Maybe this is the perfect symbol of the Americanization of professional soccer, and the sign that, on the verge of its 20th season, Major League Soccer has risen to a place among the nation’s premier sporting endeavors.
The mark of maturation? Evidence that parties believe it’s a strong enough commodity to argue over?
MLS reached the brink of a work-stoppage … and then backed away.
With the threat of a players strike and the delay of the season’s opening, talks continued Wednesday in an attempt to reach accord on a collective bargaining agreement to replace the one that expired in January. Word late Wednesday was that league commissioner Don Garber confirmed that the MLS and its players had reached an agreement in principle on a new CBA.
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The news saved Friday’s opener between Chicago and defending champion LA Galaxy, which was scheduled to kick off a big weekend featuring a Sunday meeting between the two new expansion franchises, Orlando City FC and New York City FC. That game is a 60,000-seat sellout at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando.
The Seattle Sounders’ opener — Sunday against the New England Revolution, at 6:30 p.m. in a game broadcast nationally on Fox Sports 1 — also will now go on as scheduled.
With so much in the balance, it seemed that serious moves to find middle ground were necessary.
The timing certainly added to the players’ leverage.
Reports suggested players wanted a raise in the salary cap and some degree of free agency the league has lacked. They apparently got both.
The league reportedly will allow free agency for players 28 and older with eight or more years in the league. Eight years, really? That sounds like they’ve been sentenced to prison for multiple felonies. The MLS also agreed to a raise in the salary cap and upped the league’s minimum salary to $60,000.
Hoping to avoid the fiscal pitfalls that doomed the North American Soccer League, the MLS was established as a “single-
entity” league. The teams are owned as franchises under the MLS aegis, which allows no free agency.
But, archaically, it allows teams to hold on to a player’s rights even after his contract has expired. So, even if his team doesn’t want the player anymore, he can’t move to another club without the original team trading his rights. In a limited sense, that changed with the new CBA.
Before last season, Garber said the MLS was racking up league-wide losses of up to $100 million. But this season it adds New York City FC and Orlando City FC, with two more set to join in 2017, with new teams in Atlanta and Los Angeles.
New York City paid a reported $100 million franchise fee, and Orlando kicked in $70 million.
Despite Garber’s claim of money losses, common sense has to tell players that rich owners are smart enough not to sink such huge amounts on franchise fees if the league doesn’t seem like a healthy investment.
The league already has an issue with salary disparity, whereby the international stars that draw fans can make huge contracts as designated players, while the rest of the league splits up the rest. It was reported in 2014 that just the top seven highest salaries in the MLS accounted for 31 percent of player income of the entire league.
Attendance is up, with the average a record 19,149 last season, and Seattle’s 43,734 average was more than double that of all but one team (Toronto, 22,038).
With teams in Orlando and New York, added, and L.A. in the near future, the growth in the market size should only strengthen the product.
The pie is worth sharing. Players are good enough to be wanted elsewhere. Such realities demand concessions.
Lockouts and strikes are bad for all sporting leagues, but there’s value in the debate between players and the league.
These are part of the growing pains that all successful leagues encounter along the way.