Scott Nicholls is an English soccer writer now living in Houston
by Scott Nicholls
That is how long Major League Soccer and the Players Union have to hash out a deal on a new collective bargaining agreement for the 2015 season onwards. Unfortunately it’s all we’ve heard about this MLS off-season, and rightly so. If there is no agreement then there will likely be a strike. Strikes mean no soccer and not just for a week — it could be the entire 2015 season.
There’s a precedent for this, too. Look at Major League Baseball, the NFL, NBA; the NHL even lost an entire season in 2004/2005 over a labour dispute. All because the players and the owners could not agree on one thing or another, usually money, sometimes rules, but usually money.
The Major League Soccer situation, though, is a little different. As much as it most certainly is about money — the minimum wage for a rookie entering the league is a meagre $36,500 a year — it is more so about free agency. Major League Soccer has no such thing as free agency. Its players do not have the right to freely move wherever they would like once their contracts are expired.
The phrase that Don Garber perpetuates is that he, along with other MLS executives, are building a “league of choice.” Tell that to the players in Major League Soccer who have a distinct lack of choice, but not only that, see a major difference in their paychecks when comparing to their fellow professionals abroad.
Obviously there will be many things discussed in the meetings between the players union and Major League Soccer executives, but one can assume with confidence that the two main issues on the table will be free agency and better pay.
Here’s how the current system works.
Current System if you are a contracted MLS Player
Let me start off right away with the fact that you are contracted to Major League Soccer.
If you play for the Seattle Sounders, you are not contracted to them, you are contracted to Major League Soccer. Erick Torres just signed for the Houston Dynamo. The reason he plays for the Dynamo is because MLS signed him to a contract, offered the contract to all 20 teams, and the Dynamo were the only ones willing to meet the terms and conditions of the contract.
So what if nobody wanted to take on Torres’ contract? Well then he would have to wait for a team to either meet the agreement, or for a foreign team to negotiate a deal with MLS. Torres played for the now defunct Chivas USA last season. He has since spent time on loan to Chivas Guadalajara in Liga MX … on loan that is – from Major League Soccer.
So here’s the deal: Let’s say a player is playing under contract at LA Galaxy. The contract expires and you are not offered an extension. You’re free to sign a deal with whomever you wish, right?
In this particular season in Major League Soccer two new teams will be joining: New York City FC (bankrolled by Manchester City) and Orlando City FC. This means you have to go through what is called the “Expansion Draft” so that the new expansion teams can fill their squads.
Nobody picks you, so you’re through one hurdle.
The next hurdle you have to go through is the re-entry draft. The re-entry draft is for players who are out of contract, and the previously contracted club has declined to offer them a new contract. So nobody picks you in the re-entry draft… now surely you can move where you’d like, right?
Now you have to go through what is called the MLS Supplemental Draft. The supplemental draft is usually tacked on to the “MLS Super Draft” (how rookies enter the league). Players available in this draft are usually rookies who went “undrafted” in the first two rounds of the Super Draft and anybody else who is signed to MLS, but not with a particular team.
Let’s say nobody signs you again (leaving you feeling thoroughly unloved I’d imagine, too!). You may finally sign for whichever team you might like to sign for… as long as your original club and the new club can work out a deal, because your old club (LA Galaxy, remember?) still owns your rights.
Throughout the last few paragraphs, those of you who grew up in Europe or watching European soccer will be able to recognize the similarities of Major League Soccer’s situation and those of that up until the mid-1990’s in European soccer. When thinking about the predicament players face in Major League Soccer one name should immediately spring to mind: Jean-Marc Bosman.
John Bosman and the “Bosman” Ruling
Jean-Marc Bosman might be the most important player in the history of world football. The court case from which European clubs gained free agency fundamentally changed the modern game of soccer forever. It has allowed leagues like the English Premier League and the Liga BBVA in Spain to build themselves up into the global brands that they are today.
Liga BBVA or “La Liga” as it is commonly known boasts two of the biggest (and richest) soccer teams in the world in Real Madrid and Barcelona, while the EPL boasts the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United and Arsenal. It also recently agreed a TV rights deal that means the league will make £10.2 million (about $17 million) for every game shown on live television from 2016 onwards.
Why was the Bosman case so important? It guaranteed the ability for players to move wherever they like at the end of their contracts within the European Union for no transfer fee to any club they might like, or in other words they became free agents at the end of their contracts.
