Wednesday, February 4, 2015

MLS & the CBA: Power vs. Persuasion

Live your perfect life! NOW!!!
Those that have, get more. Or, them as has, gets.

Pick your phrase (and hit the links for curious explanations of each), but that seems a good place to start a discussion of the (quietly*) ongoing negotiations over the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) that, ideally, will govern the system of compensation for players in Major League Soccer (MLS) for a long, long time. Can we get forever on this? On perfectly balanced terms? (*I say quietly because the latest articles I’m finding date back to last Sunday; this topic remains ongoing, people.)

Anyone who cares to probably knows the basics by now – e.g. that free agency and more equitable/sensible income distribution are the two key issues separating MLS and its owners from the MLS Player's Union (MLSPU). BigDSoccer provided a studiously neutral primer for the uninitiated, but, according to my reading/listening, most sources side with the MLSPU. And for pretty good reason...

MLS owners claim they're losing money. I believe that in broad terms - and not only because the $100 million per annum figure I keep hearing seems suspiciously round, but because of investments in infrastructure like youth academies, stadiums, and, of course, designated players (DPs). At the same time, even a basic understanding of corporate taxation in these United States supports the suspicion that the league and its owners can write-off plenty of said $100 million per annum. I'm highly confident that they do. But money lost is money lost...which is different than money one never sees. Like, oh, the players. Hence the sticking point.

An excerpt for an old-ish LA Times article put MLS wages in pretty useful context:
"The league, which is losing more than $100 million a year, insists the MSL salary cap will continue to grow. But under the old CBA, that growth was minimal. Last year, for example, teams could spend $3.1 million on the first 20 spots on their roster, excluding designated players, a jump of just $29,000 from 2011."
That same article squeezed a few quotes from Mark Abbott, league president and deputy commissioner, about how MLS's structure allows MLS to be "competitive" in the foreign market and, further, that it somehow allows for "greater investment in players every year." OK, but which players? Bob Foose might be hella biased (as MLSPU executive director), but he unpacked the logic of Abbott’s arguments and put them in a neat, little, slightly malodorous pile:
"...the system is designed to squeeze every single dollar they can possible squeeze out of the guys who are in the league so that they can then go use those dollars to speculate on players who are not in the league."
Left unanswered in all that: precisely how the league's structure accomplishes this. It's just a bald statement and, outside creating a big pool of money, I frankly don't see how it works. On a more fundamental level, this is less about players "who are not in the league" getting the big paydays, than it's about long-serving MLS players having too few mechanisms to attain bigger paydays for themselves, even as they are essential building blocks for both their respective teams and the league as a whole. Basically, MLS's labor structure incentivizes certain behaviors that I'm not sure pencil out anywhere but on the bottom line (see me grasping at/grappling with those idea here).

So, yeah, I'm firmly in the players' camp: the cap needs to go up, the league minimum definitely needs to go up, and the players should get some form of free agency. That's the baseline. At the same time, I’m starting to wrap my head around some subtleties.

One argument I've come across a couple times - literally twice - is that the league can't legally hold on to the salary cap outside a CBA/(maybe) single-entity arrangement. The basic idea is that, a CBA creates a party with enough power to sit opposite the ownership group without getting run over; I'll admit I understand this imperfectly, so feel free to read more here. So, that's the legal side, but practical/competitive stuff comes into play as well. The league's "super clubs" (Toronto FC, Seattle Sounders FC, and the Los Angeles Galaxy) have already shown a willingness to spend big and unevenly; add more desired locations against...less desired locations (not about to name names) and the league is likely to see a sorting of talent that will stealthily kill any meaningful sort of parity. MLS would finally be like Europe's biggest leagues (hurray!), but in a bad way (e.g. the same three to five clubs winning the title year after year after year). So, if the whole CBA thing is what it takes to keep a salary cap, I'm for it.

And yet free agency matters. It's the stuff of dignity, for starters. Players should not have to choose between leaving the country to work versus negotiating with what amounts to a nationally-/court-approved single employer. That goes double when said single employer employs a salary cap that barely meets cost-of-living increases, while simultaneously promoting such...uncomfortable growth in wealth inequality with the DP rule. We all know that Tim Cahill just left the league, but how many people think he was, literally, 100 times more valuable to his club, or even 50 times more valuable, than the squad player who shared the same locker room? (Arrived at that figure by taking Cahill’s reported $3.6 million salary and dividing it by a slightly rounded-down league minimum (e.g. $36,500 reduced to $36,000); not unreasonable...right?)

That gets to players getting paid better, which matters, even if it's not as straightforward. Even if this is how they make their living, these guys do get paid to play a game. And, in spite of some drawbacks, is a cool life. They get to follow their passion, like Oprah says they should, and see the world. Even if they fly coach, that's always going to be a draw. This speaks more to attracting employees/talent than income justice, but it bears noting. Players will come, but there has to be some sort of absolute floor for wages. Right?

The players have some things going for them, the more sympathetic (and cogent) argument chief among them. The owners and league, on the other hand, have the money. That means they have options, eating their losses and walking away among them. Can't imagine they'd do that, not with all that money on the table, but it seems like those that have shouldn't necessarily be the ones that get. It wouldn't hurt them to give a little more and to be a little more conscious of what their wage structure says to and about their employees.

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