Commentary

Labor Talk: MLS players must strike

I’ve said from the beginning that MLS players should and will strike, come March. Everything I’ve been told behind the scenes suggests that the season will be delayed by at least one week.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that I don’t think any sort of work stoppage will push into April. Barring a last minute agreement, it looks like the conflict over free agency and the salary floor will result in the rescheduling of opening weekend, but hopefully nothing further.

Anyway, when it comes to labor talks, ask yourself this:

What can the players give Major League Soccer that they aren’t already providing?

MLS players have been making concessions their entire careers. They don’t earn a lot of money, and they don’t have basic player rights. They fly coach and still play on artificial surfaces in a number of stadiums. If they want to play overseas and then return to MLS, their rights are usually owned by their former team.

Collective bargaining is generally a two-way street, hence the name. It usually begins with two sides bringing a bunch of unrealistic proposals to the table, which are then removed in a like-for-like swap. This goes on for a few months until only the most contentious topics remain, then a compromise is made. I’ve observed the process several times as a member of the labor union SAG-AFTRA, which negotiates with CBS 3.

Unlike most bargaining sessions, I only see the CBA negotiations as a one-way street. I don’t know what the league can give the players in return for taking free agency or a salary increase off the table. The player’s union sought free agency in 2010 and ultimately agreed to a deal that saw the creation of the re-entry draft and other mechanisms in lieu of true player rights.

Those mechanisms have been in place for five years, and now the players want to move beyond that.

One thing I truly believe is that the players have the “ammunition” in these talks.

MLS has two expansion teams starting this season, along with a brand new TV contract that pays an estimated $90 million per year for eight years. That is roughly triple the amount of money the league earned in the last TV deal. You’ve got new superstars like Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Sebastian Giovinco, and Kaka entering the league this year.

Those are the main reasons why there’s more pressure on the league to avoid a work stoppage than the players. New investors such as City Football Group probably won’t be happy with a work stoppage. Orlando is campaigning to fill up the Citrus Bowl for a home opener that probably won’t happen. You also have three television networks that have scheduled national broadcasts for opening weekend.

Whatever blame is directed at the players will be mostly hollow, since MLS already controls most of their rights and keeps a single-entity structure that does not scale with the continued growth of the league. You simply cannot tell a player making $60,000 per year that there is no room for a salary increase when your TV deal has tripled in value.

The fans will likely side with the union in this dispute, because they realize that the players have made so many concessions since the birth of the league. It was necessary for the players to stand pat while the league slowly built a successful, centralized business model. Now that the league is beginning to grow at an accelerated rate, it’s time for the players to be given their fair share in salary and rights.

It’s true that a prolonged stoppage hurts everyone, but it hurts the league and the business side of things a bit more. The owners, investors, and TV executives have more to lose than guys who are already playing an eight month season.

There’s probably a time frame of 1-2 weeks where the fans will support the players before they start to become weary of the process.

Salary disparity

Let’s use a Philadelphia example to highlight the financial disparity in the league.

Raymon Gaddis is the Union’s starting left back, a second round draft pick who earned his spot in the first team just one year later.

Ray’s rookie salary in his 2012 rookie year was $33,750. He played 1,475 minutes over 18 games.

In 2013 Ray’s salary was $46,500. He played 2,703 minutes over 31 games.

In 2014, Ray’s salary was listed at $52,313. He started every single game and was the league leader with 3,051 minutes played. Gaddis was substituted just once in the regular season.

Let’s do some math:

Ray Gaddis has played 7,229 minutes across 83 games in three seasons as a MLS player. He has earned $132,563 in that time span.

Divide those numbers up, and Ray Gaddis has earned 18 dollars per minute as a professional athlete. He’s earned just $1,597 per game.

That might look great to the rest of us who aren’t professional athletes, but let me show you another comparison to make my point.

Toronto’s Michael Bradley earned $6.5 million in guaranteed compensation in 2014. He played 2,198 minutes and 25 games in a season that was briefly interrupted by the World Cup.

That means the American international earned $260,000 per game, and $2,957 per minute in 2014.

Here’s the conclusive statement:

In one season, Michael Bradley earned 49 times what Ray Gaddis has earned in his entire THREE-YEAR MLS CAREER!

gaddis stats

Ray Gaddis was the 2014 league leader in minutes played but earned just $52,313.

