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“You’re Not In The Mood? Well, You GET In The Mood!”

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You want details and you want them right now. Okay, Major League Soccer just announced some details of their new collective bargaining agreement. Here they are, with instant analysis from someone who should really be doing more important things:

TERM: 2010 – 2014. (Five years, same as the last one. Get ready for the “2015 Strike?” thread on Bigsoccer if it hasn’t happened already.)

GUARANTEED CONTRACTS: Guaranteed contracts for all players who are at least 24 years old with three years of MLS service. The majority of the players in the League will have guaranteed contracts each season. (Keep in mind, that’s guaranteed for that season only, which is better than in baseball and basketball – ask the Cubs how that eight-year Alfonso Soriano deal looks about now. The thing is, it’s the guys making the minimum who really have had to sweat contract guarantee date. If you’re not making a lot, you would at least like the certainty that you’re going to get that. But, I guess they figure that’s a perk given to those who’ve shown they can stick in the league for three years and nothing in life is certain anyway.)

SALARY BUDGET: Team salary budgets go from $2.315 million in 2009 to $2.55 million in 2010 (+10.15%) and 5% per year after that. Senior roster players see their minimum pay go from $34,000 in 2009 to $40,000 in 2010 (+17.64%) and 5% per year thereafter. (Shelling out more money, but still not spending wildly. Don’t expect someone who made $34,000 last year to be 18% better as a player this year, but if this stops the “how can we have professional athletes making this absurdly low salary figure?” columns, that’s a good thing.)

PLAYER MOVEMENT: Next off-season will see a “re-entry draft” for players who are out of contract. Specifics have to be ironed out but players in these categories will go into it:

  • A player who didn’t have his option exercised and who is 23 with at least three years of service goes into the draft and is available to all clubs at his option salary.
  • Any player at least 22 years old with one year of service who is asked to take a pay cut after having his contract terminated goes into the draft and is available to all clubs at his current salary.
  • Any player at least 30 with eight years of service whose contract expires goes into the draft unless he’s offered at least 105% of his last salary. If he goes into the draft, any club can claim him for 105% of his last salary. If you’re at least 25 and have four years of service, you go in the draft unless your club offers you the same base salary (and if he goes into the draft, that same salary applies).
  • It says nothing yet about compensation for a player who moves on this way.

(We can form a better opinion once we see it in action, I guess. But the players agreed to it. It’ll be interesting to see how it works. And the league is absolutely against having teams bid against each other.)

OPTIONS IN PLAYER CONTRACTS: Players who are at least 25 years old with four years of service are limited to two option years in their contracts. All others can have up to three. (So they can still lock up the kids, but labor unions are rarely that interested in their newest members.)

Players making less than $125,000 will see a minimum increase in base salary of 10% if they play in two-thirds of their team’s games and 12.5% if they play in three-fourths. (Sounds reasonable…no more keeping a guy low-paid despite the fact he ends up being a contributor.)

PLAYER BENEFITS: Increases in 401K contributions by the League, appearance fees, per diem and relocation expense reimbursement, full health care benefits for every player and his family at no cost, 401(k) contributions and expanded insurance benefits. (Sounds good, yeah?)

BONUSES FOR WINS AND EXHIBITIONS: Bonuses for “wins in MLS games and international tournaments as well as appearance fees for international exhibitions.” (Hey, look at that, the regular season just got more meaningful?)

RESERVE DIVISION: They will establish a committee to “study the re-launch of a Reserve Division,” which would have guys making at least $31,250 with annual increases.(This will make the development geeks go nuts, but the Reserve League really wasn’t developing that many players the first time around. Maybe they’ll take it more seriously if they do it again.)

Overall, seems like a deal everybody can live with (obviously, else they wouldn’t have agreed to it). Accomplishes some things the players wanted, some things the owners wanted, some things fans wanted to see.

