The Sweeper: MLS Owners Speak Out On Strike

AEG

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An MLS ownership group has finally spoken out about the possibility of a strike by the players. Tim Leiweke, long-time chief executive of Phil Anschutz’s AEG (who own the LA Galaxy and half of the Houston Dynamo), expressed amazed consternation that the league’s employees could be so ungrateful: “It would have been easy for us to quit over the last 10 years,” he said. “There were five different times we could have called it a day. But we didn’t. We fought through it.

“So for them [the players] to suddenly threaten that they’re going to shut it all down, I’m a little amazed at the lack of respect they show for the commitment that we all have made to get the league to where it’s at today.”

“So when I hear them talk about striking and shutting the league down, I’ve got to tell you, they’re going to lose us when they talk like that.

“We do this out of passion. If this were a business, we would have quit this 10 years ago.”

(The Womens Professional Soccer players recently left without a team to play for as AEG abandoned the LA Sol might find Leiweke’s comments rather ironic. But that’s another story.)

AEG aren’t fooling anyone by claiming they are in this for the passion and not the business, as if this entire soccer venture was a tax write-off for Uncle Phil Anschutz, who didn’t become America’s 37th richest man through benevolence.

Obviously, AEG’s passion for the sport over business demands doesn’t extend to building stadiums without stages to suit the other parts of their entertainment business.

As one senior AEG executive recently put it, “There’s an expectation that all our assets will be good enterprises and profitable. There’s no charity involved.”

Of course, there shouldn’t be. The Galaxy are sometimes said to be profitable, sometimes not. If Leiweke is right and soccer is not a business for AEG, the sport probably doesn’t have much future in the United States; relying on a billionaire’s ongoing passion is not the way forward. It needs to be a successful business, which is why owners aren’t relenting on the players’ demands anyway, why several stadiums have those stage ends, and why Soccer United Marketing exists. Those aren’t bad things, but they’re about more than just passion for the sport.

And true, a huge loss-leading investment by Anschutz and Lamar Hunt was absolutely crucial to the league’s survival in its early years; the question is, do today’s players owe AEG something for that?

The fact is, the players, like most workers, don’t have a whole lot of leverage here except for threatening not to work. Appealing to Phil Anschutz’s best nature with nicely written letters from their mothers probably isn’t going to cut it. AEG are a $1 billion business that has decades of experience in litigation, with Anschutz described by one businessman who actually won a case against AEG as a man “will cut your legs out from under you”, according to this 2006 LA Times piece:

Like many aggressive businessmen, Anschutz also has acquired his share of adversaries. His litigation record reveals a sharp-elbowed tycoon willing to pay to make disputes go away and to keep his public image intact.

During the last three decades Anschutz has paid cash settlements — all of them confidential — to companies that claimed they were denied their fair share of profits or were done in by deceptive business practices, according to interviews and courthouse documents in California, Colorado and Wyoming.

Among the settlements was a multimillion-dollar award to Mel Gibson, who alleged that the theater chain Anschutz controls cheated the actor’s distribution company out of revenue from the hit movie “The Passion of the Christ.”

George Ablah, 77, a real estate magnate and fellow native Kansan, prevailed in a legal tussle with Anschutz over a failed oil and gas partnership.

“He is very tough,” Ablah said of Anschutz. “He thinks he is God. If you question him in any way, he will cut your legs out from under you…. He is extremely lucky with those tactics. It has worked out very, very well for him.”

As Fake Sigi says today about Leiweke’s comments, “The owners look like they’re going to stand firm.”  There’s nothing wrong with that, but the players make their living out of this sport and have every right to treat it as a business and not make concessions based on AEG’s track record or passion for the sport, as Leiweke implies they should; it’s not a “passion” for the players, it’s their workplace. They might not be paupers, but an $80k median salary in a career that lasts a decade or so means they don’t have the luxury to take the long view in the same way as Phil Anschutz, sitting on $7.2 billion.

Quick Hits

  • An interesting interview here with the Chester City fan running the Supporters’ Trust attempting to resurrect the team, explaining how they lost patience with ownership: “The final straw for many was the one-minute’s silence that was held for what was a “major benefactor” of the club, which, upon investigation, turned out to be the death of a drugs baron from Liverpool who had been assassinated by a South American mob. This was a person we were holding a respectful minute’s silence for?”
  • Amusingly enough, FIFA actually has an “ethics chief”, who have written to 2018 and 2022 World Cup bidders and told them to play fair. Just like Sepp and Jack do, obviously.

The Sweeper appears daily. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

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