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MLS CBA Part 3: How the players can (mostly) win

The players union should be able to accomplish significant improvements through creative approaches that avoid the league feeling mortal danger.

All for one? One for all?
All for one? One for all?
Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

This article is the third part in a series of articles examining the 2015 MLS CBA negotiations. In the first part , a brief history of the league was set out in order to better understand the sticking points in the current MLS CBA negotiations. In the second part, the player's demand for "free agency" was examined. This third part looks specifically at how the players' union can make significant improvements without backing the league to the edge of a metaphorical cliff.

At the outset, I'd like to acknowledge that the second part of this series was fairly blunt in the conclusion that traditional free agency would not be agreed to by the league, and that the league was in a better position to wage that battle. That does not mean that I think the players' union is wrong; rather, I feel they need to take a more creative, flexible approach to accomplishing their goals. Acknowledge the league's concerns, try to accommodate those fears as best as possible while still reaching maximum improvement for player quality of life.


From the research I did to prepare this series of articles, it seems clear that the greatest burdens on a player's quality of life are the team's ownership of his player rights and the complete lack of any input on the player being traded or snapped up in an expansion draft. There are certainly ways to address these issues while still avoiding the outright salary wars the league feels will result.

In MLS, the team retains the player's rights basically in perpetuity, unless the team was previously paid to release those rights to another team. This means there is no job portability within the U.S. - a player's rights will always belong to the team within the U.S. market. Further, the player can be traded to another team or taken in an expansion draft without player consent.

The union should decide on some period of service, for example at least 5 years playing for MLS, and get these player's rights freed from team monopoly. For instance, a player who has the period of service regains ownership of his rights, which also exempts the player from trades or draft acquisition without consent.

For a player who does not have the period of service and is traded or drafted without consent, that player regains ownership of his rights at the expiration of his current MLS contract.

In return for gaining control of their own player rights in these circumstances, the players could agree that the league will create special roster spots (but subject to ordinary league salary rules) that can only be used in order to sign a player who owns their own rights. Start with each team having one roster slot for a self-owned player, maybe increase it to two slots in the third year of the CBA. This would give the league reassurance that salary budgets would remain controllable within the existing salary rules, yet also give smaller market clubs reassurance that larger, more profitable clubs can't come in and start buying veterans to fill a roster.

Players would gain a steadily increasing pool of players who own their own rights, a steadily increasing pool of team roster slots available to them, and the ability to try their luck in another league and return to an MLS team of their choosing should it not work out.


According to an article in The New Yorker, in 2014 the average league salary exceeded $186,00.00 per year. Yet approximately 80% of the league makes less than that average. The median salary is $92,000, and many players in the league are living paycheck to paycheck. The elite players, the top 20% of earners, also happen to be most of the players who would benefit from the free agency the union is demanding.

With talk of adding a 4th DP slot on rosters, with all the player "allocation" and acquisitions that have occurred in the past two years, the league is rapidly splitting into two divisions: Galaxy, TFC, Sounders, NYCFC, NYRB, OCSC, Whitecaps in one division, and then everyone else in the "other division." For the teams in the "other division," they already have all the DP slots available that they need. Adding more DP slots will simply accelerate this widening gap between the divisions and between the elite and non-elite players.

If the players union is representing the majority of its membership, the union should focus on the 80% making less than the league average. The 80% needs to take a very, very hard, even cynical, look at the illusory promises of free agency.Do you REALLY believe that employers are going to be beating down your door with extravagant offers if only you were free to shop your services on an open market? Or is it more likely that the 80% would essentially become temp agency employees constantly forced to move on to sell insurance or houses as they are replaced with endless crops of college players?

Tax the investor/operator portion of second and third DP slot salaries on a graduating scale, and all that money should be used to directly increase league minimum salaries for teams that only use their first DP slot. A rising tide raises all boats.(Note: This DP tax is allegedly already somewhat implemented inside the mystery that is allocation money.)


Financial Records

An unnamed MLS player representative talks about access to financial records during mediation

The league and the investor/operators continue to claim poverty. According to my sources, the player's union really has no way to verify that. Unions such as the UAW have succeeded in obtaining independent access to financial records of their employers, so that the union's own accountants can review these sorts of claims.

Privately held businesses, such as the MLS and most of the investor/operators, have ZERO incentive to show a profit.Showing a profit results in the tax man showing up with his hand out. MLS LLC exists simply to pass revenues on to the investor/operators and should never show a profit. The union is never going to know what it is getting, and what it is leaving on the table, without accurate information.


From the Fraser opinion:

The first is a September 1994 correspondence between Clark Hunt, a prospective MLS operator/investor, and Mark Abbott, an executive working on the formation of MLS, regarding assumptions made in a financial model disseminated by the league's organizers.   Hunt later became an operator/investor in the league through a firm he helped form, which was a defendant below;  Abbott became a senior league officer.

In his letter, Hunt urged that the team player salary budget be reduced by $70,000, with the "bulk of the reduction" coming from the "bottom 12 players on each team whose only alternative is to play in one of the other U.S. professional leagues or one of the lower division foreign leagues." Hunt also suggested that salary growth should also be limited to five percent a year, reasoning that "[u]ntil there is significant domestic-based competition for MLS players, the rate of salary growth should be relatively easy to contain." In response, Abbott cautioned that "a reduction of $70,000 in player salaries per team [would] impact the quality of players we are able to attract."   At the same time, he agreed that, "for modeling purposes the player salaries should be held to [a] 5% [increase] per year."

The players' union needs to understand that they are fighting a long term battle here. MLS was purposefully designed to succeed in large part by limiting player rights and salaries. That is not going to change overnight. The 2015 CBA does not need to right every wrong of the past 18+ years in order to be a victory for a union.

If the union can take the first steps towards players regaining ownership of their own rights, players obtaining some say in trades and involuntary drafts, improving the quality of life for the "eighty percenters" and obtaining raw financial information, the union will be well on the road to a stronger position for the next CBA negotiation.

I think the union can accomplish these things without putting the league in a position where the league feels its very existence is threatened.