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March 23rd, 2010 at 11:17 am

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No Apocalypse Now

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Major League Soccer and its players have agreed “in principle” to a new five-year collective bargaining agreement, averting what would have been the first pro soccer league strike in more than 30 years.

The players didn’t get free agency (something management had said wasn’t going to happen), but will, apparently, get more freedom of movement. Other details have yet to be announced.

The winners in all of this? Soccer fans, obviously. And anyone whose ears have been bleeding reading the tripe written by would-be columnists over the last few months while this got hammered out.

Also, nice playoff beard, Don Garber.

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March 20th, 2010 at 12:17 pm

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Dave Checketts Has A Secret Plan

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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.

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March 18th, 2010 at 8:51 am

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

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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?

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March 17th, 2010 at 3:58 pm

On A Court Challenge to Single Entity

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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.

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March 17th, 2010 at 10:22 am

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Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc

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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.

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March 17th, 2010 at 9:25 am

This Time Next Month….

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March 16th, 2010 at 10:25 am

Sign Of The Times

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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.

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March 15th, 2010 at 4:56 pm

See, I Hate When People Do This

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Okay, the MLS Players Union has apparently voted overwhelmingly (at one point Goff tweeted it was 350+-21) to authorize a strike if there’s not a new collective bargaining agreement in place two weeks hence, when the 2010 regular season is scheduled to begin. Should be a fun couple of weeks. (EDIT: Buzz makes a good point here, that this was the preliminary vote in support of the concept of a strike, not an actual strike vote. I’m going to guess that when you’re dealing with stuff like this under the purview of the NLRB and actual unions, there are procedures that have to be followed.)

Unless you get tired of seeing the “NASL Strike of 1979 stories,” featuring people who say they were there mis-remembering things and media just printing it without checking it out. Case in point, this Boston Globe story (Dell’Apa‘s normally better than this, he’s been off his feed lately). It quotes “local attorney Steve Gans,” who sounds authoritative enough, until you take the time to fact-check.

“(In 1977 and 1978) The league had momentum and teams like the Tea Men were getting 30,000 [at Foxboro Stadium] going head to head with a Red Sox-Yankees game at Fenway.”

Keep in mind, the New England Tea Men didn’t exist in 1977, and in 1978, they did get 30,000 for a game (30,126 against the Cosmos on July 5), but the Red Sox were in Chicago that day. In fact, the Tea Men didn’t have a home game that went up against a Yankees/Red Sox game at Fenway in 1978 (the Yanks came to Boston June 19/20/21, and the Teas were in San Jose June 21). Foxboro did host a Tea Men match on July 2 (which drew 12,596), and the Yanks and Sox played the next night at Fenway (drawing 34,722). By the time the Yankees came back to Boston (the infamous Boston Massacre), the NASL season was over. In fact, there were only two times in 1978 that the Red Sox and Tea Men played on the same day – June 14 (a day game against Oakland – the Teas played that night) and July 30 (again, a day game, against Kansas City, going head-to-head with the Tea Men/Tulsa game that drew 9,639).

So that never happened.

Later, after talking about the one and only “strike game” in which replacement players were used, we get this:

“Five days later, the Tea Men and Houston Hurricane performed before a crowd of 653 at the Astrodome.”

Which is true. But that was a day after the strike ended. It was the smallest crowd of the year for the Hurricane2, but they didn’t crack five figures until their home finale against Dallas that year.

“Of all the things that led to the NASL’s demise, that [strike] was one of the top five things,’’ Gans said.

As I’ve written before, bollocks.

Again…a player’s strike that lasted five days…that was observed by less than a third of the league’s players…that impacted fewer than a dozen games on exactly one playing date of the schedule…which came smack dab in the middle of the league’s heyday, and (here’s the important part) that almost no one remembers was not one of the top five things that led six years later to the NASL’s demise. That’s a simply indefensible position. The league went on to its highest-ever average attendance to that point (topping it in 1980), didn’t lose a team between 1979 and 1980 and didn’t have cracks in the armor show up until after the 1980 season.