Bosman was playing for Belgian club FC Liege when his contract ran out in 1990. He wanted to play for Dunkirk in France but in an effort to keep Bosman at Liege, the team slapped a huge and unrealistic transfer “fee” on his head, despite being out of contract. This ultimately deterred Dunkirk because they could not afford the transfer fee.
The case of Union Royale Belge des Sociétés de Football Association ASBL v Jean-Marc Bosman changed modern football. The member nations of the European Union (EU) had agreed on ‘free movement of labour’ as they strove towards a stronger economic union.
Bosman took the Belgian Football Federation to court for five years, claiming that as a citizen of the EU he could play wherever he wanted to because he should be allowed “freedom of movement” as any citizen in other occupations was guaranteed.
Every ruling was appealed, but in 1995 the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg ruled in Bosman’s favour. It was too late for Bosman, but the consequences of the case were much, much bigger regarding the development of world football.
The case of Airdrie’s Chris Honor showed why the ruling was needed. The Scottish side had held onto his registration for two years after his contract with Airdrie expired. In 1994, the club demanded a transfer fee for him even though he was out of contract, and they weren’t paying him either.
QPR wanted him and a career in the top flight of his native England beckoned. However Airdrie set an unrealistic transfer fee and the London side did not want to risk a transfer tribunal.
His lawyer at the time Cameron Fyfe said:
“Airdrie were demanding an excessive fee for him even though he was out of contract. It discouraged other teams from taking him on, and as a result his career stagnated. He was effectively shackled to the club.”
Airdrie went out of business before Honor could attain any compensation but Bosman prevented from a repeat.
Players were now the boss.
Simply put — before the ruling (much like MLS now) you could not move unless your old team and new team agreed on a deal, now players could leave as soon as contracts expired and take their services to the highest bidder. Bosman sacrificed his career so that in Europe players could choose where they wanted to play.
But this is a Collective Bargaining Agreement, not a legal issue:
Strictly speaking yes, Jean-Marc Bosman did take his case to court on a national level and then a European Union level. What is going on with Major League Soccer is something completely different because it is a disagreement between a players union and the league’s top brass.
Major League Soccer is surely aware of the pitfalls of its own system by now, and it must also be aware of the “Bosman ruling.”
While the “Bosman ruling” has no legal standing in the United States of America it needs to be a key point of discussion between the two sides in the meetings for the new collective bargaining agreement.
The players union and the MLS executives need to come up with something similar to European soccer with regard to free agency the worry is, however, is that this could upset the league’s “competitive balance.”
The problem with “competitive balance” and Major League Soccer is as follows:
MLS executives do not want freedom of movement. The thought is that if you give players the right to move where they would like within Major League Soccer they will gravitate toward the best clubs rather than everybody (starting with the worst teams) having an opportunity to sign them. This in theory would make teams that have the deepest pockets, or the ones that are most successful able to sign the best players available.
BREAKING NEWS: Major League Soccer already caters to the teams with the deepest pockets.
The richest teams in the league can still sign the best players available to them. They can do this through the utterly, utterly ridiculous Designated Player (or “Beckham”) rule. Each club has 2 DP slots, they can purchase a 3rd for a one time fee of around $650,000 (the money is distributed around teams), and they can essentially pay the player whatever they might like. The great thing about the rule is that the team only has to commit a minuscule portion of the DP’s salary toward their “Salary Cap.”
Sound’s good right? Well, actually is isn’t. It’s a facade to make you believe that all the teams are paying their players the same wages.
Here’s how it works. Taking the 2013 numbers, if you paid a player $1 million a year as a salary as a Designated Player, the “salary cap” hit was $368,750. This means if you pay the same player $10 million a year you still only have to use $368,750 of your “salary cap.”
The other side of this is that if you are a team that cannot afford to pay a player $10 million a year (roughly Thierry Henry’s salary) as a Designated Player and you only have enough money to bring someone playing at a much lower level and pay him $500,000 a year, you pay the “salary cap” the same amount.
A sneakier loophole is what Manchester City’s affiliate in Major League Soccer, New York City FC, is doing with Designated Player David Villa. His annual salary, yes annual salary, is officially listed at $60,000. One would assume he is being paid a fortune by a “different” company to keep his official salary at that level.
