Despite enormous growth over 20 years, MLS is far from being mature

Last-minute agreement allows MLS season to start on time, but neither side is happy with its terms

For four days last week, officials from Major League Soccer and its players' union stood on the edge of an abyss, grasped hands and prepared to jump.

They had come together to negotiate a labor deal. Yet as talk of a strike intensified, it appeared they had agreed on a suicide pact. If either decided to jump, it would have taken the other down as well. While the damage might not have been fatal, it would have been painful.

Eventually the league blinked by conceding to a watered-down version of free agency and limited pay increases, preventing a strike and clearing the way for the season to start on time this weekend.

That qualifies as a victory for sanity, though neither management nor the union was particularly happy with the agreement. And that makes it almost certain both sides will revisit the same arguments when this collective bargaining agreement expires in five years.

Much of the blame for the ill will between MLS and its players rests with the league, which, despite turning 20 this weekend, is still far from being mature.

MLS has experienced enormous growth in its second decade, doubling the number of teams to 20, expanding to six states and three Canadian provinces and moving into 11 new soccer-specific stadiums. Last season, average attendance topped 19,000 for the first time.

The financial growth has been more dramatic. When Chivas USA joined the league in 2004, it paid a $10-million franchise fee. When the team was disbanded last fall, MLS sold the abandoned rights to a second Southern California team for $110 million.

The league's new TV deal, signed last spring, is nearly five times richer than the old one, while Forbes Mexico ranks three MLS clubs — the New York Red Bulls, Sporting Kansas City and the Galaxy — among the nine most valuable soccer teams in the Americas.

Add it all up, and the league's pie has grown markedly. But the players' slice has not.

That's because MLS continues to plead poverty, claiming to be more than $100 million in the red despite a laughable minimum wage of $36,500. As a percentage of revenue, salaries in MLS are far and away the lowest among the five major U.S. professional sports leagues — and they're even further behind the world's other top-flight soccer leagues.

"There's an argument for building a league, and there's so many initial costs that go into that. We understand that," said Galaxy defender Todd Dunivant, the senior member of the union's executive board. "But that number should be higher. And players from top to bottom should be getting a bigger piece."

Backed against the wall, MLS conceded the obvious, upping the minimum wage to $60,000. Each team's salary budget will go up as well, reportedly growing 15% to $3.6 million this season. That's far from generous, but for a league that treats nickels like manhole covers, it qualifies as progress.

Yet management's biggest concession was on free agency. After years of saying its single-entity business structure — under which the league owns the teams and all their players — made the practice impossible, MLS accepted a limited form of free agency, in which players age 28 and older with at least eight years in the league will be eligible to change teams when their contracts run out.

Only about one in 10 current MLS players would qualify under those rules — and those that do will have their pay increases capped. Still the union grumbled, swallowed hard, and agreed to the deal over the objection of many of its players.

If the agreement was met by disappointment in the league's boardrooms and locker rooms, it was greeted with joy and relief by fans on social media — one of whom sent flowers to the Washington D.C. office where the talks were taking place. Along with the $70 mixed arrangement, Jon Fish of Las Vegas included a note that read: "Please come to an agreement soon, signed, the fans."

Sadly, the fans — the ones who buy the tickets and the jerseys and the sponsors' merchandise — were ignored and dismissed throughout the negotiations, with the union refusing to discuss the talks publicly and the league promising to fine anyone on its side who did. (Real Salt Lake's Dell Loy Hansen apparently didn't take the threat seriously, earning an MLS-record $150,000 fine for talking to his team's radio station.)

The league was so devoted to secrecy that it didn't even acknowledge the labor talks or the possibility of a strike on its website until after a deal had been reached. Instead, its small army of correspondents busied themselves with cheery features and season previews while the season itself hung in the balance.

Contrast that with NBA, which offered full coverage of the league's 2011 lockout on its website and carried live briefings of the negotiations on its TV channel. MLS often wonders why it isn't treated like a major professional league in the U.S., and now we have an answer. Because it doesn't act like one.

Yet for all the turmoil that preceded it, the new agreement hasn't brought the league labor peace as much as it's brought about a truce. In 2010, the players voted overwhelmingly to strike, only to see the union agree to a deal five days before the season was to start. Last week the players were again poised to strike — only to see the union reach a deal 50 hours before the season was to start.

And many of the issues that were on the table five years ago will still be there five years from now. So in 2020, expect both sides to again be back at the abyss, holding hands and staring over the edge.

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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