CBA Negotiations

A historic win…maybe

On Wednesday evening we all heard the news, and we all breathed a collective sigh of relief. After weeks of saber rattling, with the players threatening to strike and the owners vowing to never yield on the issue of free agency, both sides reached an 11th hour deal that will allow us to enjoy the start of Major League Soccer’s 20th season on time.

No sooner had that sigh been sighed, however, than the hand-wringing began.

The players achieved a massive victory. The players caved.

The league has been saved. The league is ruined.

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times…

As with every contract settlement, neither side got everything they wanted.

However, since the question is going to continue to be asked — “did the players win?” — allow me to share my thoughts on the subject, hoping that years of experience of being in the players’ (read: workers’) position might provide some insight as to why the players settled, and whether that was a good thing.

The Deal

Details are still trickling out, but here is what we know so far about the new collective bargaining agreement:

  • Players will be free agents upon reaching 28 years of age coupled with 8 years league experience
  • Free agent raises will be capped between 15%-25%, depending on current salary
  • Minimum salary increased from $36,500 to $60,000
  • A salary cap increase–initially reported at 15%, but now rumored to be more in the 7% range

What we still have not heard is whether the CBA includes increased “transparency,” or whether players from outside the league are considered “free agents.” Nor have we heard about additional Designated Players or changes in roster size. Or whether the re-entry draft will continue to apply to players who don’t meet the 28-and-8 criteria. Or anything on travel accommodations issues.

Did the players win?


At the beginning of this process, MLS was offering a status quo deal — essentially an extension of the current CBA. Sure, there might have been a raise in the salary cap, but otherwise the league was happy to move forward with the current CBA. And remember, because of the single-entity concept, the league was in the position of continuing that expired agreement, including salary caps that would otherwise be illegal under anti-trust law, even if the players decided to employ the tactic used by NFL and NBA players and decertified their own union.

When the dust settled, the players won from the league free agency — probably the first time in the history of American sports such a right was achieved at the bargaining table, instead of through the courts or at arbitration. People whinging that 28-and-8 is too restrictive fail to recall that every league has restrictions on free agency. Baseball players only get arbitration after they reach certain years of service. Hockey players only get restricted free agency until they reach a certain age.  The NBA has individual salary caps. So don’t criticize the deal simply because there are certain restrictions on free agency.

Also, we should not undervalue the free in free agency. While it has become a mechanism that finds players being heavily rewarded financially, it should be recalled that the thing that baseball Curt Flood fought for the most when he started the battle over free agency was freedom of movement (specifically, he did not want to play in Philadelphia). While there may be caps on how much a free agent may earn, he can at least play where he wants to play–something that was not available under the old system.

The new deal also increases the minimum salary by 65%. That is real money to a lot of players. And a rising tide floats all boats — that increase will have a ripple effect on mid-range salary players, as well.

This is a historic win for the players’ union. Anyone who thinks otherwise does not fully appreciate what goes into these things (and I will go into those logistics a little later).

Did the players lose?



I’ll try to explain.

Make no mistake: this is a historic agreement, for the reasons stated above.

However, there is a nagging sense that the players left a lot of money on the table. Indeed, there are reports about players being really unhappy with the deal, and with union leadership.

What is driving these feelings?

Largely, it is the sense that the league has never been in a more vulnerable position as far as enduring a work stoppage as it was on Wednesday afternoon. It is riding an unprecedented wave of momentum and popularity. It has a new, lucrative television contract. Waves of international stars are coming over in numbers not seen since the glory days of the old North American Soccer League. There is a strong sentiment among the players of “if not now, when?” as far as going on strike.

But they did not. They settled.

So what was left on the table?

For starters, while age and experience limits on free agency might not be too bad, the individual caps on increases a player may receive really limit a player’s ability to cash in on his success. Let’s say you are a Chris Wondolowski-like player — you were signed at 20, and struggled to find your way for a few years. At 25, though, you hit your stride, and for the next three years you score 20 goals a season. And you are doing this while making $100,000.

Now your ship has come in — you are eligible for free agency, and teams are drooling over the prospect of signing a proven finisher.

So you sign your new contract — for $125,000. A player who in an open market would command up to $1 million in a year only gets $125,000, because of the “free agent cap.” That is ridiculous.

Let’s look at Jack McInerney. He earned $230,000 last season. Let’s assume he is 27, and has 7 years in the league prior to 2015. This year, he finally fulfills his massive potential and scores 25 goals. Now he is a free agent. Again, this is a player who could command at least $500,000 a year on the open market. What can he sign for under the new CBA? $264,500, or half his real value.

