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Striking Threat – The MLS vs Free Agency

Will this be the last MLS memory fans will have for awhile?

Billy’s Soccer Beat

With the CBA expiring at the conclusion of last season, MLS fans everywhere knew that it was a distinct possibility that the MLS’ players may strike, resulting in a work stoppage for the league and lost revenue for just about everyone.

With the season slated to start next week, the possibility of strike seems much more likely than ever before. While the MLS has indicated that they will look to increase both the minimum salary and the salary cap, two points of contention in the old CBA, there remains one important point that the players feel is paramount to their future success in this league.

I’m talking of course about free agency.

For those who are casual MLS followers, or simply choose to ignore the business side of the league, it’s important to point out that MLS is a single-entity league. That means the league owns all the teams and the proverbial team owners are simply acting stakeholders in the league regarding the team they represent. Thus, when a player chooses to sign with a team, they are in fact, signing with MLS then being allocated to a team based on a contrived order that even the most hard core of fans (like myself) can’t seem to wrap their head around. The result is some sketchy deals going down (Dempsey to Seattle comes to mind) and some fan bases feeling marginalized. The smaller markets feel they cannot get a fair shot at players while the big markets feel they cannot properly utilize their resources. Overall, everyone loses.

Because of the structure, MLS is allowed to grow in smaller soccer markets.

Because of the structure, MLS is allowed to grow in smaller soccer markets.

The league would likely never have made it to its current state without single entity structure however.

The past iteration of an American professional soccer league, the NASL, collapsed because every team owner spent money they didn’t have to keep up with the rapidly growing New York Cosmos, lost that money, sold their team, and ultimately collapsed the league. Single entity has allowed MLS to weather the many storms that come with starting a new league, including the contraction issues of the Florida teams in the early 2000s. The model of slow growth has allowed the league to gain a foothold in the American sports landscape, leading to burgeoning clubs with sold out arenas across the country. If not for single entity, MLS likely would have folded after the early, trying years of soccer in the United States.

Now, it’s seemingly time for a new page in MLS.

A strike could crush the growing popularity of MLS.

A strike could crush the growing popularity of MLS.

 

The league is littered with high priced internationals and national team stars, with owners paying expansion fees in excess of $100 million to secure new clubs. Without free agency, the players feel that MLS will continue to gauge their salaries in an effort to keep costs down in a league that commissioner Don Garber claims is losing $100 million per year.

Despite these losses, MLS players see a new $90 million per year TV deal and an influx of new talent and their leverage towards having a new deal that includes free agency seems to be well within sight. However, with the owners so united against upsetting single-entity, a strike seems more and more likely. As is the case with strikes, it’s easier for 20 deep-pocketed owners to stand unified against 600 underpaid players, but without free agency in the new CBA, it’s hard to imagine the players budging.

The next week will be extremely telling for not just this season, but the future of the league. With the players staying resolute on their push for free agency, the owners may finally have to budge, which would certainly be a victory for the future of professional soccer in North America.

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