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Will Free Agency Destroy Major League Soccer?

Bryn Lennon / Getty Images Sport

Depending on who you ask, Major League Soccer is only days away from a work stoppage that could either postpone the 2015 season for a few weeks or end professional soccer in the U.S. America’s top professional soccer league has a collective bargaining agreement that expired last month, and if the league and the Major League Soccer Players Union (MLSPU) can't reach an agreement by the March 5th opening day, players are prepared to strike.

At issue is the single most contentious concept in American sports labor history: free agency. Major League Soccer operates as a single entity, and rather than signing with an individual team, its players sign contracts with the league as a whole. This policy has resulted in American players like Herculez Gomez frozen out of MLS after achieving success in foreign leagues. United States Men's National Team (USMNT) midfielder Jermaine Jones's city of residence was left up to a random draw. Through this system, players remain attached to the teams they entered the league with until the team no longer has use for them—if they'd rather play for Seattle than Portland or Chicago than Washington, D.C., too bad. MLS contends the players can just join an international team if they don't like it.

Jones is one of the few MLS players for whom international play is a realistic option. Fellow USMNT teammate Michael Bradley is another: Bradley has played in both Italy and England and is under contract to earn $6.5 million for Toronto FC in 2015. He was was one of 15 players to earn seven figures in MLS in 2014, a special class of players largely including fellow top American players like Clint Dempsey ($6.7 million) or fading international stars like Thierry Henry ($4.35 million) and Robbie Keane ($4.5 million).

The majority of MLS athletes play for salaries far closer to the league minimum of $36,500. Despite the presence of highly paid stars like Bradley, Dempsey and Jones, MLS's median salary last year was under $100,000. For them, the international market does not exist. The costs associated with moving and living internationally are high. If a player finds himself cut early on, or if a deal falls through at the last minute—as happened to former New England Revolution center back A.J. Soares this winter—players can be left scrambling. The mid-level American player has zero leverage for negotiation. 

Major League Baseball employed similar tactics in the days of the reserve clause, a rule that kept professional baseball players tied to their parent clubs in perpetuity. In 1945, as a number of top players were returning from service in World War II, the Mexican League offered a number of major leaguers as much as 10 times their American salaries to play south of the border. Baseball commissioner Albert B. "Happy" Chandler responded by suspending for five yearsany player who jumped to the Mexican League. Danny Gardella, a Yankee in 1944 and 1945, challenged the suspension and the casemade it all the way to the Supreme Court. Gardella won a $60,000 settlement and the players who jumped to the Mexican League eventually received amnesty from MLB, but the threat of suspension was enough to keep major leaguers from striking at the status quo.

MLS players see the injustice in the current system. "When we poll the players, [free agency] continues to be on the top of the list. At one point, it's going to affect everybody,” Dan Kennedy, an MLSPU executive board member, told ESPNFC. “Players just want to have the right to choose where they go and ply their trade.” Some of the biggest worries over solidarity within the union surround the top-paid players who have options; Bradley, however, has been one of the loudest voices in the push for free agency. In January, he went on record to say that free agency was “absolutely" worth a player strike

MLS claims the league’s financial survival depends on denying the players this right. When asked about free agency in an ESPN700 radio interview, Real Salt Lake owner Dell Loy Hansen said, "That's a 'go-nowhere' conversation. When you look at all the owners, they've all been in pro basketball, baseball, football, and that was the one thing they all vowed they'd never do is go through that again."

Hansen went on to call talk of free agency a "waste of time." For his candor, the league fined him an undisclosed amount, according to the MLS website. Commissioner Don Garber commented, "We are engaged in constructive negotiations with our players and such comments are not appropriate nor helpful to the negotiations." One league source, however, made management's thinking on the topic crystal clear in a comment to ESPNFC:

One thing we will not do is make an agreement that we think impairs our ability to grow the league just to avoid a work stoppage. That we will not do. We've got too much into this now—20 years into it—to just give up on something that we believe very strongly in.

Garber claimed in December that the league is losing $100 million per year, but multiple financial indicators suggest the league is doing better than its showrunners would have you believe. Next season will see the beginning of new television contracts worth $90 million for the league, a fivefold increase. According to Forbes, MLS franchise values increased nearly threefold from 2008 to 2013; a New York City franchise, NYCFC, paid the league a $100 million expansion fee.

Attendance and general interest indicators have been positive for MLS as well. 2014 saw a record average 19,151 fans at MLS games,  higher than both NBA and NHL. Average attendance has grown in four of the past five seasons, and total attendance has grown from 2.3 million in 2004 and 4.0 million in 2010 to a record 6.2 million in 2014. Perhaps most importantly for the league’s growth, though, MLS has a hold on younger sports fans. According to the 2014 ESPN Sports Poll, roughly 18 percent of 12-to-17-year-olds consider themselves "avid fans" of MLS, an equal share as Major League Baseball and double the number of the National Hockey League. 

But why, if MLS is doing fine or even profitable, would Garber want fans to believe the league is hemorrhaging money? If the MLS wants fans behind it in a labor battle—to attend games if the league uses replacement players, or to come back and fill stadiums after extended cancellations—it needs fans to believe its actions are absolutely necessary. As justifications for the 2011 NBA lockout, the league claimed 22 of its 30 teams were losing money. In fact, this was a trick of accounting sports entities have long used called the "Roster Depreciation Allowance," which lets teams claim players as a "depreciating asset." Deadspin examined the New Jersey Nets and found the team made a $7 million profit look like a $28 million loss. A Nate Silver examination of the NBA's finances found the league was indeed making a profit and that the league's claims were highly dubious. Still, NBA owners managed to win significant gains in the lockout, as the player share of basketball revenue was lowered from 57 percent to 50 percent.

MLS lacks the cultural clout held by leagues like Major League Baseball and the National Football League, but its situation in 2015 is remarkably similar to what the those leagues went through in the 1970s and 1980s. Both the MLB and the NFL had minimum salaries that forced players to work in the offseason and left many living paycheck to paycheck. MLB endured a strike in 1972 and lockouts in 1973 and 1976 before the players won a negotiated form of free agency. The NFL Players Association struck in 1982 and 1987 before eventually winning a form of free agency in the 1993 collective bargaining agreement.

Prior to those strikes, it was taken for granted that control over players was critical for not just MLB, but any league's health. As Milwaukee Sentinel sportswriter Lloyd Larson wrote in response to Gardella's 1949 challenge of the MLB reserve clause:

This isn't baseball's fight alone. The props holding up professional football, basketball and hockey could be kicked away, too. Although those sports aren't as completely organized as baseball, they can't continue to exist without baseball's basic element, namely: Absolute control over playing personnel.

History has shown Larson to be entirely wrong. MLB made $9 billion in 2014. The NFL is the most profitable sport in the country. The National Basketball Association will begin a multi-billion dollar yearly television contract in 2017. In every case, free agency has been followed by tremendous growth, not the collapse of a sport.

Marvin Miller became executive director of the MLB Players Association in 1966 and was the leading figure in the negotiations, arbitrations, and court fights that eventually led to MLB’s adoption of free agency. In 1976—after the MLB Player’s Association won free agency for pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally in an arbitration decision that opened the floodgates for the rest of the league—Miller told the Associated Press what he thought the players’ biggest victory was.

“When you’ve changed the basis of a relationship so that it’s now contractual between equal parties then you’ve raised the dignity of the players,” he said. “And that’s something that will last forever.”

In denying players the right to choose where they work, and in denying a raise in minimum salaries beyond subsistence levels, MLS fails to recognize the dignity of its players—its employees. If MLS claims it cannot afford to pay the rank and file of the league, the people who make the games happen, then it cannot justify profiting off its new gigantic television contracts, nor its continuing expansion, nor the multi-million dollar international players it continues to spend on for marketing purposes. 

It’s true that MLS might be damaged by free agency; or, more accurately, that the profits for MLS owners may decline. But if free agency causes the financial collapse of MLS, there will be nobody to blame but owners and executives for bidding themselves into oblivion. If the money isn’t there to support a league with free and open player movement, MLS’s days are numbered regardless. If it is, the players deserve their cut—and with it, their dignity.