Sneaking Into The Girls’ Locker Room

Actually, I didn’t sneak in, but the folks from the Phoenix Mercury were kind enough to give us locker room access and use of their two WNBA championship trophies for a photo shoot today. A story on Mercury President Jay Parry will run in the May issue of IMPACT Magazine, and my full interview with Ms. Parry will appear here soon.

The Mercury open defense of their WNBA title on May 15 at home against the Los Angeles Sparks.

Dave Checketts Has A Secret Plan

What is the “very aggressive and very different” plan the MLS owners have in store if the players go on strike on Monday?


Now, maybe Dave Checketts is just talking to talk again. But, just in case he’s not, what could something “very aggressive and very different” mean?

Don’t play? Suspend the entire season out of spite? Import entire teams from overseas? I’m honestly curious.

So let’s look at the question of replacement players for a moment. Could you find 288 guys who could play next weekend? Probably. They wouldn’t be MLS players (at least not front-line guys). It’s unlikely they’d be USSFD2 players, many of whom have jobs as that season is starting in less than a month. USL-2 (third division) guys might take a flier, I guess. Their league is not exactly the Ritz.

Would it be the “extra” guys MLS teams have been carrying in camp to this point (roster cutdown day was March 1, but they didn’t enforce it while negotiations were going on)? Those guys have at least been in camp, they’re not completely off the street, and they’re fit.

But what happens to them when all is said and done? Would they become pariahs like baseball players who crossed the 1995 picket line did?

Back in the winter of 2004-2005, when the US Soccer Federation was embroiled in a contract dispute with the men’s national team, they brought in some lower-level guys who would have actually played in a World Cup qualifier had a deal not been worked out. Luckily, it was.

But at the time, I asked a professional player I knew, a guy who had played for several years in MLS and other leagues and briefly for the national team, if he’d cross the line if asked. This was a guy who was a solid professional, but not a star by any means, and who was far closer to the end of his career than the beginning.

“No way,” he said. “And I wouldn’t want to be one of the guys who did.”

“Do you think the regular guys would take it out on him in training or a game?” I asked.

“I think he’d get his leg broken,” the player said.

I don’t know what this super-secret aggressive plan is, but I hope we don’t find out.

Is Indoor Soccer Dead?

With one weekend left in the 2009-2010 Major Indoor Soccer League season, the playoffs are set: Baltimore will face Monterrey in a two-game set in the semifinals, with the winner1 meeting the Milwaukee Wave (who were dead, just not buried over the summer) in the championship game on Sunday, April 42.

But does it really matter anymore?

I love indoor soccer – have for some 30 years. But it’s hard to ignore the sad landscape of this sport right now. With three games to play (all this weekend), this latest MISL (there have been three, give or take) is on pace to have an overall average attendance of somewhere around 3,700 fans per game. Except for last season’s Xtreme Soccer League (which averaged 3,435 for its mere four teams), a league hasn’t gone under the 4,000 mark in average attendance since the NPSL of 1991-923.

Here’s a chart showing indoor’s attendance averages for the last 25 years (where there have been more than one league – which has happened on several occasions – their totals have been combined). The trend is not positive.

They can still draw a crowd in Baltimore, but their owner is dealing with some serious financial issues of his own. Rockford is rumored to be closing its doors. As there have been as long as I’ve been following indoor, there’s talk of new (or revived) teams coming in next year or the year after.

I know lots of “soccer people” don’t cotton to indoor because of what it isn’t, but I’ve always liked it for what it was – fun. Intense. It’s a great game. Unfortunately, I fear it’s on its last legs. I hope it can be rescued. I’m just not optimistic.

(The data that goes with that chart is after the jump)

1 – They’ll play sudden death overtime if each team wins one game, which is very possible.
2 – Easter Sunday. I know. Long story. Don’t ask.
3 – The NPSL, of course, was originally the AISA, eventually became the second MISL, some of its teams split off and formed the NISL, which re-took the old MISL name right before last season. Clear?

Continue reading Is Indoor Soccer Dead?

