MLS players vote to potentially go on strike.

March 12, 2010

It’s been several weeks since the last big update in regards to the negotiations over the collective bargaining agreement between the MLS and the players.  Media reports had discussed the players and owners making some progress, and even returning to the table again to negotiate despite the fact that they had extended the deadline two or three times by now.  The general belief was that the players and the league (which owns all player contracts) would somehow get along nicely, and everything would be settled.

Things changed last night when the player’s union voted 383-2 in favor of a strike if there is no contract by March 23rd.  While this doesn’t mean the league will necessarily go on strike, Pat Onstead, goalkeeper for the Houston Dynamo and one of the representatives for the players said that they are a long way from coming to agreement on the current CBA.  From this moment, the league and players have about 11 days to come to a deal, otherwise a strike will be called.  If a strike were to be called, this could be severely detrimental to soccer in the United States.  With the World Cup less than 100 days away, the MLS was going to use the interest in the World Cup again this year to try and boost attendance at league matches.  A strike could cause the loss of this new potential influx of casual soccer fans, as well as drive away some of the existing fans of the league.  While fans may not be able to to go attend soccer matches, there is a wealth of substitutes in terms of other professional sport leagues in North America, as well as easy access to satellite and cable broadcasts of foreign leagues.  Who knows, an MLS strike combined with the World Cup could lead to a boost in viewership for the Premier League and other European clubs.

One thing the MLS strike will probably not have a potential effect will probably be the U.S. performance at World Cup.  Already, most of the squad (especially the starters) ply their trade overseas, mostly in the Premier League, Bundesleague, and other top leagues within Europe.  An MLS strike will probably make U.S. manager Bob Bradley more likely to pick players from leagues other than the MLS.  Because of this potential strike, Everton is already on the move, trying to extend the loan of U.S. international Landon Donovan.  The loan was set to expire this week, but with a strike looming, it is quite possible the loan will be extended.

So set your clocks, we have 11 days to see how this drama will unfold.  Personally, the MLS going on strike will not make much of a difference to me, even as a soccer fan living in the U.S.  It has been almost five years since I have attended a live match, and I have not bothered watching a televised MLS match other than playoffs in that period as well.  I think more and more American’s are becoming fans of European clubs, and with ESPN now showing the Premier League and Champions League, many fans will simply switch over to those channels, as not only can they watch a higher level of soccer, but they can now see more and more American’s playing in those leagues.


A quick note on the potential MLS players strike.

February 22, 2010

A few weeks ago I discussed the potential for Major League Soccer (MLS) players going on strike.  For the last few weeks, there has been relatively little discussion in the media about the labor talks, other than a few reports of positive talks between the players and the league/owners.  Even after the Collective Bargaining Agreement expired, the two sides continued to meet in extended talks which were seen as another positive development in the labor crisis.

Just today though, things seem to be heading in the opposite direction.  There have been a large number of articles discussing the imminent possibility of the league going on strike.  In his mailbag this week, Sports Illustrated writer Grant Wahl discusses the outburst of comments from both the players and owners as being very negative, and a very good sign that the league may not be starting up as scheduled this season (or possibly not even at all).

Now labor stoppages in professional sport leagues hasn’t been anything new, in the last few decades we have seen strikes and  in Major League Baseball, National Basketball Association, and the National Hockey League.  In each instance there has been evidence of significant declines in fan attendance because of these work stoppages.  While these big leagues have all recovered to some extent from the work stoppages, the question which keeps bothering me is “can the MLS survive a strike?  It is already well documented that the league has had many financial struggles over the years, and a strike seems to be exactly the thing which would make an already ambivalent public care even less about the sport of soccer, which already has had a tough time competing against the more popular sports of hockey, baseball, football, and basketball in North America.

While things may be tough, imagine being in the position of the owners of the new expansion franchise in Philadelphia.  Its one thing to not receive any attendance revenues because of a strike, but to not have any incoming revenue in a franchises first year in a league could be a death sentence for the franchise.  Another potential big loser would be the New York Red Bulls who have completed construction of a new 25,000 seat stadium.  The novelty effect tells us that a new stadium should help boost attendance at matches, but what happens if a new stadium is built, but no games are played there?

While the North American Soccer League failed because of overspending and expansion, could it be that such a strong attempt at avoiding increasing spending in the MLS could lead to the league’s demise?  Only time will tell.  Stay tuned for more MLS (and NFL & NBA) labor stoppage news and analysis.

