Transparency’s a noble concept, but Major League Soccer’s not suffering without it

On Monday, ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman tweeted this:

It’s safe to say that Twellman was referring here to the recent hullabaloo involving Manchester City’s Frank Lampard, who was expected to start with inaugural Major League Soccer club New York City FC this winter but will now join his new team in July.

Though in truth, Twellman’s tweet could have applied to any number of recent MLS player deals. Here for example is a collection of media headlines on this subject:

“[Jermain] Jones deal shows need for MLS transparency

Camilo conundrum brings MLS’ transparency issues to the fore

“[Clint] Dempsey deal calls MLS transparency into question–again

These ‘MLS transparency’ stories mostly follow the same basic trajectory. A highly publicized deal for a player is completed (or falls through) at the expense of one or more clubs. The aggrieved team(s) publically point out the deal violates or contradicts Major League Soccer’s annually published roster rules. In response, the league ‘clarifies things’ by revealing a whole other set of rules that were, for one reason or another, hitherto unpublished. After that, a sports columnist tells us that fans don’t like this sort of thing and simply won’t stand for it. Eventually, however, the issue is quietly forgotten until it inevitably happens again.

FBL-US-MLS-LOGO

At the center of all this angst is the same basic issue: MLS’s single entity structure (at least, that’s how it defined itself in defense of an antitrust suit back in 2000). Legally speaking, while MLS looks like a collection of individual clubs competing in a league, it is in reality one giant sports entertainment company. MLS ‘co-owns’ all its member franchises and it negotiates player contracts on behalf of its “investor-operator” partners, which MLS fans naively refer to as ‘club owners.’

This single entity structure gives MLS tight control over contracts and salaries and dictates roster rules, allowing it to steadily grow without risking financial collapse, a fate suffered by its professional precursor the North American Soccer League (1968-1984). Love it or hate it, MLS has already survived antitrust litigation from its players filed way back in its inaugural season in 1996 and concluded in favor of the league in 2002. Even if the league moves onto surer financial footing, chances are it will forever be a ‘single entity’ and retain the right to keep its wheeling and dealing behind closed doors.

Yet despite its centralized structure, it should be obvious to anyone that MLS is not, in fact, one big happy family of clubs. As the appeals court decision in the antitrust suit concluded in 2002, “MLS and its operator/investors comprise a hybrid arrangement, somewhere between a single company … and a cooperative arrangement between existing competitors.”

That unique ‘hybrid arrangement’ is often a source of major tension, and why what looks like “shenanigans” to those on the outside is in fact part of an endlessly complex back-and-forth between club and league, one that involves a lot of realpolitik and quid pro quo arrangements masquerading as proper procedure.

2014 MLS Cup - New England Revolution v Los Angeles Galaxy

The clubs know the league will do what it thinks is best for MLS, sometimes at the expense of their organization, while the league knows that clubs will do whatever they can to gain an advantage. While coaches and general managers will publicly grumble here and there (even at the risk of a major fine and public dressing down), they also know deep down they might one day benefit from MLS’s confusing roster rule hoodoo. This is why coaches, managers and ‘operator-investors’ also don’t stand to gain much from more league transparency, despite their on-again, off-again public claims to the contrary.

As for players, MLS’s notorious lack of transparency is the stuff of wry jokes at best, angry denunciations (and collective bargaining agreement sticking points) at worst. Avi Creditor’s piece on the Dempsey transfer linked above illustrates the mindset well:

Prior to the MLS All-Star Game, the league published a video on its official website in which MLS All-Stars were asked which fellow All-Star they would like to have on their club team. The scenario involved kicking someone off their current roster. The video was a light-hearted exercise with absolutely zero seriousness to it and was meant to entertain while drawing a few laughs. But it was also quite revealing.

Omar Gonzalez said he’d take college and U.S. national team teammate Graham Zusi. As for who he’d kick off the Galaxy to make way for the Sporting Kansas City maestro?

“Nobody. I’m sure the Galaxy can make up a rule and pull some allocation money somewhere. I think it’ll be worked out,” Gonzalez said with an ear-to-ear smile.

Toronto FC Media Day

Indeed, allocation ‘funny money’ is a tough concept to swallow, particularly as the 2014 roster rules note that the “… MLS Competition Committee determines the allocation amount to be made available to each club,” and that “… amounts of allocation money held by each club will not be shared publicly.”

And who will think of the supporters?! Despite the journalistic presumption that MLS’ lack of transparency enrages them, their anger isn’t immediately apparent. It certainly hasn’t hurt MLS attendance numbers, which have grown every year since 2003. Moreover, as with the clubs, fan ire over MLS’ shady dealing tends to be short-lived. Any LAG supporters still pissed about Sacha Kljestan not arriving last fall are no doubt happy to welcome Steven Gerrard to the team. I don’t know how many TFC fans refused to celebrate the unlikely arrival of Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley because they were nursing hurt over Olof Mellberg’s failed transfer back in 2012.

Ideally supporters, like the media, would as a rule prefer the league do its business in plain sight, though it would only likely make a major difference to the minority that has read (and fully understands) the league’s roster rules. But it’s clearly not a deal-breaker. None of this excuses MLS’ lack of transparency; it can leave the league open to accusations of unfair dealings, and left unchecked will threaten (and dilute) the integrity of the competition itself.

Yet despite the noble-minded editorials, those affected by MLS’ lack of transparency will only complain when it counters their interests yet remain silent when it serves them. For that reason, it’s here to stay.

Photo credits, from top to bottom: JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images; Victor Decolongon/Getty Images; Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images.

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