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Can MLS players 'afford' to strike?
Seattle is set to build on the rousing success of its debut season while Toronto is poised for another season of sellout crowds.
There is every reason to be looking forward to the 2010 MLS season, except for the fact that there may not be a season at all.
Beautiful Red Bull Arena is set to open for league play in a few weeks, but will there be a league to play in?
Mike Stobe / Getty Images
The league’s on-going labor battle is threatening to result in a player’s strike, which would deliver a crippling blow to the relatively young league if it were allowed to happen, and worse yet, allowed to devour a season so vital to the future of MLS.
How did we get to this point? How did a league that rose from the ashes of its previous low point, when two teams were forced to be shut down before the 2002 season, find itself in a situation so dire?
It has been coming for years.
MLS has had the luxury from its humble beginnings 14 years ago of determining player salaries and contracts and controlling the player market in the United States. The league’s total control gave it take-it-or-leave-it power when negotiating with players, which helped MLS keep costs down as the league moved through its formative years.
With the exception of elite players with the talent and requirements to secure contracts outside the United States, American players with professional aspirations took what MLS offered, even it often meant little job security and lower salaries than top young prospects and foreign players.
MLS players didn’t have much recourse to improve their bargaining position with the league, at least not until a player’s union was formed (the MLSPU) in 2003. Less than two years later, the first Collective Bargaining Agreement was signed.
The original CBA did well to lay the groundwork for some basic necessities for players, such as a retirement plan and better health benefits, but it did little to address the lack of job security (guaranteed contracts remain rare in MLS, and the way contracts are structured still allows teams to waive players without having to pay them well into the season).
With the old CBA expired, the MLSPU has sought, among other things, more job security in the form of more guaranteed deals, as well as an improved (or players would argue an equal) percentage of league revenue.
With the league pocketing eight-figure expansion franchise feeds on multiple occasions, and more teams making money thanks to the construction of more soccer specific stadiums, the MLSPU expected the new CBA to be a step toward improved compensation for players, but MLS has followed up with CBA offers that (according to the MLSPU) offer more money than the previous CBA, but a lower percentage of league revenue.
So yes, even though the union says the labor stalemate isn’t about money, it ultimately is about money and whether MLS is trying to give players a smaller slice of a bigger pie.
Both sides have a point. MLS has seen owners lose millions for more than a decade so you can’t blame them for wanting to reap the reward of that dedicated investment, but it has also been players who have sacrificed and helped the league get to this point, which makes it understandable why they want to see the benefits of that sacrifice.
As reasonable as the arguments are for both, it all means little to the MLS fans who might have their faith in the league shaken by a strike, and even less to casual sports fans who could wind up either giving up on MLS or ignoring it before they ever bother to embrace it.
Both sides have supporters, with some fans calling MLS greedy, and others still blaming players for jeopardizing a league that may never recover if a strike butchered the 2010 season.
Ultimately, you cannot blame the union for fighting for what it considers a fair deal, but with neither side willing to divulge specifics of the sticking points in negotiations, it is tough to know for sure which side is truly to blame for the impasse. MLS president Mark Abbott has stated repeatedly that the league has addressed many of the union’s concerns in its proposals. The MLSPU scoffs at those claims.
What we do know is that a strike would cripple the league. It would cost owners serious money and would hurt the credibility MLS has worked to restore in the eight years since it contracted two teams and appeared to be on shaky ground.
It would shake the faith of established fans (if the mere threat of a strike hasn’t already) and would cause the league to lose out on a golden opportunity to build some momentum heading into a World Cup summer.
Philadelphia Union fans are fired up about their new club and a strike would certainly dampen early enthusiasm.
Drew Hallowell / Getty Images
Regardless of who is right or wrong, neither side can truly afford a strike. You can argue that league owners stand the most to lose, but neither side wins if the league’s foundation is shaken. There won’t be a winner or loser of a strike happens. Even if players are ultimately blamed for pulling the trigger on a strike, both sides will shoulder the blame for letting such an important season be ruined.
Look no further than the scheduled season opener on March 25 between the Seattle Sounders and expansion Philadelphia Union for evidence of the potential impact of a strike.
With a sell-out crowd all but assured and the enthusiastic fan base in Philadelphia poised to make the cross-country trip to celebrate their team’s birth, the season opener could be a historic moment for the league, but a strike could wipe that out and do irreparable harm (the threat of a strike has already made an impact, causing many fans to cancel travel plans for the season’s opening week).
There is still hope of avoiding a strike, as a federal mediator is working with the two sides to try and work out a deal, but with the union’s recent player vote showing that the union is ready to strike if a new CBA can’t be agreed to, American fans are left to sit and wait for either the good news that an agreement has been reached, or the bad news that a strike has left the 2010 season, and future of the league, in jeopardy.
Ives Galarcep is FoxSoccer.com's newest senior writer who will be covering U.S. Soccer and MLS.