If you think you've heard a lot about the Collective Bargaining Agreement already, wait until late February.
It's clear that the players and the league are still very far apart, and there's really nothing to indicate that's going to change any time soon. If there's not a deal in place by the March 6 opening match, the players have said they will strike. Negotiations will almost certainly come down to the wire, and they will be frantic.
I'm not going to rehash the basic fundamentals here, as our own Sean Rollins did a good job laying that out earlier. What I do want to address is a fundamental question in sports: Who are we rooting for?
If only it were as simple as choosing the home team.
On one side, you have the players. America is a nation that has long supported the rights of workers. We believe in the little guy. We fight the power, hate the man, and rage against the machine.
On the other, we have Major League Soccer. An underdog in their own right, they've built a league that in 20 years has gone from doomed to fail to serious player in the American sports landscape.
The players’ demands seem easy to support on the surface. The league’s $3.1 million dollar salary cap is woefully low for non-DP players, and the minimum salary of $36,500 is barely enough to stay above the poverty line. Players are not able to choose which team they play for, and their salaries are not guaranteed, meaning they can be cut at any time with no compensation (Here’s a great read from a player’s perspective).
Here's the problem though: every bit of success MLS has earned in the last two decades has been based on an incredibly conservative approach to growth. No free agency, few huge contracts, and tight control of all facets of each team through a single-entity structure are how the league earned a $90 million dollar TV deal in 2014.
Soccer has failed in the U.S. before. The North American Soccer League folded after 17 seasons in 1984, largely due to unsustainable over-expansion. Even MLS looked to be in serious trouble prior to the U.S. National Team’s surprising run in the 2002 World Cup. 20 years is still incredibly young in terms of a professional sports league. Is now really the time to be making dramatic changes to the entire structure of the league?
The truth, as it often does, likely falls somewhere in between the two. The league is certainly right to fight to maintain at least most of the conservative business model that has allowed it such great success. The players are also right in demanding a larger portion of the spoils.
Regardless, the single most important thing over the next two months is to avoid a work stoppage at this critical juncture in the history of soccer in the United States. To strike now would be to throw away the momentum from the World Cup, the expansion teams, and the massive new TV contract. It's almost unfathomable to imagine sacrificing so much momentum at such a critical juncture, yet that's what the inflammatory and accusatory comments from both sides have us drifting towards.
It's imperative that both sides immediately adopt a more conciliatory tone. The league was wrong to not even bring anything on free agency to the table in the last negotiating session. The players are wrong to have been so aggressive in their threats of a strike.
We're watching a dangerous real-life game of chicken play out right now. If neither side is willing to blink, the consequences will be devastating.