MLS and free agency: Fatal brinksmanship?

You can’t take public statements too seriously during a difficult negotiation. It’s posturing time.

But the apparent stumbling block of real, honest-to-goodness free agency is a concern. And this quote from MLS president Mark Abbott, a tough negotiator and the architect of single entity, is a puzzler:

“Because we function in an international market and the clubs that we are competing against for players are not subject to our salary budget, to have free agency within the league doesn’t provide us with the certainty that the union says it does,” Abbott explained. “When the union says they can offer cost certainty under free agency, it’s not true because we have to compete against clubs all throughout the world.”

(From Brian Straus’ detailed look at the state of collective bargaining)

I cannot make heads or tails of this argument, mostly because free agency within MLS has nothing to do with the realities of the global labor market. If FC Dallas is bidding against Pachuca for a particular player, it hardly matters whether D.C. United is also bidding.

So no, MLS can’t have “cost certainty” because it’s a global market. Globally, players are free agents, whether MLS likes it or not. MLS cannot control the market. And that’s a good thing. If the league could control the market, it might have lost when players filed suit in the league’s early days.

MLS won that suit because it claimed, correctly, that players had other options. The USA alone has other leagues — in those days, the A-League and indoor soccer; today, the NASL and USL. Mexico is raiding the USA these days. Then there’s Europe. Qatar. China. Australia. That’s why the idea of decertifying the union and suing again is a non-starter.

But it also means MLS has less leverage than the typical U.S. sport. The NFL gets away with all sorts of cruelty in its player contracts because players have almost no other options besides the Canadian Football League, which isn’t really comparable. The NBA and NHL have to spend enough on players to keep their status as the world’s top league in their respective sports. Major League Baseball had to bend to free agency to avoid antitrust problems, and cost-containment ideas haven’t gained much traction.

So the idea that MLS would risk a work stoppage to prevent free agency, when it’s already participating in a free-agent market globally, is horrifying and foolish. In a worst-case scenario, with MLS never conceding the point and players sticking together, you’d just see all the players going elsewhere. (Disclaimer: I have not reviewed the legalities of whether a striking player under contract can find another job. Someone with more legal expertise and no ties to either side in this negotiation will have to decide that.)

Even in MLS “wins” on this issue, it loses. From college graduates to mid-career veterans, players will be less inclined to sign with the league.

It’s also a matter of perception and confidence. When David Beckham signed his megamillion deal and other European stars followed, it was the sign of a confident league striding forward — a good step to entice broadcasters, sponsors and fans. That confidence is undermined when the league is going to such pains to prevent two of its teams from bidding Bobby Boswell or Brian Carroll’s salary up to $200,000.

Fans also are more demanding these days. Most people were willing to see some compromises to get the league up and running. Today, no one wants to see any vestiges of the days in which Sunil Gulati played hardball on salaries across the league. Clubs make their own personnel decisions — taken to the ludicrous extreme when Frank Lampard apparently signed with neither league nor club but some other completely different entity — and that’s the way fans like it. Players, too. Homegrown players are nudging draftees out of the spotlight on new talent, and that’s a big statement for club pride.

I’ve heard one mildly reasonable argument against free agency. The issue is that teams would end up paying more for their top players, excluding Designated Players, and would therefore have less to spend on the rest of the roster. Fringe veterans would be much more likely to end up in the NASL, which will be happy to snap up more Aaron Pitchkolans and Carlos Mendeses. The 15th-25th spots on the roster would get a little younger.

But that’s not the argument the league is making. And it shouldn’t be a deal-breaker, anyway.

Does the league have some other super-secret reason for digging in its heels here? Or are some league officials just sentimentally attached to a system that, crucial as it was for the league’s first decade, is now outdated and redundant?

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4 Responses to MLS and free agency: Fatal brinksmanship?

  1. Sgc says:

    What Abbot means is that the players are basically implying that free agency doesn’t cost anything.

    And in a closed system like a typical US sports league you could carry off the claim (though I figure it must not be true, the very fact players would strike over it being pretty powerful evidence of that) that free agency just redistributes income from a group of players who are desirable to another that presumably aren’t.

    But in MLS, anyone who loses out from free agency can just walk and go abroad.

    What that means is that MLS can only adopt free agency and simultaneously keep the cap the same as it otherwise would be if they are willing to accept getting less for their money. This might be different in a purely accounting sense from spending more to get the same quality, but from an economic sense it’s the same thing.

    The owners don’t want to give on free agency because it costs. The players have no means of compensating owners for these costs, even if they wanted to, which they it doesn’t stand to reason that they would.

  2. KT says:

    “But in MLS, anyone who loses out from free agency can just walk and go abroad.”

    Ignoring for a moment the logistical issues involved with Americans being able to be cleared to work in certain European countries, the fact is not just ANY MLS player can “just walk and go abroad,” unless they would like to go to the 2. Bundesliga or Serie B or the Superettan in Sweden. In which case…why bother, exactly? In some of the smaller countries, you’d be going to a league that’s neither as competitive nor recognized (among the people you know, anyway) as MLS. (Ask Chris Rolfe how the whole “walking and going abroad” thing worked.)

    If you can go to the EPL or Serie A or La Liga, there’s probably not a reasonable amount of money (yet) available to MLS teams to top that. You’re not going to keep some guys who are at that level from giving Europe a try (certain young US Nats who have just burst on the scene notwithstanding). If they fail at that level, they get to come back and get overpaid by, to choose a club completely at random, Toronto FC.

    And if you can find a gig in a lesser country or a lesser league in a major country…why do that? What’s the point? You may as well stay here, where your standard of living is known (and high), you’re probably living in Eastern or Central time, the stadiums are nice, you’re on ESPN and unless it’s Damani Ralph Rubin Kazan Money…it seems kinda pointless.

    The rank and file of MLS may theoretically have “the world” as an optional marketplace, but the reality isn’t quite that. For many of them, making $70,000 in the United States is ( a ) a far cry better than they would have had a right to expect even ten years ago and ( b ) better than they can do slicing meat. Oh, and ( c ), unless you’re into Adventures in Scandinavia, living in the US of A does have its advantages.

  3. IF says:

    Interesting argument with many valid points. I would also like to point out ALL MLS players get paid on time. This is not the case with some leagues around the world. That alone should count for something.

  4. Beau Dure says:

    Sadly, you’re right. The bar isn’t set very high.

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