A mere six weeks separates today from the official start of the MLS season, and as of this very moment, a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) has yet to be ratified by the player’s union. This means that there is no deal governing the entirety of the league’s operations for 2015, only a month and a half before the season is set to begin. MLS currently looms on the precipice of entering a gleaming new era, yet the league cannot escape the fact that it is being held back by the very structures that made it a success.
While the likelihood of radical change is remote so close to the season, the league could use this collective bargaining agreement as a springboard to unparalleled success not only on the American sports scene, but on the international stage as well.
From the start, MLS has sought to avoid previous mistakes of fledgling professional leagues, most notably the spectacular implosion of the North American Soccer League (NASL) during the 1970s. Despite the presence of soccer’s most recognizable figure, even today, the NASL collapsed under the weight of massive financial obligations with not nearly enough fan interest or support to enable the league to succeed long-term.
Born on the heels of the 1994 World Cup, MLS was created to simultaneously support the United States Soccer Federation in developing players and offer a sporting product that was sustainable over time. Hence, MLS has been a single-entity league since its inception, a time that necessarily must reach its end, with no time like the present for that transition.
With wages and free agency the most hot-button topics in this round of negotiations, MLS should seriously consider moving from its single-entity adolescence into a more club-oriented adulthood. Only then can the league take the next step in developing as a serious league on par with the leagues of Europe. As an added bonus, fan interest domestically and abroad should skyrocket with the creation of the proper sporting environment.
During the 2014 MLS season, Michael Bradley was the highest paid player in the league, earning a cool $6.5 million in guaranteed compensation while plying his trade in Toronto. By comparison, the most well compensated player in the National Football League (NFL) earned $17 million in base salary, though its highest-earning player took home $24.5 million with various bonuses. In the National Hockey League (NHL), the highest paid player in 2014 earned $14 million, while the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) highest earner raked in $30.45 million during the 2013-14 season. Major League Baseball (MLB) paid $25 million in 2014 to its most well-paid player. The lowest earners in the NFL took home $420,000 in 2014, $507,336 was the minimum for NBA players in 2014-2015, $500,000 was the lowest amount paid to MLB players, and $550,000 went home with the lowest-paid NHLers.
As for MLS? Each of the players earning minimum wage in 2014 took home a paltry $36,500 for a season’s work. Given this structure, Bradley earned 178 times more at Toronto FC for his services than his poorest teammate. No other gap between wages in American sports was more than 60. Simply put, this is an unacceptable and untenable situation. MLS needs to give its multiple billionaire owners an opportunity to create an environment that provides comparable wages to other domestic leagues. As a single-entity league, each player currently is employed by MLS itself, rather than by the club whose colors they don each week.
Even a minimum salary of $250,000 would cultivate an environment much more competitive than the one that currently exists in the league. Participation figures have increased exponentially in youth soccer for decades, yet there has not been a corresponding increase in the compensation for players, making soccer in the United States little more than a pastime for the vast majority of those who choose to play it.
With health concerns repeatedly denting participation in youth football, and the agonizing pace of baseball providing the same to impact to youth baseball players, MLS has never had a greater opportunity to capitalize on the current market than now. And yet, in its current incarnation, the league cannot offer the same opportunities for career compensation that are enjoyed by players in other American leagues.
MLS simply does not have enough resources on its own to increase compensation to a competitive level on the global market. Its franchisees, however, have more than enough resources to bolster the league’s payroll to at least that of the NHL. Though not the most popular American sports league (in fact average attendance in MLS outpaced that of the NHL by some 2,000 fans per contest in 2014) the NHL is the most prominent hockey league in the world. It offers the highest wages, highest number of fans, and best competition over the course of the season. Coaching is second to none, and the North American development system for hockey players regularly churns out world class players due to the amount of fan interest and financial investment put into the game.
MLS has an opportunity to offer the same, or at least a fair facsimile of this situation to players in the United States and abroad. While the English Premier League (EPL) may never be toppled as the premiere destination for soccer talent, MLS can at least become a serious competitor in terms of talent and development without necessarily committing outlandish sums to player wages.
