The already-tenuous MLS collective bargaining agreement negotiations got even worse today, as over 350 players voted today to strike if an agreement is not reached by the start of the season on March 25th. Only 2 players voted against a possible strike. With the Season Kickoff scheduled for March 25th, only 2 weeks remain for MLS owners and the MLS Players Union to agree to a deal before we see the players hit the picket line.
What is clear among all parties is the following: 1) the players have a legitimate argument; 2) the owners have all the leverage; and 3) a strike could have a severely negative impact on the league. With many players in MLS signed to $16,000/season developmental contracts, and with strict rules on free agency and teams’ stronghold on player rights, the Players Union really has a great point in wanting to up salaries and have more freedom to switch teams within MLS and elsewhere. No one should be playing on a salary that’s below the poverty line. However, how much leverage does a Players Union with players that, depending on where they live, can’t afford housing on what they make have? Very little.
The owners hold all the cards in this equation. While more teams now are turning a profit, not all of them are. Some are still strapped in stadiums that are too big for them and not controlled by the teams, which means they can’t get money from other events (not to mention they’re paying exorbitant rental fees to play in those stadiums). Increasing salary cap may be a possibility, but owners can just claim that they don’t have the money to afford higher salaries than what are being paid right now. If the players strike, most of them cannot afford to strike for very long since they’re paid less than some summer interns. They can’t play in other leagues while the strike plays itself out, like many NHL players did during their strike in 2004-2005. They would be stuck living on no money with no ways to make money in other soccer leagues. All the owners have is time, as many of them would actually fare better during a strike (no chance to lose money). They would have to do very little but wait for the Union to break.
The worst part of this is what the PR hit a strike would give to the league. In a World Cup year, more eyes are on the game of soccer in this country than ever before. America’s top-tier league should be trying to capitalize on those potential new fans by showcasing their teams in the lead-in to the World Cup. Instead, they’re at an impasse that shows no signs of ending soon. This, in a word, would devastate MLS. This isn’t like the NFL or NHL where they are the top league in the world and have very few alternative options. There are dozens of soccer leagues in the world, many of them a lot better on the whole than MLS. If MLS went on strike, you won’t have fans sitting around wondering what to watch. They can watch the major European leagues, like the English Premier League, Spanish La Liga or Italy’s Serie A. They can tune into the Mexican Primera. They can watch the UEFA Champions League. With so many options, a prolonged strike could see many fans not return to MLS stadiums once they eventually re-open for business. They will just stick with watching higher quality leagues, all of which are readily available on TV.
So, while MLS players have a legitimate beef with how they’re treated, it’s their lack of leverage and the owners’ apparent desire to wait it out that could drive MLS into deep trouble. From all accounts, a strike looks imminent. However, for the sake of MLS and domestic soccer in America, let’s hope the owners and players can find some common ground, sign a collective bargaining agreement, and start the season on time.