Major League Soccer players to go on strike?

December 18, 2009

Major League Soccer is now in the off-season, having just completed its fourteenth season.  However, the league and players seem to be gearing up for a big fight over the current league structure and salary cap.  Just recently, goalkeeper Kasey Keller on his blog hinted that players may be going on strike as of February 2nd.  The big issue is that the MLS currently allows teams a salary cap of $2.3 million for its entire roster, except for two players per team who can get a special exemption which doesn’t count towards the salary cap.  David Beckham is probably the best example of this exemption, as his salary is said to be about twice what that of the salary cap for an entire franchise for a year.

The main issue at hand, really revolves around the MLS status as a single-entity organization.  The league owns all player contracts, and there is no real sense of free-agency or even free transfers within the league.  While the Bosman ruling changed the face of player movement in European football, the MLS is still living under the guide of single-entity, keeping it from allowing free movement of players.  FIFA recently did an investigation of the MLS and said the league is compliant with its rules, however FIFAPro, the players organization has said the MLS is in violation of many FIFA statutes.  The MLS adopted the single-entity model for several reasons, mainly to keep player costs low, as that is what is believed to have been a major issue which lead to the fall of the North American Soccer League (NASL).  Additionally, under the single-entity model, the MLS is granted some leniency in regards to anti-trust violations, making it difficult to successful win court cases against the league in order to force any changes to the current model.  While players are allowed to move freely after their contract ends if they head to a league in another country, players can not move from one MLS franchise to another after their contract ends.  Rather, the league continues to own the contract and has the final say in deciding where a player will go.

The MLS players have also began to argue that there should be an increase in the salary cap because of the fans demand for more high profile players to come play in the league.  However, even if the MLS were to drastically increase the salary cap, I believe most teams would not see a great increase in talent.  Most teams would probably see some increases, but star players from overseas would probably demand salaries so high, they would continue to have to be placed under the special exemption category.

For more on the potential MLS players strike, as well as some quotes from Prof. Sauer of the SportsEconomist blog, click here.

Despite all this fighting, the league did give Landon Donovan a new four year contract, which is estimated to be worth $2 million a year.  This is the largest contract the MLS has ever given to an American player, and has included clauses to allow Donovan to go overseas both on loan in the off-season, or for good if a good enough offer is made for him after World Cup 2010.  Already Donovan has signed a 10 week loan deal with Everton of the Premier League, where he might actually get some playing time, especially with Everton in danger of falling into the relegation zone.  Donovan has gone overseas twice before, and each spell has been quite a disaster for him, getting almost no playing time.  The MLS seems to have ridden out the recession well enough, and has the money to keep its top players, yet they still want to keep the salary cap in place.

I think all signs point towards a potential work stoppage, something a soccer league in America really can’t afford.  If fans were so angry with work stoppages in hockey and baseball, I don’t know if the MLS really has the legitimacy and tradition that would help them overcome such a problem.

1994 MLB Strike

October 28, 2009

Tonight is Game 1 of the World Series between the Yanks and the Phillies. Fifteen years ago, Game 1 never took place. Yes, it was 15 years ago this year that baseball work stoppage was in full swing.

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Allen Barra writes about the 1994 shortened MLB season.  Tony Gwynn was closing in on .400, and Matt Williams was on pace to break the home run record.  The Montreal Expos had baseball’s best record at 34 games over .500, and a staple of good young talent such as Larry Walker, Marquis Grissom, Pedro Martinez, Moises Alou, and John Wettleland.

Bud Selig, at the time, claimed that the reason for the strike was competitive balance. However, that would prove to be false. Barra writes about how that season was one of the more competitively balanced seasons in recent memory (when examining the dispersion of winning percentage). In fact, the previous five World Series Champions were not in “large” markets (Toronto X2, Minnesota, Cincinnati, Oakland).

As Barra points out, the real reason was salaries (shocking!). The owners of course wanted that salaries lower (and a salary cap) while the Players Association said, “Thanks, but no thanks.” Once the strike ended and the two parties started working on the next CBA, the idea of a luxury tax (an idea that Barra notes came from the Players Association) was introduced by Selig and now is part of MLB.   Since then, the home run record has been broken twice, players have testified in front of Congress about steroids, Montreal Expos is now the Washington Nationals, a Blue Ribbon Panel was commissioned, and the Yankees have won 4 World Series titles and have been to 3 others (counting this year).  All for competitive balance?