With the beginning of the MLS season rapidly approaching on March 6, the threat of a Major League Soccer (MLS) players’ strike is becoming increasingly likely after the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) expired on January 31, 2015. The major issue currently being discussed is the idea of free agency, as the Major League Soccer Players Union (MLSPU) is hoping to secure the ability for players to receive bids from and negotiate contracts with multiple prospective teams. Some form of free agency is seemingly the norm throughout sports – unrestricted free agency is common throughout the rest of the soccer world and various restricted forms are also present in U.S. sports, such as in the National Football League (NFL) and Major League Baseball (MLB).
MLS executives are strongly opposed to any type of free agency, believing that player salaries would increase at a faster rate than the league could manage. This was most clearly seen in MLB – after free agency was implemented in 1976, up to present day, players salaries increased a massive 1,600 percent (even after adjusting for inflation). MLS executives believe that the league’s success in the American sports landscape is due to its “measured growth” and “centralized control,” both of which are threatened by free agency.
Free agency is strongly linked to another major topic in the negotiations, minimum player salaries and the overall salary cap. The MLSPU is hoping to increase both of these amounts and certainly this is necessary to further help MLS continue to grow and survive in the American sports landscape. Income disparity in the MLS is a huge issue, especially compared to other American sports leagues. For example, newly signed Orlando City FC player Kaka will make $7 million this season, more than the lowest 160 paid players in the MLS combined. The following graphic further illustrates the gap between players at the bottom and the top of MLS salary pool.
So far, limited progress has been made in the negotiations. Minor issues have been agreed upon, such as compensation for public appearances and moving expenses when players switch teams. Some players have indicated that they are willing to go on strike if the major issues aren’t resolved before the season is slated to begin. Unfortunately, a strike would probably do more harm to the league than good, as players would lose their salaries and benefits and star players may be inclined to sign with other teams outside of MLS.
However, the MLS season could still go on without a new CBA and no U.S. sports league is actually required to have one (in fact, MLS did not have a CBA from 1994-2004). A CBA is typically used for the league’s protection from player lawsuits filed under Section 1 of the Sherman Antitrust Act, where “team owners are barred from conspiring to impose anti-competitive restrictions on player compensation and employment.” If this occurs, the former CBA rules outlining salary and compensation rules would still be in effect. But it’s also important to note that the previous CBA was finalized five days before the regular MLS season started – so maybe all this fuss is for nothing and the MLS and MLSPU are really just swimming in time…