 season also due to a lockout.*

*The last stoppage in Major League Baseball occurred in 1994 when the players went on strike during the middle of the season — nearly two full years before MLS became a league. It was also the last time a major players’ union carried out a long-term strike.

The NFL, NBA and NHL owners all came out in a stronger position than the players in those three cases. (While the NFL avoided a work stoppage, its players still don’t have guaranteed contracts.)

Will Major League Soccer become the latest American league to suffer a work stoppage of some kind? It’s hard to be optimistic when looking at the stories trickling out nearly every single day.

While most of us should be devouring (or, in my case, constructing) season previews, the focus instead is on the finer points of complicated U.S. labor laws.

I did an informal survey on Twitter to see how nervous fans are about a potential work stoppage on a scale of 1-10 (with 10 being the most nervous). I found a few people hovering in the 6-8 range — with a some going to the max and, in one case, the supermax.

However, as with any good survey, there were some optimists on the other end of the spectrum as well.

Right now, I’m about a solid 6 out of 10 — but overall feel optimistic this isn’t a long-term threat. I firmly believe that if there is a work stoppage it will be a relatively short one (maybe just two weeks). The players will make their overall point, get a few benefits, make a few concessions (more on the players side, though*) and we’ll have a few extra games this summer.

*I can’t really see the players getting their full desire for free agency. There might be limited free agency for players of a certain veteran threshold, higher salaries and/or improved travel rules ... but not full-fledged free agency. There’s too much money at stake.

To reach Charles Gooch, send email to cgooch@kcstar.com. On Twitter @TheFull90.

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