What Major League Soccer can take from other sports to stave off full free agency

The last round of CBA negotiations between Major League Soccer and its players union was pretty fierce. In fact, the players voted to strike, if necessary, and federal mediation was needed to bring the two sides together.

What, you may ask, could cause a nascent and unprofitable league to butt heads so strongly with modestly talented and paid employees? Freedom. Agency. As in, yes, the players wanted a pay raise, but also “agency” – as in, they also wanted to control their destiny.

Because MLS is technically a single entity (all the separate teams are really “one team”), the Bosman ruling probably doesn’t apply to MLS contracts. This irked and still irks veterans who have given their best professional years to the league only be caught in a contractual no man’s land. Hence an unstoppable ownership versus an immovable union.

When the two sides came together last time, it led to the creation of the re-entry draft – a way a small subset of veteran players could move to new teams, without giving them their choice of clubs. This time, however, players will press for an even easier path to a status approximating free agency.

FBL-US-MLS-LOGO

Will they strike? Will they get locked out? I hope not. The two sides at least publicly have said all the rights things, and other leagues in North America offer interesting free agency alternatives.

First, some legalese. MLS’s single entity structure functions similar to the NBA, NFL, and NHL. They are “single entity” to operate a draft that allocates new players and institute a salary cap for all teams. Labor can’t freely move, and there are limits to what management can pay a group of workers.

Isn’t that anti-competitive? Isn’t that price-fixing? Yes and yes. But the owners claim they need the structure to “control costs” to ensure “competitive equity.”

In a sense, they’re right. North American sports leagues are more unpredictable than their European counterparts. You never know who will win which years. North American leagues are also arguably on more solid financial footing. However, at least legally, the racket has only barely passed judicial scrutiny thanks to some very ironic reasoning: Because the players belong to a professional union and collectively bargain regularly for benefits and wages, that serves as a check to price-fixing by management (according to U.S. courts).

Yes. That’s right. According to the courts, the mere existence of a union and CBA means management can collude to control prices for labor and the hiring and firing of employees. Imagine if Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft started the “Professional Engineer League” and did the same thing. The U.S. Department of Justice would probably get a sticky its keyboards while gleefully typing up the anti-trust complaint.

This is why, when unions and management lock horns in North American sports leagues, the players’ union often threatens to de-certify and bring an anti-trust lawsuit instead of a good old-fashioned strike. You can get scabs for a strike. You can’t get scabs for an injunction from a federal court.

NFL Players Union Strike

Luckily, other sports leagues have fought much bloodier battles than MLS players and owners. And they’ve also reached some creative compromises for quasi-free agency. One classic example is the use of arbitration in baseball. Basically, when players with three years or more in the big leagues reach the end of their contract, their team can make them a salary and contract offer. The player then counters with an offer. If they can’t reach a deal, the sides go to an arbitration hearing where the arbitrator must pick one of the two numbers. No King Solomon. One or the other.

The either/or award basically forces the team and player to reach an agreement – nobody (or team) wants to risk the low-ball award or the super high figure. Arbitration could be sold to MLS owners because, hey, the arbitrator could always choose the lower figure in hearings, and they’d probably look at the current MLS average salary when making awards. It could also be something that’s earned after six years, or perhaps four or five years because the shelf-life of a soccer player is so short.

Baseball also has earned free agency: Six years and you can be “free” in the Bosman sense. There’s a snowball’s chance in hell of this happening in a MLS CBA this winter, but remember: often it’s the veterans rowing and steering the union boat forward, so expect this to happen eventually. Folks in other leagues whine about rookie salaries and signing bonuses and draft busts, but MLS is far from that point. Rather, here’s a possibility: Six-year veterans in MLS could get free agency or, alternatively, some kind say in the re-entry process. Players could nix a negotiated number teams they don’t want to play for. MLS could also only push players that sign for other leagues or come from other leagues into the Reentry draft, giving free agency to veterans and arbitration to younger guys.

Larry Bird

 

Alternatively, MLS could adopt the National Basketball Association’s three tiers of free agency: Bird rights (names after former Boston Celtics’ star Larry), restricted free agency, and unrestricted free agency. “Bird rights” basically allow a team that has had a player for two years to offer him a 10 percent higher salary than any other team. Teams can also go over the salary cap to re-sign its own players. An unrestricted free agent can sign anywhere, while a restricted free agent’s team has the opportunity match any rival team’s offer.

The NBA is a relatively spend happy league in terms of labor, so don’t hold your breath for MLS to adopt any of those policies this decade. While the NBA’s focus is on players sticking with teams, MLS’s focus is on cost-cutting.

The National Hockey League has a free agency policy similar to the MLB: you can become one when you are either 27 years old or have seven years of service and your contract with your current club expires. A similar age or time served model would work best for MLS because lots of the players come out of college in their early 20’s and will only have a playing career of five to 10 years, maximum. If MLS ever adopts a restricted free agency, a 26/5 benchmark would be ideal for the players – you’d be old enough to be an established player, but still young enough to coax out a good deal from another team.

In a new CBA, we can count on salaries going up, but if the compromises of the last negotiation are any indication, we’ll also see some bigger steps towards free agency. A 26/5 policy like the NHL or team-vetos in the re-entry draft would help veterans who’ve served the league squeeze more dimes out of team owners. Perhaps more importantly, it’d be a step toward controlling their own destiny.

Photo credits, from top to bottom:Don Garber speaks before unveiling the new MLS logo on Sept. 18, 2014 (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images); Members of the Los Angeles Raiders sit on the curb in a picket line during the NFL Players Union Strike in Sept. 1987 (Mike Powell/Getty Images); Forward Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics sits on the bench during a game (Tim DeFrisco/Getty Images Sport).

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