Thursday, March 5, 2015

The CBA: Free Agency, Minimums, and Meaning

I can get my own place? Seriously?
Major League Soccer (MLS) and the MLS Players' Union have collectively bargained to an agreement (CBA is approximated in there) and we, the fans, have a 2015 season to enjoy. This feels good, but it's easier for us, the consumers. We just shell out predictable sums for our bread (beer) and circuses (soccer)...and wasn't that what the league owners wanted, more or less, predictability? Man, I did not lend them much of a welcoming ear in the end. Then again, fuck those guys. But, thank you! I mean, still, you could have made it easier, right? Y'know, spared all of us eager dopes some anxiety?

That leaves the players, then, and the question of what they pried from the league during the CBA negotiations. Because MLS holds its financials close enough to the chest as to be inside it, we, the fans, are unlikely to ever learn the full details of an agreement. (The remarkable vapidity of the league's official release gives a handy primer to MLS's "fuck off, none of your business" approach to PR).

The players picked up two wins by my count; a considerable bump to the league minimum and free agency, even if in limited form. With a fair number of young guys nearly doubling their annual earnings, I see that as nothing but a win. The free agency thing, on the other hand, needs a little unpacking. Jeff Carlisle (among others) provided the details, but the thumbnail version reads 28 & 8 - and that ampersand matters – and graduated percentage caps tied to a given free agent's salary under his expired contract. Again, Carlisle provides, all y'all probably know those numbers as well as I do, if not better. It is worth noting, as Carlisle does, that this new formulation brings in only 10% of MLS's players (some large portion of those players being identified in a post in which The Massive Report did the world a solid).

With so many fans and/or twitter feeds I follow loudly in the MLSPU camp, I heard a lot complaints against the final deal. And at least one player argued that the new CBA fell short – and emphatically, even historically. Even so, I found a couple articles (like this one from Stumptown Footy) that argued that free agency in any form counts as a win for the players. I lean toward Stumptown's view. The barn door is officially open on free agency as a right/concept – and, barring a general slide in league-wide fortunes, that right should expand to more and younger cows in the next round of negotiations. Growth trends being what they are, I don't see that league-wide dip happening.

To bargain way ahead of time, I’d be fine if the league hold firm at something more like 24 or 5 as a long-term threshold for free agency. It’s not really that crazy to ask people, even soccer players, to prove some form of return on investment. Each player’s individual contract can go up and down according to perceived value, even the young guys. And the minimum works nicely here to insure that any guy good enough to make a roster won’t get screwed too hard.

While more details go into a CBA than I had previously known – e.g. moving expenses, appearance fees, guaranteed contracts, etc. - one major detail has yet to come to light...until 11 hours ago, apparently. That'd be the dollar figure on the salary cap, which I found only minutes ago on Sounder at Heart.  The cap matters, perhaps as much as anything, because it answers a big part of the question as to whether MLS becomes the "league of choice" it dreams of becoming over the next decade or so. A basically sane league minimum is all well and good, but attracting better talent for the players under the designated-player (DP) threshold relies on MLS being better able to match market prices from leagues outside the U.S. and Canada. So, there's the question: is $4.2 million by 2019 a big enough jump to hire and retain those players under the cap? My short answer is yes and no.

Happily, MLS doesn’t need to compete on direct dollar-to-dollar terms (or dollar-to-Euro or dollar-to-peso) with leagues from around the world. Life in the States is a draw all on its own, whether it's a global star like Thierry Henry being able to take the subway to work, or Diego Valeri feeling safe going to and from his car. Spend your life getting barked at by your butcher and the idea of a quieter, calmer life can't help but appeal to people. There's also something nice about knowing your check will come on time, or at all. Just ask Cristian Rodriguez...

Whatever everyone thinks of it, we can all forget this hair-raising shit for five years. That's enough for now...even as I’m going to keep close tabs on out-of-contract MLS players bolting for Scandinavia.

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