Here’s another look at some numbers:

Ray Gaddis – Philadelphia Union
Guaranteed salary: $52,313
Games played: 34
Minutes played: 3,051
Money earned per minute: $17.14
Money earned per game: $1,538

Hector Jimenez – Columbus Crew
Guaranteed salary: $75,000
Games played: 24
Minutes played: 1,694
Money earned per minute: $44.27
Money earner per game: $3,125

Tim Cahill – NY Red Bulls
Guaranteed salary: $3,625,000
Games played: 23
Minutes played: 1,516
Money earned per minute: $2,391
Money earned per game: $157,600

Michael Bradley – Toronto FC
Guaranteed salary: $6,500,000
Games played: 25
Minutes played: 2,198
Money earned per minute: $2,957
Money earned per game: $260,000

Casey v Bradley

Michael Bradley earned $260,000 per game in 2014. Photo: Earl Gardner

Anyway, you get the idea.

I’m not going to sit here and tell you that Ray is a better player than Michael Bradley or Tim Cahill, who are guys that sell tickets and jerseys. But that kind of salary disparity is just too vast for a single-entity league.

For comparison, I made more money than Ray Gaddis in 2012 and 2013 as a part-time, freelance journalist. There is no way that someone who writes about the game should be paid more than someone who plays the game.

Free agency

There are a few things to consider here.

Single entity exists to create parity and control the competitive balance within MLS. That means that premier talent is supposed to be distributed to different teams, instead of allowing one club to stock up on players by simply outspending the rest of the league.

That’s all good in theory, but it hasn’t been playing out in reality.

The following players chose what team they wanted to play for:

Michael Bradley*, Clint Dempsey*, Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore, Steven Gerrard, David Villa, Frank Lampard, Kaka, and Tim Cahill.

The asterisk signifies the farce that took place in 2014. Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley went directly to Seattle and Toronto, respectively, while the Philadelphia Union had to move up in the allocation ranking to acquire Maurice Edu. All three players were returning U.S. internationals, but only the Union were required to use the allocation mechanism. The league later ruled, on the fly, that there was a new “threshold” for returning U.S. international players. Those specifics were never explained, and it was later reported that the league was going to scrap that idea.

Also, don’t believe what you’re told about Jozy Altidore. Toronto may have moved to bottom of the allocation order after his acquisition, but that was largely symbolic. Jozy was only going to TFC, and no one else.

And that doesn’t even touch the Jermaine Jones situation, which was incredibly decided in a “blind draw” that took place last summer.

Photo by Earl Gardner

Philadelphia was forced to go through allocation to acquire Maurice Edu in 2014. Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey, who also returned to MLS as U.S. internationals, were not subject to the same process. Photo: Earl Gardner

The designated player rule was created in 2007 to bring David Beckham into the league. Ever since, MLS has operated under pseudo-free agency, where big name signings can bypass allocation rules and go to whatever team they wish. This was necessary to attract big name foreign players to Major League Soccer and really pushed the league forward by leaps and bounds.

The problem is that it weakens the league when it goes to the bargaining table to explain why everyone else shouldn’t have the same rights as (mostly foreign) designated players.

Compromise

The most realistic scenario is that the players settle for a slight increase to salaries and some sort of restricted free agency. A decent idea would be to allow players above age 25, or with 5 years of professional experience, to be able to choose what team they would like to play for. Players who don’t meet those parameters would be subject to a watered-down re-entry and waiver process.

Anything less is a waste of time. If the players don’t take a step forward, then what’s the point? They are going to have to strike to get what they deserve.

59 Comments

  1. “For comparison, I made more money than Ray Gaddis in 2012 and 2013 as a part-time, freelance journalist. There is no way that someone who writes about the game should be paid more than someone who plays the game.”

    Wow, that’s a stunning point in favor of the players.

    • I had a feeling. You have too much command of language to be otherwise. Right on George. Write on.

    • This is a point that I heavily disagree with. Clearly, Kevin’s marketable skills are valued at a higher level than are Ray’s, as is Bradley’s. Moreover, Ray clearly believes that he was offered an amount that he is willing to work for. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t have signed.

      We don’t live in a system where your profession is chosen for you. I make more than Ray, but that’s because my employer values my skills and services higher than Rays’s does for him. It’s that simple.

      That said, I don’t like the top-down structure of MLS and I think that free agency (as well as a relegation/promotion system) is necessary.

      • Kevin and Ray do not participate in the same employment market and MLS is far from a free and open market. MLS is an extraordinarly regulated single business. It’s not valid to compare earnings of this writer versus that footballer and say it’s the market that determines the difference.

      • I’m not the one that made the original comparison, along with the accompanying dictum about pay. However, you seem to be saying that the employment market is separated by industry, which is really not an accurate observation. Again, Gaddis can switch careers if he wants to make more money. Or, he can switch leagues.