This is not free agency, folks. This is single entity free agency. What the players wound up getting is the University of California model that was written about a few weeks ago.

When you do the math, you quickly see that the “free agency” the players fought so hard for is illusory.

Real free agency was there to be had. The MLSPU never had a more effective time to strike than now. And it chose to blink.

So the players did cave?

Not necessarily.

It is easy to say “go on strike!” But there are a lot of logistics that need to be considered.

First, as I’ve noted on a number of occasions, the threat of a strike is infinitely more effective than a strike. Employers will do an awful lot to avoid a strike. Once one happens, though, they quickly realize that it is not going to get any worse than that — the workers have fired their only real bullet. Owners rarely put more on the bargaining table after a strike, because they do not want to reward a strike. The MLSPU was well aware of this.

In addition, just because a union calls for a strike does not mean players have to actually strike. Individual players are free to not honor their own union’s picket line and go to work. The NASL and NFL strikes saw players walking en masse through strike lines to go play.

MLS has a lot of foreign players, many of whom are not particularly invested in the league. Was Kaka going to forego his mega-salary and honor the line? Or how about Central American players for whom $36,500 (US) was more money than they would ever see in their lives? These were real issues for the MLSPU to consider.

Finally, there is something to be said for strategy. The deal is only for 5 years. From my point of view, I can see a real change in the ownership dynamic by 2020. The newer owners — clearly much more ambitious than the Hunts and Krafts (and, alas, the Sugarmans) — at some point are going to chafe at being limited in their ability to spend and bring in players to grow their club’s brands, and will likely take over MLS, at least philosophically.

Having now won the heretofore unattainable and unavailable concept of free agency in this CBA, the MLSPU is in a position to build upon it in 2020 — perhaps with a more receptive group of owners, and with a league even more successful than it is now.

And all this was done without missing a single paycheck…or shooting the league in the foot with a work stoppage.

So, yes…while the players certainly did not take full advantage of an economic scenario that clearly favored them, the failure to do so should not be viewed as a loss, or as “capitulation.” Only the MLSPU knew the true measure of support for a strike among its members. Based on all of the factors in play, the union decided this was the best they could do right now — but it was a solid step forward, setting the table for 2020.

Remember, every union moves with baby steps when trying to win big-ticket items. In baseball, for instance, the owners sneered at the very thought of free agency. So, after a strike in 1972, the players’ union settled for the right to arbitrate contract disputes. This did not seem like anything at the time. However, the MLB players’ union’s attorney had a plan…and used arbitration to break the reserve clause, first by getting an arbitrator to declare Catfish Hunter as a free agent based on a loophole in 1974, and then getting players full free agency with the Messersmith/McNally decision in 1975.

So are we done with CBA talk until 2020?

Technically, we are not out of the woods yet.

While the MLSPU negotiating committee has accepted this contract (by a 12-7 vote, apparently — far from unanimous), it still has to be ratified by the membership as a whole.

Usually, this is just a formality. However, given some of the venom being spewed by certain players (including some who were on the bargaining committee), it will be curious to see by what margin this agreement is ratified…or if it is rejected.

Rejected?? Then what?

The parties would go back to the table and continue bargaining.

While the players could strike, it rarely happens at that point. Instead, the parties work to tweak the deal in such a way to “buy votes” for ratification. Mind you, that does not mean that MLS would say “oh, real free agency was what they wanted — here you go.” But the parties would find ways to put other small improvements in the deal to win people over.

Ultimately, though, if the players really want true free agency, and the owners really remain dead set against it, this whole thing could fall apart, and you could be looking at a mid-season strike.

This is not likely. The MLSPU already had a good idea of what was going to sell when it struck the deal. A few angry players are not likely to turn the tide.

So who won?

Ultimately? Everyone.

The league won, in the sense that it starts the season on time, and still has the stringent cost controls that it claims is absolutely necessary to continue to grow and thrive.

The fans won — we have football.

And, yes, the players won. It may be what the Germans call pflichtsieg, but it was a win nevertheless.


  1. That Wondo analogy really strikes hard at how bad the players got screwed. This will affect the log term growth of the league. If the league is going to get more quality, the quality of the average player will theoreticly go up. But the lack of free agency and money will keep a ceiling on the quality of players and the ability to keep them.
    Wondo could conceivably go to a second division team in Europe and get more money than the MLS. Many will do just that.

    • this CBA deal wont affect long term growth. if a player is good enough, and is not getting the salary he thinks he should in the MLS, players will continue going to Europe to play.