The NHL, NBA, and NFL all have hard caps for their player wages, meaning teams cannot have payrolls that exceed the negotiated figure, while MLB utilizes a soft cap requiring teams to pay a “luxury tax” on any payroll that exceeds a set figure. In so doing, MLB has created a gross revenue stream of approximately $9 billion for 2014, an astronomical sum by any measure. Either of these approaches, or perhaps a combination of the two, would make MLS a formidable league on the open market.
This type of compensation structure, however, is not possible without the additional resources provided by an owner of means, as MLS simply lacks the general revenue available to make such contracts possible. Advancements in compensation may be for naught, however, if MLS cannot figure out what every other American league has discovered: free agency is a boon to the league, not a hindrance.
In each of the major American sports leagues, free agency has been a source of continuous friction between players’ unions and owners. MLS is no different, with the added wrinkle that free agency has yet to come to fruition in the league at all. Currently, MLS franchises are forbidden from fielding competing offers for players that have expired contracts, a consequence of the structure of the league itself.
In an environment where each player is beholden to the league, not the clubs, the league has a vested interest in stifling competition, not fostering it. Such a process keeps costs down and prevents a spiraling of wages into levels untenable for a league with little in the way of fans or infrastructure. This description no longer fits MLS however. Teams with their own soccer specific stadiums are the norm, rather than the exception.
MLS has signed a television broadcast deal worth some $90 million per year, an influx of capital the league has never seen. The United States has such a broad and diverse sporting population that there is plenty of room for a true soccer league with free agency. MLS has plenty of precedent to base its free agency structure on. Each league in the American landscape has free agency policies, most of them featuring some aspect of service before true free agency can begin.
The NFL has a peculiar addition to free agency designed to stave off excessive movement with its franchise tag, enabling teams to keep valued players on the roster while rewarding the player with a salary worth the average of the top five players at his position, or a one-year contract worth 120% of his original deal, whichever is greater. Two variants exist for the franchise tag, one granting the team exclusive rights to the player, while a non-exclusive version guarantees the team two high draft picks should the team not seek to match any deal offered to the designated player.
In this manner, MLS teams could be certain of not losing highly regarded players to other teams, while simultaneously providing a deserved increase in compensation for players who play well. Understandably, there is not much overlap in the NFL and MLS when it comes to specialization in positions, yet there is something to be said for rewarding both parties when it comes to securing the services of a player.
MLS, if it were so inclined, could certainly come up with its own concoction of the franchise tag, grouping players as goalkeepers, defenders, midfielders, and forwards, rather than the numerous distinctions that arise from the plethora of formations utilized in the beautiful game. None of this truly matters, however, if MLS is unwilling to give up the control over player movements it has had for so long in favor of giving clubs greater freedom in signings.
The lack of transparency afforded by MLS in regards to player movement has allowed puzzling assignments of American international players to various franchises seemingly on a whim, with no real rhyme or reason dictating the process. Moving to a true league of clubs would eliminate such head-scratching moves in favor of allowing clubs and players to pursue their own best interest. Greater competition is spawned in such a fashion and fans will enjoy a greatly improved product as a result.
As a result of the World Cup in Brazil, soccer in the United States saw a resurgence of interest from serious and casual fans. Unfortunately, this surge proved extremely temporary, in part because the American version of soccer lags behind in exposure and quality when compared to other leagues.
Most assuredly, the gap in talent between MLS and other leagues is not as vast as it once was, and it continues to narrow over time. And yet, there is plenty that MLS can do to improve the American product significantly, if the league is willing to step down as dictator of American professional soccer and transition into a less powerful role, allowing the clubs of MLS to flourish or flounder on their own.
A complete lack of oversight is not the answer to all of the ills plaguing MLS, yet a single-entity structure is untenable moving forward. The negotiations currently taking place could be a starting point for the transition of MLS into a true league of clubs, rather than a stifled, stagnant league on the fringes of the American sporting consciousness.