Thursday, February 12, 2015

Eye on the CBA: Running Commentary....Till the Damn Thing Ends

Bless mommy, bless daddy, and bless the MLS Players' Union...
Can I leave this alone? Yes, I finally can. A rant of disgust and shame is below. While I believe that the MLS Players' Union (MLSPU, go team!) and the league will eventually reach agreement, I'm painfully certain it will be a devil's bargain that will do nothing so useful as mirror the employer/employee dynamic of the United States of America as a whole. This does not make me happy. So, enjoy the hostage situation that is the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) negotiation. Just don't expect a satisfactory resolution. 

Links and commentary appear below in reverse chronological order.

February 26, 2015, and Final, Edition... which I lose my mind. Maybe it’s just life, or maybe I’m just off my meds. Whatever it is, I’m having a Howard Beale moment over the CBA situation.

I’d like to open by saying, fuck MLS and fuck the owners. It’s not their stance against free agency that has me choking on bile, but their unwillingness to make a case for their positions to the players, the fans, and the public in general. Instead, they give us one brave face limited to broadcasting some bullshit about negotiating on the global market “with a unified voice.” And, according to something Jeff Carlisle said this past Tuesday on Soccer Morning, the league has threatened any owner with the decency to talk with six-figure fines ($250K).

With that, my advice to MLS players: fuck these guys and fuck their league. Find your level on the international market and hope you win the lottery. Follow Heath Pearce, my friends. He will get you at least as far as Scandinavia...

My advice to fans: stop consuming MLS “entertainment content.” Stop going to games, stop paying for subscription service, cancel cable, move off the grid: whatever you gotta do to see that $100 million in annual losses climb as high as it’ll go. Let these spoiled fuckers and the cities they suckered figure out what to do with all those soccer-specific stadiums; let them eat the shit-sandwich of canceled TV contracts. They don’t respect you; they respect any player who can’t “do for them” even less.

Will I follow my own advice? Nah. I’m plugged too deeply into The Matrix, got needs of my own and the needs of others to fill (children = society’s leverage over you). Gimme me my bread and circuses; please just give me enough drugs to help swallow the shame when those distractions are not enough.

Thanks. I feel better. I’d like to think that at least one player has a similar, and similarly ineffectual, freakout at the negotiating table. Maybe he gets his own movie, yeah? Maybe even they’ll tag on a happy ending, give the piece of shit an Oscar that will be applauded by other rich folks who merrily make shit-tons of money off the rest of us. Taking off my class warrior hat. Wait, let me savor one more taste…ah, the sweet, sweet failure of Team Beckham’s Miami bid. Flame out, suckers...

Now that that’s off my chest, what’s next? Anyone with the time to scroll down below will find a couple articles that expressed the idea that the players have the leverage. The closer we get to the deadline, the harder it is to buy that. Steve Davis sketched out the lay of the land over a week ago, when he built a beautiful frame for the situation. Wait, no. An ugly frame. Or a beautiful frame placed over a shit-sandwich. Synching up my metaphors.

Taking that frame as a given, what can the players do? By way of advice they might actually take, hold out for real money. Make that the price of foregoing free agency – aka, sticking with the (naturally, because MLS) bloated, crooked, slightly fucked-up Re-Entry process. You’re not going to get free agency, so making them pay for it is all that’s left. Real Salt Lake owner Dell Loy Hansen hinted at this as an opening on some radio show (noted here) and I suspect that’s your ceiling. (Why didn’t Hansen get fined for “talking”? I don’t know. Maybe he was sent, a la Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.)

I’ve heard and read a lot about how failing to hold the line on free agency will discredit the players’ union and their reps. Yeah, there’s probably more truth to that than I want to accept. Yeah, it’s a shame, but what are you gonna do? Rich white men rule the world and they neither consult with, nor care about the rest of us. Face it: MLS is no different than the country at large. It’s a neat little laboratory for America in a lot of ways...

February 23, 2015, late night edition:

As quoted in SoccerAmerica, Dan Kennedy expressed MLS players' position in a way I'm finding more common - as well as more hopeful:
"I don't want to say [free agency] is priority No. 1 because there is so much that goes into a CBA. But certainly we feel as players that every other sports league in the world -- whether it's soccer or not -- enjoys a form of free agency..."
Un-italicizing intentional. I'll dig up the (I think) two other examples if I can find them, but some comments - comments made in public, it bears noting - can be interpreted as inviting agency that is, say, enhanced, yet not totally free. Ives Galarcep discussed one possible version of a free-agency-esque model in a (semi-)recent podcast and I can think of worse ideas. In broad terms, he talks about giving players with X number of years in the league the right to free agency - e.g. the guys who proved a sound enough return on investment to, in effect, name their terms and see who raises those funny signs they use at auctions.

I've heard worse.

February 23, 2015 edition:

At long last, a word from management. Well, former management, which probably accounts for why the interview happened at all. American Soccer Now’s interview with former/semi-legendary league exec Kevin Payne speaks for itself and it speaks fairly well by way of a blunt, pragmatic discussion of dollars and cents. Well enough to move fan and general public sympathy closer to MLS and its owners? I doubt it.

That said, one line arrested, detained, and started the legal process against my attention:

“Broadly, there are three issues that the two sides disagree on. One is money. The players want more, the league wants to pay less.”

“Pay less”? Sweet jesus, I hope Payne’s talking super generally as opposed to giving us a true take on management's position. Read more for the other two issues...though we all know one of 'em cold. Ice cold.