        While MLS is far from an open market (and I agree with you on that), it’s not the only facet of the market (other leagues do exist).

      • I guess the difference is MLS is part of a larger market, and not the only soccer market.

      • azJeff- MLS doesn’t work this way. They don’t have free agency. Ray can’t go around the league, when his contract expires- my understanding is the contract only expires when the team lets it.

      • I know this. But there’s no proof that he’d be paid more if there were free agency. He could actually be paid less!

      • The Casa scouting report that I saw recently on Kevin mentioned what a good left peg that he had. Perhaps that’s the reason why he made more $ than Gaddis.

      • That scouting report was way off. I’m all right foot, no left foot.

      • It’s not as clear cut as your employer valuing your skills more than the Union values Ray’s. For example, I’m a teacher in the city. I am probably a better teacher than some more experienced than me, but there are many more that are better than me as well. But I start at the same salary every one else does, and even if I do more work or am rated better than someone twice my age, I still have to follow the pay scale just as they did. No performance bonuses. However a teacher in a wealthy suburban school district who may do nothing more than the bare minimum could make $10,000 more than me simply because of where the work. So it’s not so much the value of my skills BUT how long someone has worked. The kicker, however, is that I can choose to go work in a suburban school district and make more money while Ray Gaddis currently does not have that luxury.

      • Well you work in a Big Government/Big Labor cartelized industry.

        That said, big props to you. My mother retired from SDP last year.

      • No, just no. That is just not what teaching in a public school is nowadays. Nowadays a big union victory is stopping the state from releasing the home addresses of teachers to “concerned citizens”

      • Which, on a side note, is the precise problem of Big Labor economics. It distorts values. Distorted values *could lead to* (and often do in many industries) distorted efforts.

      • old soccer coach says:

        You guys are forgetting that MLS is comparable in its industry to the Northern SEcurities Company inn the 1880s prior to the Sherman AntiTust Act. MLS is not even a cartel. It claims to be a single business and as such has an outright monopoly power in its industry, and is actively using that power to restrain trade in the labor market.

      • YES!
        .
        …but we love MLS because it brought us back a sustainable league and we think they are funcitoning in the best inteerst of the game. WRONG. They are functioning in the best interest of their business model.
        .
        US Soccer needs to rethink its policy.
        .
        off with their heads.

      • I think the courts have ruled twice that it is not a monopoly. Mostly on the basis that other domestic leagues do exist. So at this juncture, from a legal standpoint, MLS is considered a separate business that competes against the lower domestic leagues for business.

  2. great article. i think one of the most frustrating aspects of this whole cba process for me has been the smokescreen and misunderstanding around free agency. it seems like when ownership or even some reporters (ives galarcep was guilty of this on his latest podcast) talk about it they focus on the financial aspect of free agency. they talk about how it will drive up salaries and that will bankrupt the league and they imply that the primary reason players want it is to get paid more. neither of these things pan out in my mind.

    the league has a salary cap so there is no danger of salaries spiraling out of control. and i get the impression that the primary reason players want some form of free agency is so they can eventually pick where they want to play rather than have their rights traded around and help in perpetuity

  3. Sure I want to be a professional soccer player in MLS —- a whole $17.44 hr. “Wow I feel so blessed to have passed on the 3rd shift job for $21.00 to pursue my dream of Professional sports.” I could earn a better living as a busker in Suburban Station playing standards.
    .
    Joe DiMaggio used to have an off season job and wash his own uniform- and hey look where MLB is now. Stick to it boys, someday your great grandkids will be affluent for their chosen profession.
    .
    What a joke.

    • 17.44 a minute. Doesn’t count practice, but that is the number. not hour.

      • good catch.

      • On the other hand, your “work day” is only 90 minutes, tops.

      • old soccer coach says:

        Oof. There’s a lot more to game day that the ninety minutes of whistle to whistle. travel time, home or away. DRessing and taping and therapy. Warmups. Cool down afterward from warm down laps to ice bathes, to shower and dress. give it two and a half hours before and an hour and a half after. And that includes nothing for away travel time, which in a continent spanning league is a considerable issue.

      • Yes, I know. It was tongue in cheek. If we’re figuring out his “pay rate” per minute played, I was just pointing out the “length” of his day.

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        Sorry. I just remember how long and hectic game days were. On top of full-time teaching responsibilities.

      • No worries. Us old guys are allowed to get angry and shake our canes every now and again…

  4. The whole notion in MLS of paying one guy $9,000,000 instead of nine guys $1,000,000 makes no sense to me. ‘splain it to me like I’m a 2 year old please.

