Many people talk of professional sports in the United States in terms of the “Big 4″ (MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL). After the 2004 NHL lockout canceled the entire hockey season that number was essentially reduced to the Big 3. Not until this past season has the NHL recovered its pre-lockout attendance numbers, while TV ratings still lag behind.
Major League Soccer is clearly more like the NHL than the other 3 sports. Smaller markets, smaller crowds, and until this week, it looked likely that the league would be following the NHL’s path and shorten or cancel an entire season. At the 11th hour the two sides came to an agreement and a new, five-year collective bargaining agreement was approved and play will go on.
This is a huge deal for the league because of the success of this past season and the excitement surrounding teams like the Seattle Sounders (30,000+ per game attendance), Real Salt Lake (defending champions), and the new expansion franchise in Philadelphia, the Union. Not to mention the energy generated by the Confederation’s Cup last year and the World Cup beginning this summer. This is clearly not the time for a domestic break from the sport.
Major League Soccer was set up in a way that tried to avoid many of the antitrust issues that plagued other professional sports in the US. The Sports Law Professor described it as such:
Antitrust law, in relevant part, prohibits an agreement that restrains trade. One way to avoid antitrust problems is not to restrain trade. The other is not to enter any agreements. MLS chose the latter. It avoids entering any agreements, in effect. Under the MLS ownership structure, the MLS constitutes a “single entity.” As a result, the kind of arrangements or agreements among teams that have gotten other leagues in trouble (such as salary scales, salary caps, player drafts, limitations on free agency, and so forth) are not, in the view of the MLS, “agreements” under the antitrust law at all. They are merely internal business decisions, no different than any coordinating activities among divisions of a single manufacturer. Thus, MLS is incapable of violating the antitrust laws, no matter how much it restrains trade.
Perhaps the biggest issue coming from the players was the desire for free agency. Management has always been opposed to free agency for the players as MLS negotiated all player contracts from its inception in 1996. The league argued that MLS players always had the option of playing overseas. Going forward, players who have reached the end of their contracts or whose contracts are not renewed for whatever reason will be able to enter a draft in order to “re-enter” the league. Players will also have guaranteed contracts for the first time. Further details about the CBA:
- The league has increased the salary cap by about $200,000 — from $2.315 million per club in 2009 to $2.55 million in 2010, a 10.15 percent jump. It will rise 5 percent per year thereafter.
- For players whose annual compensation is less than $125,000, the minimum increase in base salary will be 10 percent for players who play in at least 66 percent of his club’s games and 12.5 percent for players who play in at least 75 percent of his club’s games.
- MLS and the union will establish a joint committee to study the re-launch of a reserve division. In the event the rosters are expanded, the salary for those players will be a minimum of $31,250 with additional annual increases.
Perhaps the owners fear that free agency could destroy the parity the league currently enjoys, as the larger teams have more money and thus a greater advantage in signing the best players. Whatever the argument, the MLS is taking steps in the right direction to both keep its current fans and attract new ones.
In an age of professional sports when it seems the fans are becoming more and more cynical towards both athletes and owners, maybe there is room for one more sport. Especially a sport where the league minimum salary is being raised to $40,000/year (a 17% increase) and the median salary is a mere $88,000/year.
With potential lockouts looming for both the NBA and the NFL in the coming years, perhaps Major League Soccer can serve as an example to those leagues of how to best avoid a work stoppage. And if not, at least we’ll be able to enjoy its growth until at least 2014.