MLS and single entity: I don’t think it means what you think it means

This post is going to start with an academic question and veer into the approaching collective bargaining abyss.

Major League Soccer is a “single entity” league. So what does that mean?

For lawyers, it’s an intriguing concept, and the lawsuit challenging it might come up in a local law school class. For the league’s detractors, it means MLS isn’t authentic competition.

But does it mean the same thing today that it meant in 1996, when the league started and Sunil Gulati was parceling out players, or 2002, when the league was down to three owners?

The original allocation of players was absolutely top-down. You get John Harkes. You get Tab Ramos. You get this guy who’ll be a bust, so we’ll figure out how to get you another guy.

The allocation structure has evolved into something much more complicated. It’s like having chips you can cash in or trade for talent that’s more experienced than a draftee but less sought-after than a Designated Player.

So MLS has a byzantine collection of roster rules, and it still seems like the big clubs have an advantage. Sounds like every other league, doesn’t it?

The NFL has a salary cap, but the Washington Redskins always manage to outspend people. (Fortunately for the competition, they spend poorly.) The NBA has a cap with plentiful exceptions and exemptions. Even the “open market” Major League Baseball has some quirks — MLS has the Re-Entry Draft, and MLB has the Rule V Draft.

Soccer leagues also have some top-down requirements. Transfer windows. Financial Fair Play, though that seems to have as many loopholes as the NFL salary cap. Revenue sharing on big TV deals. Parachute payments for relegated clubs.

So what makes MLS “single entity” any different from any other league from a competitive standpoint?

You can’t say “it limits investment.” MLS teams have done little but invest over the past decades. New stadiums. New training grounds. Youth academies.

Conversely, here’s what Stefan Szymanski (who’s currently discussing MLS’s future in a way that drew the wrath of Dan Loney) and Andrew Zimbalist said about England in their book, National Pastime (page 6):

(B)ecause competition between teams is so intense, and a club’s tenure in the top flight is so uncertain, the clubs themselves are often reluctant to invest their own money. This can lead to a problem of facility underinvestment, with often tragic consequences.

The authors go on to name the worst two tragedies in English soccer — the fire in the Bradford stands that claimed 56 lives and the Hillsborough disaster. Something needed to change, and in this case, the government stepped in.

Other laissez-faire leagues haven’t fared well recently. Women’s Professional Soccer had a light touch to begin with, then scaled back its central office to the bare minimum needed to run the league. Like weeds in a barren lawn, dysfunction quickly crept in and took over.

So if you’re looking for a professional sports league without some sort of top-down interference with the “authenticity” of competition, you’re going to be disappointed. MLS may have more rules than many, but the blanket “single entity” accusation doesn’t hold a lot of water.

Specific roster rules? Oh, we can argue about those all we want. And with the collective bargaining agreement in its final year, it’s time.

Let’s start with the Re-Entry Draft, a clever concoction that helped seal the last CBA and was then tested in real life by Jimmy Conrad, one of the union reps who pushed for it. Looking back, we’ll always be grateful that it fit everyone’s needs at the time so we could avoid a labor stoppage. But is it necessary now? If teams are bidding against each other for players at the top end of the pay scale, do we need any artificial limits to free agency for those players who are commanding the smaller bucks?

But the league’s biggest challenges must be met collectively.

In a lot of leagues, teams compete only against each other. MLS is trying to compete in a global marketplace. Improving the quality of play is Topic A. (Improving the quality of broadcasts is another issue, with NBC Sports Network raising the bar through its terrific work with the Premier League AND Major League Soccer.) Salaries have gone up from a $1.9 million cap a decade ago to an average of over $5 million per team now — progress, but there’s always room to make the game a bit better, either through more spending or other initiatives.

So as we head into collective bargaining — which actually is unique to the USA — perhaps the “single entity” can roar one more time.

(Or perhaps a couple of coaches quit prepping their teams to play with the negativity of a North Carolina Senate race. Just saying.)

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