    • It’s called “Reverse Moneyball”. It’s the new thing. Look how well it’s worked out for Toronto.

    • Hey, look at this shiny fire truck! You like fire trucks, don’t you?

      *Sorry don’t have kids, but I tried my best.

    • It’s not possible under the MLS salary rules. Anything over (not sure of the number but it’s 300-500k-ish) the DP threshold is limited to the number of DPs allowed on a team.

      I’m all for free agency, but I’m also opposed to salary caps.

    • Another way to approach that is this: If a team traded for an additional DP slot, they could afford 4 $9,000,000 players, but only pay about $1.6 (plus allocation) – 4 X DP threshold of ~$400,000. So they could have 4 $9,000,000 Bradleys PLUS 14 other guys making between $50,000 & $100,000 and still fit in somewhere under a $3 million cap. The problem is not every team can afford 4 Bradleys, even with allocation money, and the league thinks they bring in all the fans and revenue.

  5. Im a union Union fan…I also made more money than Ray….it is truly a sad state what the minimum wage of the players is…do what you need to do to wake the leave up boys!!

  6. Free agency should be based in part on number of years in the league, or at least domestically in the US and Canada, even if it’s in lower leagues or college (rather than just number of years playing professionally). That way you encourage players to stay here rather than go overseas which will have a positive effect on the league. Then put in stricter rules for when players come back from overseas and don’t make them up as you go along. 5 years is probably too few. I would say 7 or 8 (maybe even 10 if you are including college and time as a homegrown player).
    .
    There, issue solved with something both sides should be able to live with. Now, strike for one week so the March 7 game can moved to a warmer day and we’ll be all set.

    • I mentioned something like this a little while back. Restricted free agency. Reward tenured players with greater options.

  7. You guys write the best stuff

  8. The thing that the owners never admit, and that the players have to publicize, is that the teams don’t have to make money to be profitable for their owners and investors. The franchises grow in worth over time, that’s why the Steinbrenners and Jerry Jones are getting (even more) rich based on the Yankees and the Cowboys. Because teams they bought for a few million dollars are now worth almost a billion. Yearly deficits mean little or nothing. Real estate in the US has traditionally been a great investment, but every year you lose money on your house: repairs, utilities, etc. You only make money when you sell it. The owners of MLS franchises are playing the long game, and they’re going to make out like bandits. Meanwhile, the typical player makes $50,000 for 5-10 years, can’t choose where he plays, is indentured, and has no invested capital in the league. Oh yeah, and that RSL owner is obviously a jackass. I hope when the players do strike and win some limited free agency someone reminds him of his ill-considered bluster.

    • old soccer coach says:

      In fairness to the RSL guy, he’s the only one talking, and he’s talked more than once, so we should probably assume he’s ownership’s unofficial mouthpiece, not that he is acting on his own initiative. Garber can’t say anything because all the offical participants are gagged by the Federal mediators.

      • old soccer coach says:

        Interesting that while Garber has fined him, the amount of the fine is undisclosed, rather than trumpeted as $250 K. It could be a token $5 to maintain his credibility as the back channel mouthpiece. Who? Me? Suspicious? Cynical? No, Never.

  9. Great piece as always. One thing I don’t get: why doesn’t the MLSPU come out more vocally to fans about their demands/position? The MLSPU website doesn’t even have a mention of the CBA that I can see. Maybe their lawyers are limiting them, but I think they could have a stronger position if they could convince the fans to more fervently support a work stoppage.

    • Craig Strimel says:

      My guess is they worry about alienating fans that are diametrically opposed to collective bargaining. It’s a loaded political issue, especially in recent years as unions around the country have lost significant ground to politicians that used the bad economy to push the idea that unions and members are greedy and unrealistic. Then, when it comes to pro athletes I think it’s even more difficult — as Kevin pointed out, some people probably think Gaddis makes a lot of money. It’s a great question, though, and some more direct fan support of the players might encourage the players to make more noise.

  10. Also, the point about single-entity control is the heart of the argument for me, as a fan of the Union, a team with small pockets. Ideally, single-entity control should benefit us, but clearly it has not so far. I guess there’s always hope that we could be the Eibar of MLS one day…

    • It is also this single entity control that doesn’t allow, let’s say, PlayYourWay FC the opportunity to play their way up to the highest level of the game. There is a glass ceiling. But this goes back to the Pro/Rel argument again which, is the crux of almost every argument, at least from my POV.

