On Tuesday evening, with collective bargaining negotiations between MLS executives and owners and the union having stalled, the players voted overwhelmingly to strike.
“We were willing to walk and go into that abyss of the strike. It’s a huge, heavy decision,” said LA Galaxy defender Todd Dunivant, one of five members of the union’s executive board. “We had a deal in front of us that we just didn’t like. It was clear that we weren’t going to take it and there was a big decision to make and we made a big decision. For about two or three hours after that, we thought we were finished. We thought our work was done.”
But it wasn’t. Federal mediators, who’d been shuttling back and forth between the sides inside the U.S. Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service headquarters in downtown Washington D.C., informed the players that MLS wanted to continue to negotiate. They did so until around 6 a.m. Wednesday. By that evening, the two sides agreed on the terms of a collective bargaining agreement that saved the 2015 season and, the union hopes, will eventually alter the complexion of the league.
“Having a second chance to do that was encouraging,” Dunivant told SI.com.
There is no perfect deal, of course, and it’s often said that an agreement is fair if both sides walk away unhappy about something. The five-year CBA, which still must be drawn up and ratified by both sides, left a significant chunk of the union’s bargaining committee dissatisfied. Goal.com reported this week that representatives from seven clubs voted against it, and several players vented their frustration anonymously in the press. The diversity of ideas the union wanted to bring to the bargaining table inevitably meant there’d be a wide range of opinions as well, and passions were high.
“It was intense. It’s very intense. It’s very emotional, because there’s a lot at stake,” Dunivant said. “I wish we were all millionaires. No matter what deal you’re negotiating, even if you’re negotiating on the street for a piece of fruit, you always wonder if you could’ve gotten it for less or found a better deal. Ultimately, the deal we took was, in my mind and in the majority of guys’ minds, the best deal we could’ve received. That’s our job, to get the absolute best offer in front of us. It’s not the offer you think is fair. It’s not the offer you think we deserve. It’s ‘What is their best offer,’ and that’s what we had in front of us. I can say that with 100% certainty.”
The league’s “best offer” included a provision that was crucial for the players—free agency. In fact, they said they weren’t taking the field without it. Since the league’s first season in 1996, executives and owners have maintained that free agency is antithetical to a business that survived, and in some ways is now thriving, because of centralized cost control. MLS didn’t want owners bidding against each other for players, thereby boosting salaries beyond what the league considered to be market value. Every dollar was precious.
But the players felt the same way about having a bit more say in their own careers. And on Wednesday, they secured some of that say. Now, players at least 28-years-old with eight years of MLS service will enjoy restricted free agency when their contracts expire. They can bargain with teams of their choosing, while the owners maintain some cost certainty. Players earning less than $100,000 per year will be limited to a 25% raise, players earning $100,000-$200,000 to a 20% raise and players earning more than $200,000 to a 15% raise. The league and union also agreed to a provision under which players deemed to be “vastly outperforming their contract”—a neutral or third party will make that determination—won’t be restricted by the aforementioned cap on raises. The re-entry draft—the 2010 CBA compromise that allows players with expired contracts or declined options to move to an interested club that selects them—will remain.
“That’s the groundbreaking part of this deal for us and that’s what will ultimately lead to really substantial and real positive change for this league. That, despite the fact that what we heard consistently through the process was that [free agency] would never happen,” MLSPU executive director Bob Foose told SI.com.
“That’s a very, very good start for us. And we did in 12 years. That’s something I don’t want to be lost on anyone. We’re 12 years into this union and we’ve been able to introduce some free agency… none of the other major leagues has ever done it anywhere near that quickly in North America.”
Nor have those leagues introduced free agency without a work stoppage or litigation. The players, many of whom would have had some difficulty dealing with a protracted strike, consider that a win.
The 28/8 free agency term will impact about 12.5% of the player pool directly, Foose said. But many more will see some benefit.
“From the most basic perspective, it’s about player choice. But the impact of this that won’t be seen or reported on is, number one, the deals that are going to get done between the players and their current clubs are going to change because those players have the ability to leave at the end of their contract,” Foose explained. “Number two, it’s no longer going to be a viable strategy for a team in this league to have its players feel as through they’re not being treated fairly. If they do that, it’s going to have an impact on the club. Frankly those things will have a more substantial affect on this league, by far, then counting the number of players who actually change teams.”