Dr. Landon, Tell Me You’re Not Just A Pedagogue

Landon Donovan has returned from a successful loan spell with Everton in England, but will he get the chance to wear that Galaxy shirt in a league match anytime soon?

MLS players are set to strike on Monday (so says Ives) if a new collective bargaining agreement isn’t reached. The way some owners and executives have been talking tough, it doesn’t appear as though they’re going to be the ones who blink first. (AEG’s Tim Leiweke is quoted today in a very Shermanesque way: “We will wait as long as it takes. We will never, ever agree to change the [single-entity] system1.”

(Digression: Cleveland Browns then-owner Art Modell, in 1987: “There are no circumstances under which free agency will work2.”)

After being fairly optimistic cooler heads would prevail eventually, I’m now pessimistic3 (prediction #3 here might be off a bit). I still believe a brief work stoppage can be overcome. The games can be made up, the players can prove they’re serious, they can get some concessions and hope to be a stronger union in 2015 (likely the next time this would come up). Fans will get over it. The game is too strong to be killed (as I’ve written before).

As a fan, you have every reason to be concerned and no reason to panic. This is how sports business is done in 2010, unfortunately. We’ll survive. We’ll get through this. It’s not going to be easy. But it’s going to get done. Eventually.

1 – If you’ve been following along, Leiweke says a lot of things categorically. Sometimes they even come true.
2 – Modell used to say a lot of things, too, in the heat of the moment. When the NFL and AFL were merging, he scoffed at the notion of the upstart league being on equal footing with the establishment, saying “The Denver Broncos will never play a game at Cleveland Stadium.” That guarantee lasted all the way until week 6 of the 1971 season.
3 – I know, right?

On A Court Challenge to Single Entity

Some (including my man Fake Sigi1) have taken the point of view that one reason MLS players are adamant about free agency is to lay the groundwork for a future court challenge to MLS’ single-entity setup on antitrust grounds.

My response to that would be:
1 – That didn’t work out so well last time.
2 – If you want to spend that time and money and effort mounting yet another offensive against single-entity, knock yourself out, but few of the players in the league today would see a benefit from it when all was finally said and done.
3 – To what end?2

If you’ve paid attention, you know that the #1 reason what we refer to in shorthand as “single entity” is to do what? Retard the escalation of player costs3. The other ways MLS do business that have to do with league-wide marketing and sponsorship deals, etc. are nice and they can get economies of scale and all that, but, really, it’s about keeping player costs from escalating out of control.

And you CANNOT unilaterally impose a salary cap (or “salary budget,” as MLS refers to it, which I don’t believe is in the CBA per se) without single-entity unless it’s collectively bargained. But IF it’s collectively bargained, fine. Owners want cost certainty, players want freedom of movement4.

That’s where the NFL was in 1992. The NFLPA was bound and determined to get free agency. They got it. But the owners got cost certainty. And the players found the unintended consequences (for one, the squeezing of the middle class) to be a detriment. Now there is no NFL salary cap and they’re threatening to never agree to it again.

I would contend that if you collectively bargain a salary cap, you not only achieve cost certainty (you can tie it to revenues if you like, which entails opening books, which I don’t think they want to do), but you eliminate (in my mind, anyway) the motivation to mount a challenge to single-entity in the courts.

1 – I have no idea if Fake Sigi is a man or not. I don’t know who he/she is. I’d like to. But no matter.
2 – Treble damages are nice, but they make you work for them.
3 – Testimony in open court with MLS founder Alan Rothenberg: Q. So it’s your view MLS sets a budget, and if it exceeds it, they never pay a nickel more than what they expect for that player, right?
A. Not never, but they can control it. I’ve told you that many times, and that’s one of the reasons that we structured the league as a single entity and did it the way we did. We could set a budget. We could look at what the market conditions were. We could decide which players we wanted, which players we didn’t want, and if we had the discipline, we could keep within it.
4 – And I like footnotes.

Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc

Or “After It, Therefore Because of It.” It’s a logical fallacy, and one that many (even those who should know better) are making these days when it comes to comparing the NASL strike of 1979 with today’s battle between Major League Soccer’s players union and management.

It’s my contention that the brief walkout by less than a third of the players in the NASL for five days (which was about one thing and one thing only: getting the NASL to recognize the union as the collective bargaining agent for the players) was a bump in the road. Now, if you want to frame it as labor disputes being part of a larger issue – that issue being that the NASL’s management couldn’t get the league’s act together – then, fine. I’m with you on that. The culpability flow chart on the whole thing is as complicated as a Rube Goldberg device.

But the actual strike itself? No, I’m sorry. That wasn’t a major factor. In fact, the very same union agreed to major concessions on the eve of the 1984 season (the NASL’s last) to make sure there would even be a 1984 season. But it was too little, too late.

But don’t take my word for it. Since a guy on took me to task1, saying he was there and “anybody who was there would tell you” that the ’79 strike was a major cause of the demise of the NASL, I asked some people who were there. Their emailed responses follow:

Kenny Stern, former general manager of the Chicago Sting and son of the club’s founder, Lee Stern:

“Definitely a ‘not,’ IMO. The union activity had plenty to do with the demise, but the activity that was problematic was beyond ’79. IMO, the league was actually stronger after the ’79 stoppage.”

Soccer historian Roger Allaway:

“No. Almost no effect, in my view. As far as I’m concerned, the main thing was the reason that Clive Toye cites, that the league (mostly meaning Woosnam) was too focused on short-term revenue and ignored long-term growth.”

Oh, yeah, Clive Toye. He’s probably the biggest of “anyone who was there.” The former president of the Cosmos, Sting and Toronto Blizzard and a National Soccer Hall of Famer was quick to respond:

“No, it was not a major cause….it was a damned nuisance, an interruption, a time we could have done without but the real reason for our demise was unnecessary expansion….and the owners that expansion brought us. We had 18 clubs…..6 very very good, 6 good and improving, 6 rubbish. Within the league there was a group which argued ‘get rid of the 6 and build on the 12′ and another group which wanted to expand and pick up the $3M franchise fees. They won the vote, so we went to 24 teams…..12 of which were rubbish. And that drove out the likes of Lamar Hunt and George Strawbridge. Understand, I am no fan of unions. But they didn’t do the damage. Owners did.”

Huh. Imagine that. Ask people who were there, they say it wasn’t a major factor. Imagine that. I don’t think it’ll stop people like Brian Glennon from insisting they know what they’re talking about, but I’m going to go with Clive on that, how about you?

Incidentally, March 28 (a week from Sunday) will mark the 25th anniversary of the end of the NASL. That’s also the end of the first scheduled weekend of games in MLS’ 15th season. How many columns and blog posts do you think will be written using that as a focal point?2

1 – I know. I shouldn’t have gotten sucked in. It was late, I was tired, he pissed me off. Sue me.
2 – Odds are at least three of them will use “ironically.” It’s not irony – it’s coincidence.

Another Reason Soccer’s Not Going Away

New York’s First Practice at Red Bull Arena from mlsinsider on Vimeo.

Strike or no strike. Red Bull Arena opens this weekend with New York playing Santos of Brazil in a friendly. If you’re scoring at home, that’s soccer stadiums open, opening or under construction in Chicago, Denver, Columbus, Dallas, Kansas City, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, Salt Lake City and Toronto. (Thanks to The Offside Rules through Goff.)

Sign Of The Times

Richard Snowden is the latest to jump on the “A strike helped kill the NASL! It’ll kill MLS, too!” bandwagon.

“Indeed, one observer, Boston-area lawyer Steve Gans, even went so far as to compare the current MLS situation to the 1979 North American Soccer League players’ strike, which dealt a strong blow to the then-rising NASL from which it never fully rebounded.”

If you define “never fully rebounded” as “having your best two years of average attendance immediately following, and not having a team fold in those years,” you’d be absolutely right.

Seriously, people need to stop parroting what this Steve Gans guy said without taking the time to see if he was telling the truth or not. You know, that used to be called journalism.