  11. Craig Strimel says:

    Great article. I appreciate that you state your bias but also provide what is, in my opinion, a level description of the nature of negotiations and the main issues at stake this spring. I am a member of a very strong union, and benefit greatly from our solidarity in ways that I believe are honest and fair. At the same time, I have no problem seriously considering both sides. I have spent a lot of time (too much probably) considering the league’s stance on free agency. I am sensitive to the intricacies of making the business model work, but here is the thought that keeps nagging me. As much as I love having having a league like MLS and a local team to follow and support, if the league can’t continue to operate long term without rewarding players appropriately (meaning relative to other sports and leagues around the world) then I don’t want to keep supporting it. I’m not ready to give up my season tix over it yet, but at some point the league needs to figure it out. I think a great way for us fans to show that we support the players is to really make a point of singing “You don’t get me I’m part of the Union.” It’s so ironic that the team plays that after every game, but maybe it’s just hanging there to be exploited.

    • Would you please explain in greater detail what you mean by “rewarding players appropriately… relative to other sports and leagues around the world”?
      .
      You’re not suggesting that MLS players should be paid salaries comparable to EPL players (a much better soccer/football league) or to NFL players (a much wealthier U.S. sports league), are you?

      • Craig Strimel says:

        No I am not. I used the word “relative” to imply that there are clearly differences between sports and leagues. If we just consider the U.S., for example, soccer players can’t expect to make what football players make, given the extreme difference in revenues generated by the MLS and NFL. That said, relative to those more valuable leagues/product, MLS players should be compensated appropriately. I realize that is vague, but I think you can get what I mean.

      • old soccer coach says:

        Compare from last season Clint Dempsey’s $6,000,000 to Richie Marquez’s $36,500. Do the long division. Dempsey’s a better player playing a more difficult position, but he’s not 164 times better.

      • Maybe on the field and in your eyes. But a GM for Seattle may also be considering what Dempsey brings to the table aside from playing skill. He brings a “household name,” USMNT experience, EPL experience, his own professional network, jersey sales across the nation and not just in WA , fans in the stands etc.

        As much as I want to see the floor raised — and I really do — to a liveable wage for our youngest players, we also have to remember that some of these highly paid players bring more to the table than 90 minutes of footy.

  12. Craig Strimel says:

    The Strawbs, Part of the Union (1973)

    http://youtu.be/KdOCWUgwiWs

  13. old soccer coach says:

    Great conversation, informative and stimulating. I would offer two general points.

    First, the way I project the Union’s roster for 2015, I’m assuming from the rules of the old agreement that the senior roster will have eighteen players on it with slots 19 and 20 unfilled as is allowed without penalty, and that slots 21-30, the so-called off budget players, will be filled completely. Slots 25-30 can and will be filled with players young enough that they will earn 36,500 per year as did Pedro Ribeiro and Richie Marquez last season.

    Second, when will ownership acknowledge that the other North American sports have thrived for the most part with controlled, regulated free agency. Has any MLB team gone bankrupt lately? Has any NFL one? Any NBA one? Even any NHL one? The salary scales are vastly different, the revenue streams are not comparable, but they make money hand over fist. Unregulated free agency might well create bankruptcies (see Rangers of the SPL). But regulated free agency of some kind is proven to avoid it. The details remain to be hammered out. But to not even talk about it? The behavior reflects the attitudes of the 19th century tycoons Mathew Josephson called “The Robber Barons.”

    • this is all especially true when you consider that this league (i think smartly) restricts teams to a pretty tight salary cap. the problem is that the ownership is not arguing in good faith when they use the financial argument against free agency. they know that the financial concerns that are commonly laid out in these discussions aren’t real because of the salary cap but they make the argument anyway because they think it makes their position seem practical instead of overly controlling and stifling to the players that actually make the game happen

    • Pittsburgh Penguins. I believe another team also hit bankruptcy at some point. In addition, the NHL had to acquire the Phoenix / Arizona Coyotes franchise and take over operations for a while.
      .
      In MLB, the commissioner’s office opted to take over the LA Dodgers not that long ago, because the divorce case between the owner and his wife was – at least in theory – threatening the finances of the team. In addition, a fair number of national media pundits regularly wonder why the league hasn’t done the same with the Mets, given their financial constraints caused by the Bernie Madoff pyramid scheme.
      .
      Baseball also has the sad tale of the Montreal Expos, which was owned by the league for a few years before they moved to Washington.

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        Good points, all. I look back with rose colored glasses I guess. Thanks.

      • And all that said, I do believe the Penguins woes happened before the NHL had a salary cap. (But I’d have to go look to be certain.) Baseball has no cap, as well. The Coyotes are, I believe, the only one on that list I rattled off that occurred in a league with a salary cap.

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