There is nothing charming or even attractive about an employer low-balling labor, but it’s extremely common. It’s the unfortunate lifeblood of American businesses (and businesses in general), as unacceptable as it is. While it may be an effective business strategy, it’s only one step above the NCAA’s empty claims that its amateurism is a real thing.
It’s also what makes what MLS is doing so reprehensible: maximizing profit by paying its workers as little as possible. If we look at the Daily Mail’s data on average attendance in the world’s major soccer leagues, MLS ranks eighth, with a healthy 19,149 attendees per game (6,185,127 total, annually). This puts the league below only the Bundesliga, Premier League, La Liga, Serie A, Liga MX, Ligue 1 and the Eredivisie – all big leagues that existed in a strong capacity before the rise of MLS.
Compare that to the league’s average salaries, here. Look long enough and you’ll see MLS down at 22nd, behind the Superliga of Denmark, Premiership of Scotland and Super League in Greece. If you compare the two studies, you can easily see that MLS dwarfs those leagues in attendance. Comparing ticket prices for games won’t do anything to diminish that fact.
There’s a huge dissonance between the two numbers, but the scary part? A lot of people in the United States still don’t watch MLS, which means there are huge prospects for growth. The current situation reflects this. Chivas USA joined the league for $10 million in expansion fees in 2005 and recently sold for $70 million.
It’s a symptom of the league’s ascent, something that’s has been nothing short of atmospheric. But while MLS must be commended for its growth, that surge prompts a question: With all the available information (ticket sales, salary commitments, dispersals from Soccer United Marketing) pointing to the fact that MLS can make money, why are players in the league relatively poor? Some qualify for affordable housing programs, while others hold part-time jobs to make ends meet.
Thankfully, the current collective bargaining agreement is coming to an end, which means the players have an opportunity to negotiate better profit-sharing practices, higher minimum salaries and whatever else is on the table. MLS is also about to enter a new television deal with ESPN, FOX and Univision worth a combined $90 million annually from 2015 to 2022. This is the perfect time for the players to ask for what they deserve.
Of course, as is common in the lead up to CBA negotiations, MLS has begun to trot out the tired trope that the league is losing money. League President Mark Abbott said the league loses about $100 million annually, that “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.”
If that sounds familiar, it’s because every single league pulls out the “oh, we’re so poor” card whenever players are ready to ask for their cut. It wasn’t that long ago that the National Basketball Association and its owners used the same Jedi mind trick to convince its players to take a smaller cut of the profit than they deserved before striking a television deal that was worth billions. This led to many players saying in no uncertain terms that at the end of the next CBA, they won’t fall for the same trick again. Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, and the National Football League have also used the same faux-beggar excuse to con their players. The practice is about as American as apple pie.
It’s what you expect, though: Abbott works for the owners. His job is to make sure that they win and make as much money as possible. This is just one of his ploys to do it. It’s an underhanded trick, but it’s his job.
MLS has no moral obligation to pay their players more, and the nature of business says that if you can convince your workers to take less than they deserve, you take that deal every time. But that doesn’t excuse the current disparity either, and it’s what labor negotiations like this are designed to help fix. MLS is paying its talent relative crumbs because the players and the general public accept it, but make no mistake, it is still exploitation at its finest.
There are other arguments that seem to rear their heads into these conversations, as well — specifically, an absurd one that because players are motivated by passion and not money, paying them less is acceptable. The New York Times even wrote about the phenomena, one that’s eerily similar to the NCAA touting amateurism and love of the game as good enough reasons to not pay their athletes. Meanwhile, college teams, coaches and athletic directors are making record profits. It’s as if everyone but the actual worker is considered deserving of being paid.
The notion that players should just be happy to help build the league, that the reward is the journey itself, is also dismissible. A pro athlete’s career is short, lasting normally under a decade. This career path is filled with stress levels higher than the general public with high concentrations of depression, substance abuse and the risk of serious injury that could end said career. The transition to life after soccer is even worse, with many players suffering burn-out and a feeling out of being place. The journey isn’t its own reward, money be green!
These beliefs often stem from jealousy disguised as able reasoning — the old view that athletes should not be paid so much, or that being paid as much as the general population makes them more relatable. These are new faces for an old cliché people used to have the decency to say out loud: Athletes should be thankful to get so much to play a mere spot.
The unfortunate, cold, hard truth is that professional soccer players are entertainers who generate millions of dollars in revenue. They’re nothing like the general population. Millions of people would love to be pro players, but only a small percentage have the talents to make it at that level. We pay to watch them because of that talent, and they deserve to be compensated for how much they bring in for the league.
If you are a grocer, a writer, a plumber — any profession, really — and millions of people pay to have you do that job, you have the right to be compensated fairly due to your audience. For most in the world, that is not the case. Thousands of people aren’t lining up for a certain grocer (well, most grocers), nor are they all calling that same plumber. Athletes, on the other hand, are in that privileged position.
Siding with corporations and owners who are profiting now, and will profit through generations of players while reproaching the laborers, is shameful. MLS has an image problem because it is exploiting its athletes. It has installed a system that relies on the players’ reticence to play overseas and desire to stay at home.
Those players will have to grab every dollar out of the hands of the owners during the upcoming CBA negotiations, and the fans should be on their side. Because there is nothing charming about being on affordable housing.