You want five things that led more or less directly (certainly more directly than the blip of the 1979 strike) to the demise of the NASL?

1. Too-rapid expansion, particularly that of 1978, when the league grew 33% (from 18 teams to 24). The Colorado Caribous, Detroit Express, Houston Hurricane, Memphis Rogues, New England Tea Men and Philadelphia Fury were all gone (or in new locations, or gone after moving to new locations) by 1983.
2. A lack of infrastructure. Not one team had its own purpose-built stadium. There was no player development to sustain it. Americans couldn’t play (and the token affirmative action requirements weren’t helping much).
3. Owners (like Lipton and Madison Square Garden and Nelson Skalbania) who expected to make a fast buck but didn’t have the determination or vision to stick it out.
4. The Cosmos. Not the Cosmos per se (they were fabulous), but the Cosmos Effect as everyone tried to keep up with them. San Diego coach Hubert Vogelsinger said at the time, “The plan was for a slow, gradual development of the teams and the league, a soundly-based plan that wouldn’t cause some owners to lose their shirts. Now the whole thing is upside down. The player market has been totally upset by the Cosmos, whose owners have been going around the world luring players to New York with outrageous salaries. The creation of a team like the Cosmos violates a basic American axiom – fairness.” It wasn’t what the Cosmos paid Franz Beckenbauer or Carlos Alberto – it was what the Dallas Tornado paid Klaus Topmoller because of what the Cosmos paid Beckenbauer and Alberto.
5. The rise of indoor soccer. The Major Indoor Soccer League started in 1978 and indoor was The Next Big Thing by 1982-83. In fact, the indoor question drove a wedge between (and, to some extent, a stake in the heart of) NASL owners, some of whom wanted to play with the new toy and some of whom wanted to stick with outdoor. American fans, which embraced the outdoor fad in the wake of Pele, warmed up to indoor, and while the MISL’s attendance figures overall were just over half those of the NASL at its apex, the schism and competition between the warring factions didn’t go well for the NASL.

You’ll hear other things from time to time, including whacky conspiracy theories that Major League Baseball and the NFL wanted the NASL “out of the way” and so conspired to wreck it (again, bollocks). Don’t believe them. And don’t believe the complete and utter nonsense that a five-day players strike in 1979 was one of the top five reasons the NASL eventually folded six years later.

Just like you shouldn’t believe that an MLS work stoppage (unless it goes on for months) will “kill” soccer or the league itself. That’s hysterical nonsense, too.

1 – One of the two? You guessed it…Frank Stallone.
2 – In fact, it was the smallest crowd of the year in the entire league. By half.

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March 11th, 2010 at 8:48 pm

Overthinking, I Guess

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Two things I thought when I read this story in the Boston Globe about the ongoing collective bargaining negotiations between Major League Soccer and its players:

  • Did MLS Commissioner Don Garber actually refer to his league as “the MLS?” Or was that just the way the quote was altered by an English reporter who was at the conference in Manchester?
  • Why wasn’t it pointed out that, yes, Chris Tierney of the New England Revolution did sign a $12,000 developmental contract as a rookie, but got a 183% raise last year to $34,000? That’s what happens with these players that some people think have to be paid more because of some moral imperative or because “they’re Division I athletes:” They move up or they move on. You make crap wages because players like you keep signing crap contracts. Most of those bottom-feeding guys either prove themselves (and get better contracts) or go sell insurance. Now, let’s not pretend that $34,000 in Boston is livin’ large, but if you went to the University of Virginia and played soccer for four years and majored in psychology, exactly what did you expect to be doing with your life at 24? $34,000 is a hell of a lot more than I made at 24. Of course, when I was 24, it was Confederate money, so maybe that had something to do with it.

To their credit, after the shells lobbed a couple of weeks back, both sides have been fairly civil and quiet, at least in the press. The regular season begins three weeks from tomorrow with a game at sold-out Qwest Field in Seattle.

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March 3rd, 2010 at 2:41 pm

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