You can’t take public statements too seriously during a difficult negotiation. It’s posturing time.
But the apparent stumbling block of real, honest-to-goodness free agency is a concern. And this quote from MLS president Mark Abbott, a tough negotiator and the architect of single entity, is a puzzler:
“Because we function in an international market and the clubs that we are competing against for players are not subject to our salary budget, to have free agency within the league doesn’t provide us with the certainty that the union says it does,” Abbott explained. “When the union says they can offer cost certainty under free agency, it’s not true because we have to compete against clubs all throughout the world.”
(From Brian Straus’ detailed look at the state of collective bargaining)
I cannot make heads or tails of this argument, mostly because free agency within MLS has nothing to do with the realities of the global labor market. If FC Dallas is bidding against Pachuca for a particular player, it hardly matters whether D.C. United is also bidding.
So no, MLS can’t have “cost certainty” because it’s a global market. Globally, players are free agents, whether MLS likes it or not. MLS cannot control the market. And that’s a good thing. If the league could control the market, it might have lost when players filed suit in the league’s early days.
MLS won that suit because it claimed, correctly, that players had other options. The USA alone has other leagues — in those days, the A-League and indoor soccer; today, the NASL and USL. Mexico is raiding the USA these days. Then there’s Europe. Qatar. China. Australia. That’s why the idea of decertifying the union and suing again is a non-starter.
But it also means MLS has less leverage than the typical U.S. sport. The NFL gets away with all sorts of cruelty in its player contracts because players have almost no other options besides the Canadian Football League, which isn’t really comparable. The NBA and NHL have to spend enough on players to keep their status as the world’s top league in their respective sports. Major League Baseball had to bend to free agency to avoid antitrust problems, and cost-containment ideas haven’t gained much traction.
So the idea that MLS would risk a work stoppage to prevent free agency, when it’s already participating in a free-agent market globally, is horrifying and foolish. In a worst-case scenario, with MLS never conceding the point and players sticking together, you’d just see all the players going elsewhere. (Disclaimer: I have not reviewed the legalities of whether a striking player under contract can find another job. Someone with more legal expertise and no ties to either side in this negotiation will have to decide that.)
Even in MLS “wins” on this issue, it loses. From college graduates to mid-career veterans, players will be less inclined to sign with the league.
It’s also a matter of perception and confidence. When David Beckham signed his megamillion deal and other European stars followed, it was the sign of a confident league striding forward — a good step to entice broadcasters, sponsors and fans. That confidence is undermined when the league is going to such pains to prevent two of its teams from bidding Bobby Boswell or Brian Carroll’s salary up to $200,000.
Fans also are more demanding these days. Most people were willing to see some compromises to get the league up and running. Today, no one wants to see any vestiges of the days in which Sunil Gulati played hardball on salaries across the league. Clubs make their own personnel decisions — taken to the ludicrous extreme when Frank Lampard apparently signed with neither league nor club but some other completely different entity — and that’s the way fans like it. Players, too. Homegrown players are nudging draftees out of the spotlight on new talent, and that’s a big statement for club pride.
I’ve heard one mildly reasonable argument against free agency. The issue is that teams would end up paying more for their top players, excluding Designated Players, and would therefore have less to spend on the rest of the roster. Fringe veterans would be much more likely to end up in the NASL, which will be happy to snap up more Aaron Pitchkolans and Carlos Mendeses. The 15th-25th spots on the roster would get a little younger.
But that’s not the argument the league is making. And it shouldn’t be a deal-breaker, anyway.
Does the league have some other super-secret reason for digging in its heels here? Or are some league officials just sentimentally attached to a system that, crucial as it was for the league’s first decade, is now outdated and redundant?