Burgeoning MLS, social stances, and the labor situation

Photo: Earl Gardner

When stacking up Major League Soccer against its relatives in the US sports league landscape, it is clearly the younger sibling. With that youth, and lack of requisite power and cash thirst, comes a chance for MLS to rise above the problems other leagues are facing at the moment.

Being still in its early years, MLS has the chance to be a leader in this realm (and in some cases already is). But this infancy also leads to other unique problems pointed out by soccer pundits online, primarily a lack of rights for the league’s players.

Social stances

The National Football League has faced some read mud-in-the-face public relations nightmares lately. From the Ray Rice debacle, to the perceived injustices in the Michael Sam situation (the first openly gay player to be drafted), the NFL has taken more than a few black eyes in the objective press.

That’s not even counting cases like Ben Roethlisberger, the Pittsburgh Steeler quarterback that allegedly sexually assaulted women on two different occasions but seemed to be treated deferentially due to his stature in the league. I know people who were once big fans of the Steelers, but who now have a tough time rooting for the team because of the leniency shown with Roethlisberger.

MLS has a number of things going for it in this realm. The level of scrutiny from the media is a fraction of that on the other big leagues, due to its size. The salary structure is dwarfed by other leagues, and with money comes power, and with power comes corruption.

But even in areas where MLS has dealt with potential sticky public relations problems, they have been progressive. Accepting Robbie Rogers back into the league with open arms after he revealed his sexual orientation was a major statement, as was strict punishment for Marc Burch and Alan Gordon for homophobic slurs yelled on the pitch.

It helps for the league that soccer is generally thought of as a liberal thinker’s sport. The younger demographic sides towards those who would appreciate tolerant social stances. For people who once were attracted to the NFL, but got turned off by their cold, money-moderated approach to punishing bad behavior, the opportunity exists for MLS to be a refuge that holds players accountable both on and off the pitch.

Labor situation

Yesterday,’s Jonathan Tannenwald tweeted about the subject of social stances taken by MLS:

In response, Aaron Stollar (host of “The Big Question” podcast) turned this around to the idea of player treatment:

It’s a fair point, and that’s something that MLS needs to address. If a league will be strict in punishing for off-the-field behavior, there should be some progressiveness in player movement and compensation.

Free agency has been viewed negatively by MLS since that could pit team vs. team in negotiating contracts with players. That is also the idea behind single entity. A central body owning every contract prevents the varying limbs from fighting each other, jeopardizing the health of the entire system.

On the surface, the single entity seems old-school and restrictive. It’s actually a progressive business model that sets sports labor back to its dark ages. In the single entity, players are no longer free agents once they enter — their rights are kept until a team no longer wants them. The player has no rights in the system. Bosman, Curt Flood — those names are meaningless in the single entity.

And as much as the weather is listed as the reason for spring-to-fall schedule, it’s also helpful from a labor perspective to have most contracts ending while most other leagues are in the middle of their season. It restricts a players’ ability to start a bidding war with richer clubs overseas.

MLS has been able to use its youth, as well as past failures in the NASL, to justify the centralization of teams and restricting salaries. And the global market for players helps MLS, since players can either choose the MLS system or try to find better money elsewhere in a more competitive labor market.

Still, this hurts the league. Many have a tough time viewing the league from a legitimate perspective when the league uses such nebulous institutions as blind draws, Discovery claims, and secretive Allocation lotteries to disperse talent entering the league.

The relationship between social stances and labor

How do these two situations relate? They are both difficult situations to bring about change. Fortunately for MLS, its youth allows the league to change course quickly. In some cases, like gay tolerance, the league is a clear winner at the moment. But in the case of labor, it looks like the league has outgrown the current system.

MLS is at a point where granting free agency and opening the market would add credibility to the league’s practices. Perhaps this is the Collective Bargaining Agreement that will clean up player acquisition, and make the league more accessible to people who prefer openness.


  1. Political points aside, fascinating stuff. Another major reason for the convoluted structure of MLS is parity. If every team might make the playoffs, then all of the fans stay tuned in to their team and to the league as a whole. There’s a reason why that the red line is right in the middle of the table.
    I hope that the MLS owners are sufficiently embarrassed about The Blind Draw to be open to a more relaxed labor structure. I don’t see any point to the SuperDraft, the Re-Entry Draft or the US player-specific Allocation Order. If the league set an off-season player cap, many of these details would sort themselves out.

  2. You briefly touch on one difference between the MLS and other major sports. If the NBA didn’t have free agency, a player would truly be stuck on his current team since no other league in the world would pay as much. If Clint Dempsey decides he’d rather play for the new Orlando team rather than Seattle, he could start making noise about going back to Europe and the league would ask the airlines about scheduling a direct flight to Disney…

  3. OneManWolfpack says:

    The thing I am concerned about is that the league is getting very close to no longer being able to hide behind “being broke”. I know the league is not absurdly profitable, in fact I believe the league claims they still lose money, no? But my point, is that if the league doesn’t start giving the players more money and/or more rights, we are going to end up with some very unhappy players. And that won’t be good for the MLS, or anyone.
    Out right free agency, would definitely create the have’s and have not’s… but if managed better, rules created or changed regarding acquiring talent (especially over seas or USMNT or top-flight), and the salary cap raised, the league could keep the parity that it definitely needs to continue to be relevant to the more casual fan.

  4. Your second point conflates two issues: lack of free agency and lack of transparency. There’s really no excuse for the latter, and the league looks amateurish and suspicious when they won’t make their rules public. Hopefully we can get them to change that. As for the former, though, I get the sense that the single-entity structure has played a large role in the viability of the league — they might not be here if they didn’t have it. I am a huge workers’ rights labor supporter, but it’s not like athletes are being denied a chance to play, since there are suitable leagues all over the world (and it’s considered well within the norm for soccer players to roam). Garber has declared that the league, despite its great strides and great growth, is still not profitable. Until that time, it might undermine things to dissolve the single-entity structure of the league and make it a free-for-all.

    • +1 – Lack of transparency is the biggest problem for MLS trying to gain legitimacy. I understand why it was wanted, even perhaps necessary in the early days of MLS 1.0 – trying to avoid the meteoric rise and eventual explosion of the NY Cosmos of the 70s, but the league has grown beyond the fear of collapse now. When it conducts it’s business model in the same fashion as the WWE, it will be hard for fans to be as passionate about their clubs long term.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *