MLS has an image problem with player wages, but what if the workers were treated as partners?

There are a lot of rich people who want to own part of a soccer team in Los Angeles, and yesterday they unveiled themselves before some reporters and on YouTube. Technically, the press conference was called to announce a new Major League Soccer team in L.A. But there were no announcements about players or coaches or a stadium. Even the name, LAFC, and the logo are placeholders.

The timing was perfect. Chivas USA played its final match less than a week ago, and yet, now that this new entity has begun to take some sort of shape, it won’t be long before we stop talking about it and begin talking about whatever team LAFC is going to become. The new name is not just a placeholder for whatever is chosen to replace it, but for the hot, smoking crater left in southern california by Chivas USA.

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But the timing is also imperfect. The league’s collective bargaining agreement is about to expire, which means the players’ union is lobbying hard for a pay increase. That image of grinning millionaires and billionaires will help us forget about Chivas USA, but it won’t be forgotten by Bob Foose, who represents the MLS Players Union, when he’s at the negotiating table.

The public relations around the negotiation are already being conducted. This week, soon after the union released league-wide salary information, an annual event, the New York Times ran a story headlined Many in M.L.S. Playing Largely for Love of the Game. (This useful visualization shows the stratification between the highest and lowest earners.) The lede shows us the financial situations of the three Colorado Rapids goalkeepers:

“John Berner, 23, qualifies for the affordable housing program in his apartment building. Joe Nasco, 30, holds multiple part-time jobs so that his wife, Amber, can stay home with their newborn daughter, Caroline. Clint Irwin, 25, is sharing a three-bedroom house with two roommates while chasing his dream career.”

In case you’re wondering, Berner makes $36,500, Nasco $53,000, and Irwin $87,000. There is, the writer contends, some hardship. “Like many M.L.S. players,” he writes about Nasco, “he takes home leftover food, snacks and drinks from the club’s practice complex to save money on meals.”

Irwin (below) became the Rapids’ starting goalkeeper last year, and his pay went up. He says that if you live on the league’s minimum salaries, “It’s not poverty by any means. But at the same time, it’s not as comfortable as you’d like.” (Players in roster spots 1-24 are guaranteed $48,500 per year; players in spots 25-30 earn at least $36,500 and must be younger than 25.)

Colorado Rapids vs Chivas USA

Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post via Getty Images

It’s a complicated thing, figuring out whether those minimums should be raised. MLS players receive a much lower distribution of total revenue than their counterparts in Europe’s top leagues as well as other U.S. sports leagues. They also pay in the form of opportunity costs: by devoting formative years to getting better at soccer rather than, say, going to graduate school, an athlete might leave soccer in his early 30s and find himself at the very beginning of a new career cycle, competing with, and earning as much as, people a decade younger.

Then again, there’s the market. So far, MLS pays its players low salaries because the players have shown a willingness to bear them. They haven’t gone abroad en masse and they haven’t decided to strike, or quit the game completely.

And of course, there’s the fact that MLS as a whole loses a lot of money every year – more than $100 million, according to league president Mark Abbott. “As a result,” he told the Times, “we are not in a position where we are discussing how to divide profits with the players, but rather what is an appropriate level of investment and where the investment should be made given the reality of our financial condition.”

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I think that’s a fair point. Players aren’t being exploited any more than I was being exploited when I took a job as an editorial assistant at a Conde Nast magazine after college, a position that paid me just a hair under $25,000 per year. Yeah, that was probably crazy, and the low pay made some things hard, but I really wanted to be an editor – to work a job that I love – and I’m sure I wanted it as badly as John Berner wants to be a pro goalkeeper.

As a society, we accept low salaries for people in the arts, and I’m not sure it should be any different for anybody else who decides that passion, not money, is what motivates them.

Then again, professional soccer has shown an ability to be very profitable, much more so, these days, than publishing. Abbott speaks of the investment of team owners, of the league’s losses as part of a long-term strategy, and the LAFC gang suggests that people who know how to make money see MLS as a great investment.

Major League Soccer Awards New Los Angeles Club, Announces Owners

Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images for LAFC

At the press conference yesterday, LAFC managing partner Henry Nguyen (second from the right, above) described MLS as a “rocket ship,” saying he thought it could become one of the world’s top leagues within 10 years. If that’s true, his share of the $100 million franchise fee, and however many hundreds of millions it takes to build a soccer stadium in LA, will become hugely valuable.

Even a disaster like Chivas USA increased in value seven-fold from 2005, when it joined the league for a $10 million expansion fee, to 2014, when MLS bought it back for a reported $70 million.

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The owners are investing with money. The players are investing with time. But in ten years, if all goes to plan, the financial prospects of those two groups are going to look vastly, utterly different. I don’t necessarily think that investing more cash in player salaries currently makes sense from the league’s perspective, and I don’t think the players are necessarily desperate for that either. (In fact, I think there’s something charming about how the low salaries make MLS players more approachable, more relatable, than pretty much any other professional athletes.) But I do think that the players who have worked so hard to build the league, who played on gridiron fields and fought for those paltry contracts, are going to miss out.

I’m sure this would be insanely complicated to pull off, but perhaps there’s a system in which players earn equity in the league, and their equity vests over time. John Berner would still qualify for affordable housing right now, but at least he’d share in the long-term rewards of what he’s helping to create.

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