February 17, 2015, After-thought to the mid-day edition:

There’s something very eerie about the way things have just kinda kept going as the negotiations continue. The league, the clubs, and the media that reports on it all, whether in-house or out, just keep training, playing preseason games, and posting articles about all that, as well as the season ahead. They’re all going forward as if they can walk over the strife.

In that weird way, this has turned fans into the children of parents weighing divorce. Everyone, especially on, acts and talks like nothing is going on, that everything is fine, just fine. Everyone also knows there’s a listless, wine-soaked conversation taking place behind closed doors that sure sounds like an exercise in futility.

February 17, 2015 mid-day edition:

This morning, NBC Sports put out what has to be the most comprehensive perspectivepiece possible on the state of CBA negotiations. That word “possible” is required due to the continued silence from MLS’s front office and the league ownership. That silence says something, surely…any chance we can call in a translator, one fluent in deciphering various ways of sitting akimbo?

Also out today, Part 2 of the Massive Report’s discussion of the CBA. Haven’t read that one yet, but I will shortly.

The NBC piece covers a lot of familiar ground - and it also reiterates the theory as to why the MLSPU might have the upper hand - but there’s one other thing in there that I want to note and applaud. While the wage inequality issue has been part of the discussion from the start, some implications of that don’t get emphasized often enough. The moral dimension comes easiest – e.g. essential injustice of two dudes doing similar jobs, with one getting paid many multiples more than the other – but NBC did well to focus on the competitive side.

For as much as it presents as a semi-closed market, MLS clubs do compete with other clubs. They not only compete for talent, but they compete directly, as in on the field, when it comes to the CONCACAF Champions League. That Mexican clubs can pay their depth (roster spots 12-18) more absolutely matters. Whether it’s a matter of building stronger rosters by bringing in new players from abroad or holding onto maturing talent developed within MLS, the domestic league has to start paying these guys genuinely competitive salaries. They will neither draw nor retain the level of talent unless this changes. So, good on NBC for highlighting that.

There’s plenty more in there besides. It ain’t short. All for today.

February 14, 2015, edition:

Just stumbled across part one of a series on the CBA, one written by a lawyer, who, true to form, did some actual research into all this. Based on his lead, he also took time to interview player agents and attorneys. UPDATE: I just wrapped up reading Part 1, which is largely confined to league history. Most of the commentary argues that, due to a salary structure equal parts byzantine and subterranean, MLS effectively does not have a salary cap. Most lines of thinking contained in this one will be at least familiar to long-time MLS fans. It'll likely confuse the bejesus out of anyone who isn't....

I'll add parts 2 & 3 to this update once they're posted.

February 13, 2015, p.m. edition:

Has there been any movement? Oh, good lord, no. The decision to bring in a mediator (joint or otherwise; does it matter?) constitutes the biggest change. But, as an article on points out, that’s not so big. In other words, this isn’t locking the parties in a small room with no food, but just...booze, lots and lots of booze, and telling them they can’t leave till they’ve reached agreement. Or at least until the booze is gone.

Empire of Soccer posted the more interesting article today, in that it argues that the players and the union have the leverage. The post grounds its points on a number of factors – on top of the stuff we all already know about (e.g. public support), there’s expansion franchises to launch, a TV deal that needs content, and whither the USL affiliations if all this goes down? I don’t know how much leverage all that buys, even when stacked together (like so many phone books), but I also remain convinced that the money stacked up on the owners’ side is more than enough to absorb a lot in the way of losses. And it’s not like these guys haven’t shown pretty persistent (possibly alleged?) willingness to absorb losses with an eye to the long-term. So, no, this doesn't cure my pessimism, but it was a compelling read.

The essential and fundamental unknown in all this: to what extent do the owners believe free agency threatens that ol’ slow, steady growth?

If these bogeymen be big in the owners’ eyes, that mediator ain’t gonna do dick.

February 13, 2014, a.m. edition:

While I'm in the tank for the players, and nakedly, I find something novel in Ron Orchard's call for cooler heads over on Playing for 90. I made a similar argument, if only as a counter-argument, in an earlier post (see penultimate paragraph) - e.g. these guys are doing what they love and, well, you don't always get paid for that. Some readers will catch a whiff of nostalgia in Orchard' piece, though, which was missing from mine. I get that, too, as I recall my days watching the Portland Timbers in their lower league incarnation (and, true confession, the Seattle Sounders back in the stoked when they signed Dominic Kinnear...only one season, though. wow!). A fan could sit wherever the heck he wanted, yell and be heard by just about anyone, which made it all feel very close and personal. Hell, Bruce Murray bought me a beer once while playing for the Atlanta Ruckus way back (I was unemployed; nice fella).

Those days are gone, though. A handful of players make "real athlete" money, while their teammates, the guys working some very close version of the same job, get paid like, oh, soccer journalists. I'm guessing Orchard would feel differently if guys who worked for the same outlets made 20, or even 50 times, what he did.

February 12, 2015:

The good news is that MLS and the MLSPU have brought in a federal mediator. This is what worked last time, though, for the record, "worked" has taken on a distinctly pejorative meaning in the five years since the last CBA was signed.

The bad news? As Noah Davis pointed out in some nice work for Grantland, the owners and the league really do hold the lion's share of the cards...which brings to mind one of those awful games of War where the smug fuck sitting across from you, criss-cross applesauce, naturally, holds, oh, 4/5 of the deck.

The players have exactly one ace in all this: public support. And sometimes that's enough for a rally. Sometimes.

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