Why Major League Soccer Players Could Be on the Verge of a Major Work Strike

In the fall of 1969, a little over a year after Sports Illustrated dubbed him “Baseball’s Best Centerfielder,” Curt Flood was traded from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies. Flood, who had joined the league as an 18-year-old kid with no agent, had no desire to play for the floundering Phillies and their sometimes racist fans. So Flood wrote a letter to Major League Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. 

“Dear Mr. Kuhn: after 12 years in the major leagues I do not feel that I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes. I believe that any system that produces that result violates my basic rights as a citizen and a human being. I believe that I have the right to consider offers from other clubs before making any decisions. I, therefore, request that you make known to all the major league clubs my feelings in this matter, and advise them of my availability for the 1970 season."

In January 1970, Flood brought his suit to New York, electing to sit out the forthcoming season, thus turning down $100,000. With the help of Major League Baseball Players’ Union leader Marvin Miller, Flood brought his case all the way to the Supreme Court. He lost, and sacrificed his career as a result, but Flood’s bravery knocked down the door for free agency, not just in baseball, but in all the major American sports leagues.

MLS is our only sports league that hasn’t adopted the policies Flood helped usher in. In 1988, in exchange for FIFA allowing it to host the 1994 World Cup, US Soccer agreed to establish a professional soccer league. It picked Major League Professional Soccer, but was well-aware of the fact that the venture was risky. The original North American Soccer League (NASL), had been established in 1968, but had ultimately failed, going belly-up in the early '80s. With visions of NASL’s demise in mind, MLS was constructed, not as a league of independently owned franchises, but as a single entity controlled by its investors.

This setup created tension at its very outset: in 1996, eight players filed an antitrust suit against the league and its investors, claiming that such a blueprint would drastically, and unlawfully, lessen player value. The court determined that the league was a “single economic actor” and was therefore legally incapable of conspiring against itself. However, its decision did reference the uniqueness of the situation: “MLS and its operator/investors comprise a hybrid arrangement, somewhere between a single company…and a cooperative arrangement between existing competitors."

The concerns of those who created MLS proved to be valid. From the league’s creation in 1995 up to 2004, the league lost more than $350 million. The league has expanded, and has become much more successful in recent years, but those running it still claim there are major issues. Don Garber, commissioner of MLS and CEO of the league’s marketing arm, claims the league is still losing $100 million annually. However, last year, a Forbes valuation of MLS demonstrated that the average MLS team is worth about $100 million. These numbers were crunched prior to the league signing a $720 million television deal. The league has added five teams since 2009 and by 2020, there should be another five teams. 

While the league might not be turning a profit, it’s certainly expanding and teams are spending millions of dollars to sign designated players on a regular basis. In August 2014, it was revealed that MLS has a secret allocation of funds to sign such players, further complicating the league’s poverty narrative.

Kevin Kocwzara, a soccer reporter who contributes to Howler magazine, considers the possibility of a strike “very real.” He told me, “There are two key issues here: free agency, guaranteed contracts and pay raises for the lower- and middle-class players in the league. There are some players in the league making $36,000 while some of their teammates make millions of dollars.”

The second issue is, obviously, linked to the first as free agency would inevitably lead to pay raises for many players. A cursory examination of MLS salaries adds up to a case study on the inherent inequality of contemporary capitalism. Much like the real world, the gap can be incredibly stark.

In a Buzzfeed story from 2013 on the economic instability of fringe players, David Peisner summarized superstar David Beckham’s first year with the LA Galaxy:

“He was allowed to park whichever of his cars he drove to practice — his fleet included a Cadillac Escalade, a black Porsche 911, and a $400,000 Rolls-Royce Phantom — inside the stadium, just paces from the team’s locker room, while most everyone else had to park in the public lot. Beckham got his own hotel room on the road, while his teammates had to double up. Though it was nice that Beckham invited his new teammates to his massive Welcome to Los Angeles party at the Museum of Contemporary Art, just seeing their new midfielder and his Spice Girl wife hobnob with his real peers — Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore — surely didn’t bridge the divide.”

Recently, Colorado Rapids goalkeeper Clint Irwin tweeted that, “With a $1m+ salary, one can afford personal chef, trainer, fitness coach. With a $46k salary, one can afford a gym membership, Men's Health.” He went on to wonder, “Do you expect [a million dollar] performance from your $46K employees?”

Many people like to shrug off labor issues in professional sports as a simple matter of millionaires vs. billionaires. However, that’s obviously not the case with MLS, and even if it was, the negotiations would still largely be the same: it’s an argument about power. Who deserves it, the players or the league’s investors?

I asked Kevin Kocwzara if he believed the league was afraid of free agency. “Yes,” he told me, “[but] it’s been 20 years already. It’s time to catch up.”

The MLS 2015 season is scheduled to begin March 6.


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