Said Dunivant, “It’s all a matter of degree and we got a restricted free agency system that will improve the players’ lives by leaps and bounds. It’s a massive step forward. To get free agency as we did, I don’t think any league in North America has gotten any kind of free agency on their first go-around introducing it in their 20s. We got it at 28. That’s a huge accomplishment.”
There were other gains as well, from minimal to significant. The salary budget, which was $3.1 million last season (designated players over age 23 counted $387,500 against the budget), will increase roughly 20 percent in 2015 and then by seven percent annually through 2019, Dunivant said. There will still be three DP slots per club. The minimum salary for senior roster players, which was an embarrassing $48,500 in 2014, will increase to $60,000 this year and up to at least $70,000 by 2019. It’s still low by pro sports standards, but it will allow young players to focus on their craft rather than on how to make ends meet. Roster sizes will drop from 30 to 28, with a number of junior players who don’t count against the cap making a bit less than $60,000.
The CBA’s length also was a major sticking point and, in fact, was a key driver of Tuesday’s strike vote. The league insisted on an eight-year deal to coincide with the TV contracts signed with ESPN and Fox. The players wanted five years. And they got it.
“We were told consistently through the process that there would be no deal that wasn’t eight years—all the way until Wednesday,” Foose said. “It changed everything. To be able to limit it to five, to get started on a system of free agency so we could go back to the table and make further improvements in five years, was massive.”
These collective bargaining sessions were painted by many, in broad strokes, as a test for the league’s single entity structure, under which club owners actually are investors in one company that collectively owns and negotiates contracts. MLS insists that structure is necessary to survive and then grow in a unique environment, where soccer is under pressure from the more popular sports in the U.S. and Canada and by the more established leagues in Europe. Opponents, meanwhile, argue that single entity is part of the problem. It restricts ambition and independence, limits spending and prevents MLS from reaching its potential.
That big-picture debate wasn’t an issue this winter, Foose said.
“We didn’t seek to dictate, nor do we need to dictate, how they structure their business. ‘Single entity’ is a loaded term and I think the reality is more complex than just that term. So it was important for us not to couch this as any attempt to dictate to this group of owners how they structure their business and frankly, we don’t need to,” he said. “We don’t need to be trying to dictate things that don’t impact the players....Free agency is not incongruous with single entity. We just proved that.”
Naturally, there were players in the room who wanted more. Some wanted to strike. Perhaps some wanted to divide the owners and contest the very nature of MLS’ business. Dunivant said the deal they negotiated on Wednesday and the potential cost of a work stoppage, to both the player pool and the league, were weighed carefully.
“You don’t just strike for a week and come back and say, ‘I know we missed the first week of the season, but let’s just put that behind us and I’ll take that deal you offered a week ago,’” the veteran defender said. “The next deal they put in front of you is going to be worse. That’s the risk of a strike.”
Dunivant continued, “Our role is to find the best deal. Whether it’s now, whether it’s after a strike, at some point you’re signing a deal. The process to get there is very difficult and you can ask any of the guys who were there—it was emotionally and physically draining and taxing. It’s part of the process, and it’s like that because there are so many viewpoints and so many different ways of thinking. It’s a process that works, though. It gets you to a point where you make decisions as a group, and that’s what we did.”
Dunivant said he was certain the union got the best deal possible. Where MLS had been intransigent, it now showed some flexibility. Players won free agency. Minimum salaries rose. There was incremental progress elsewhere and there will be a chance in five years to make more. Just as importantly, the union avoided a strike that, had it lasted long enough, may have damaged the league and hurt the portion of the pool that earns lower salaries.
“It’s not perfect. I’m not going to stand here and say ‘It’s perfect.’ Our expectations were extremely high and we didn’t meet all of them. There’s going to be some disappointment. But that’s a part of the process and at the end of the day, it’s a good deal for us,” Foose concluded. “I couldn’t be more proud of the bargaining committee and how they did their jobs. They represented every member of the player pool effectively. They discussed every issue in incredible detail, and every side of every issue. When they disagreed, they did it respectfully in every single instance throughout a very intense process. They did their job and they did it well.”
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