      Also…. The fear of losing a player to Europe can be a much better motivator to owners (and the commish)to sign domestic players to bigger contracts. that is how wondo got to be a DP…

    • That analogy is fictional, though. As the above comment mentions, the real life Wondo got his deal re-worked like three years in a row, so that he was making 6 times what he started out with.

  2. Of course they caved…they had a very strong hand and they let it slip thru their fingers.

  3. I don’t think this CBA agreement is as balanced as may appear. Looking at what little the players got on the free agency front, only 13% of current MLS players actually qualify for free agency if it were to begin today. And even if they did qualify, their salary increases are not at all market driven, but instead have an artificial cap placed upon them. Winners? 100% the owners…

    Minimum salary cap increase to $60k is great for the lower level players, no doubt about it. But until I see the full effect of this increase on the mid-tier players (aka will they also get a significant increase or make the same as the rookies) I’m withholding judgement. This concession will not substantially increase player interest in this league because most foreigners would stand to make more than this (because their salaries ARE actually, you know, market driven).

    Cap increase at a paltry 7% is a little bit higher than the previous of 5%, but still is virtually meaningless if you spread that extra $300k across 27 players on the roster. All of this is on the backdrop of new TV deals that are bringing in at least $90 million a year (not including the Canadian TV dollars or any other sponsorship deals/misc. income not being accounted for).

    I’m not completely convinced that a new generation of owners would want to increase the cap in 5 years. If they want to continue to bring in stronger talent with name recognition they need only increase the number of DPs each team can have without having to distribute additional monies to the rest of the players in the league.

    All told, I don’t see much for the players to be excited about, and the salt in the wound is that, as the author points out, this was the year that players had as much leverage as they’ll ever have, AND support of the fan bases.

  4. Steve – Great post.

    I think that you accurately summed up the dynamics of this process. People don’t understand how difficult of a process that an intense multi-day negotiation can be for the participants. Unless that you do that type of work often, it’s very stressful and the stakes are high for both sides, especially the player reps at the table who risk getting blackballed by the league if they take too much of a hardline stance. You can’t fight tooth and nail for every nickel and not expect there to be long term ramifications for this action. The bottom line is that the players improved the positions for most of their constituency and that is a good step for the next CBA in 5 yrs.

    Thanks for breaking everything down for us throughout this negotiation. I really enjoyed reading your articles and listening to the pods that you were on.

  5. Andy Muenz says:

    From what I’ve read, I think it is a reasonable compromise (of course the fact that I proposed something very similar here makes me like it even more). I think there could have been a couple of more things done in the players’ favor but at least it’s a start.
    The two other things I would have done would be to amend the caps on increases to be the maximum of what they said or $125K. If a player is making less the $100K after 8 years in the league and they can find a team willing to pay $125K, that is a reasonable amount.
    The other change which I would have added which helps the players but would also help the league image with fans would be to allow a player to be eligible at 28 and 6 years in the league (rather than 8) IF they have graduated college. I know lots of players leave early or don’t even go to college but this does penalize those players who do choose to stay for four years. It sends the message from the league “If you stay in college we won’t treat you worse than the players who didn’t.”

  6. I think this is a reasonable deal for both sides. The fact that the players got any kind of free agency is huge — not for what it does right now, but because it is a “foot in the door”, and will only move in one direction. In 2020, free agency gets granted to players over age 25, with 5 years’ experience in the league, and there’s no cap on raises, or something like that. Especially as the league continues to grow, and all the owners see where this is heading.

    That’s the long-term benefit for the mid-career guys. Meanwhile, all the young struggling kids just got a 60% pay raise. That’s the difference between living with your parents and having your own place. That’s huge.

    Also, I don’t agree that this is the greatest leverage the players will ever get. The bigger the league gets, the bigger the stakes are (for both sides). In 2020 they will have just as much leverage, if not more.

    • Anonymous says:

      I don’t think they’ll have as much leverage because the new TV deals don’t expire until 2023, so the league will still be operating on the same TV money that it was 5 years prior. The absolute best time to negotiate was now because it gives the players a solid number to work with (and the TV $ was a huge jump compared to the previous). In 2020 the players won’t have a brand new, extremely lucrative TV contract on their side, thus the ownership can claim poverty again. In fact, with all the expansion going on I’m sure all the new owners will be able to claim poverty because they’re covering the costs of new stadiums and the $100 million franchise fees, all of which can be used to manipulate the numbers of total league income and how many teams are operating on a deficit. Additionally, those new TV deals are set to kick in this year, meaning the ownerships/sponsors/broadcasters all would stand to lose a ton of momentum and miss out on the opening day hype train if the players went on strike. If the players go on strike in 2020, it’s just another season with 3 years before the next round of TV negotiations. You have 2 new teams this year that also would be negatively effected by a strike since they’re trying to establish themselves (and NYCFC already owes their fan base after their Lampard debacle). All of this could have meant a pretty strong amount of leverage for the players to get far more than they did. Within CBA negotiations, if you give on one issue it’s expected that you push hard on another so that both sides are forced to compromise in the end across all the issues on the table. The players unequivocally compromised on the free agency issue and should have seen far larger returns on some of the other issues. As I stated above, the minimum salaried players made out well, but if there aren’t stipulations in the agreement that mid-tier salaries also rise, than this could be a really crappy situation for players that have been in the league a few years and currently making $60k and will now be making as much as the rookies.

      You can say that this is a stepping stone contract for the next round of negotiations in 2020, but that’s of little solace to the players that are 26 (prime of their careers) and over and will be in the twilight of their careers by that time and ultimately won’t benefit much at all.

      And I still am confused as to how full fledged free agency would drive player salaries up to unsustainable levels if there is a salary cap in place. Looking at other leagues like the NFL, they raise their cap by 3-5 million every year. To me, that causes far more financial damage than free agency does outright. If a team (I’m looking at you Redskins) chooses to grossly overspend in free agency, they only hurt themselves because it screws up their cap situation and they won’t be able to afford talent in other areas.

  7. Atomic Spartan says:

    Well done Steve. Perhaps the clearest, most comprehensive explanation of any sports related strike situation I’ve ever read.

  8. Agreed. My take is that this is still a young league and five years is a long time for it to really solidify itself. I echo another’s sentiments- build a formidable war chest and plan in five years to really bring this money issue to the forefront. MLS is not yet ready to be on par with the Europeans in salaries. Maybe next time the players will have more footing.

  9. I think the minimum salary increase is huge and will have positive unintended consequences in terms of bringing talent out of the woodwork (and second and third tier foreign leagues).

  10. Old Soccer Coach says:

    A tip of the hat and a heartfelt thank you to Steve Holroyd for the quality of his information and the clarity of its presentation. much obliged, sir, and well done!

    Do you think they will let us bring snow shovels Saturday afternoon, so we can find our seats to sit down? : ).

  11. Brad Wealand says:

    Great analaysis. Some readers are way overvaluing the new TV deal. Is it great, sure–tons more than the previous deal. But on a per club basis it raises revenue about 16%, which will go into other things besides salary cap. Should cap go up more than 7% – probably. Cap is still way low compared to other leagues, but we still have infrastructure (a GM, coach’s salaries, our academy, more DPs, training facilities, a real marketing dept, paying off debt). Our minimum salary increase was huge and puts us right where we should be in relation to Revenue and Franchise Value (based on other major US leagues).

  12. The minimum salary is pathetically LOW. 60,000 before taxes is not even middle class in many places.. Why is there so much sympathy for the owners just because they scored a big contract which they want to keep for themselves. How about some sympathy for the players. 8 years till free agency? Thats really a very bad deal. Why the indentured servitude? you should be happy to play soccer and make 100,000 dollars? At the peak time of your life? yeah right. Its the old “be happy you have a job” stuff all over.

  13. OneManWolfpack says:

    My opinion on the whole thing is – baby steps. The Players won something this time around. That is going to amazingly important come next CBA. If this league continues growing, you will see a strike in 2020, if it becomes necessary. That I think you can guarantee. The Players basically said, we can’t win this battle, but if we strike now, we will definitely lose the war. They chose to fight another battle later on.

  14. Wise Soccer Man says:

    Decent summary of the facts, but an exceptionally wishy-washy opinion piece. The author first writes how the players won, then how they lost, then concludes they strategically settled in 2015 in the interest in negotiating a better deal in 2020? First of all, take a stand dude! You are supposed to be an expert in the field, so, as an expert, express an opinion as to whether they did or did not do well in this particular negotiation. Secondly, and more importantly, suggesting athletes who have very short careers and who you contend (and I agree) are a very diverse group with wide ranging economic backgrounds and priorities who could not agree on what to do in 2015 were however somehow able to band together as a unit and decide to voluntarily sacrifice their own well being in the interest of making things better five years hence is really far fetched, to put it mildly. Either they do — or don’t — have solidarity. Suggesting the MLS players don’t have the togetherness to strike now but do have the unity and common viewpoint to worry about something five years from now is a very weak analysis. You can’t have it both ways.

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