David Villa “officially” earns $60,000 a year. Yeah, right.
So in short, if you can afford it, then you will be able to attract bigger names and pay your players more money. If you can afford to pay players more money they will more likely want to play for your team than a team who wont pay them as much? Everybody should agree this is the case, ok?
For example: In Major League Soccer last season the 2nd and 3rd highest payrolls in Major League Soccer won both major honours. The Seattle Sounders won the Supporters Shield for amassing the most points throughout the season (64), and the LA Galaxy won the MLS Championship. Seattle’s total salary in 2014 was $11,541,265, and the LA Galaxy paid their players $13,260,911.
In-fact, there are four teams that pay their players upwards of $10 million in total per year. They are:
Toronto FC: $16,809,103, The New York Red Bulls: $11,359,428, Seattle Sounders: $11,541,265, and the Los Angeles Galaxy: $13,260,911
Note: Orlando FC is paying just one player, Brazilian international Kaka, $7,167,500
The rest of the league has an average salary of $4,690,318.38 per team. Those teams, while some over performed given their payroll, won nothing.
The CBA shouldn’t be a money/competitiveness issue, it should be a human rights issue.
Granted, one thing that is likely to come out of the CBA is something to do with the base salary in the league of $36,500 per year going up. 61 players in Major League Soccer currently earn this as a professional wage — you could earn the same money waiting tables if you worked hard — at a highly skilled profession and that, frankly, is no-where near enough.
A lot of the wrong things are being focused on my MLS executives. It’s really not about money, Garber just admitted to MLS losing $100s of millions every year. It’s about keeping Major League Soccer “American.”
I’ve got news for Don Garber and MLS — you cannot Americanise a global game.
Free agency, or freedom of movement, isn’t just a right that is afforded to you by an entity like Major League Soccer, or the National Football League, or Major League Baseball. It is your basic right as somebody permitted to work and or live in the United States of America. If you worked at Lowes and were let go, you wouldn’t have to wait until Home Depot and Ace Hardware passed you over so that you could work for True Value.
The likelihood of Major League Soccer players getting true free agency (i.e. the same kind that exists everywhere else in the soccer universe) is slim. What will probably happen — that has already been discussed and debated on national radio — is that there will be the illusion of free agency.
What I mean by this is restricted and un-restricted free agency.
The problem with restricted and un-restricted free agency is that Major League Soccer will further alienate itself to the rest of the soccer world as it is still too much of a confusing model for teams outside of the US to comprehend.
The only way that the CBA for 2015 should be signed is if there is a Jean-Mar Bosman type ruling written within it. The players need more power for the league to grow to its potential, and they need to not be owned by a single entity.
Major League Soccer is the North Korea of the soccer world. Everything is owned by a single entity, propaganda of parity is force fed to fans, sheer pig-headedness shuns any ideals of leagues outside of itself, all the while its top brass get richer and richer and the people putting the fans in the seats earn a pittance.
Soccer world-wide is a free market, the teams who produce the most revenue get to sign the best players because they can pay them as such. This is not limited to an exclusive few — anybody can rise up from anywhere, after all, Manchester United were once relegated to the fourth tier of English football.
What are the consequences is the CBA is not signed?
If the collective bargaining agreement is not signed, or rather not sign-able for the MLS player union they will strike. One should believe this to be unlikely, though, as it would send the league back decades. The reason? Major League Soccer just landed the biggest TV deal in its history with ESPN, FOX, and Univision which is worth $90 million per year until the 2022 season.
If the players were to strike and the 2015 season didn’t take place, expect ESPN, FOX and Univision to either cut the deal significantly or drop it altogether. It would also be catastrophic for trust in a league structure that even its biggest fans will admit is often a tough sell to new fans.
This is not a battle the league can win. The bulk of the players can find other employment more easily than the league can find new players.
Three weeks — That is how long Major League Soccer has to realize it must introduce a free agency system like Jean-Marc Bosman helped create in Europe
Three weeks — That is how long the players union have to wise up and demand their freedom, like Jean-Marc Bosman
Three weeks — That is how long Major League Soccer and the MLS Players Union have to save the biggest TV deal in the league’s history.
Three weeks— That is how long Major League Soccer has to win over its decreasingly loyal fan-base.
Three weeks — That is how long Major League Soccer and the MLS Players Union have to save US Soccer.