The Sweeper: MLS, The Replacements

The Replacements

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Scabs in MLS?

Here’s Real Salt Lake’s owner Dave Checketts, as reported in the Deseret News (via Fake Sigi):

“I just came from a meeting with several owners and the commissioner down here in Los Angeles, and we know exactly what we’ll do. These are all owners who’ve been in the NBA, they’ve been in the NHL, some of them own Major League Baseball teams even today. We know what we’ll do. We have a plan if the players strike,” said Checketts.

“I just hope the players understand the implication of the threats they’re making to strike because if they do in fact go on strike, then that forces the owners to do something very aggressive and very different.”

There aren’t many things the owners can do that would be “very aggressive and very different” that don’t involve hiring scabs to replace MLS players on strike.

I don’t see this scenario resulting in a Keanu Reeves movie romanticising the replacements, but it may be an apropos comparison. That 1987 players strike in the NFL came as massively rising television revenues were lining the owners’ pockets and the players wanted more of the pie; not quite the same as today in MLS, though obviously rising revenues are behind some of the players’ demands. Moreover, NFL players were already being paid considerably more than MLS players today, with a median income of $170,000 in 1987 money, double MLS players median today not even adjusting for inflation.

But one key issue was similar to the dispute in MLS: free agency.

In 1987, NFL players initially wanted unrestricted free agency, while the owners only offered a modest advance on the compensation system in place.

According to this 1988 Monthly Labor Review article, the owners had a fairly simple strategy to break the strike: “(1) stonewall in negotiations, (2) use the NFL’S public relations program to persuade the fans of the rightness of their position, and (3) divide and frustrate the players by proceeding with the regular schedule using strikebreakers.”

As this piece puts it, following the breakdown of negotiations, a 24 day strike resulted in one of the weirdest periods of play in the history of professional sport:

What followed was one of the strangest months in pro football history, as NFL teams fielded lineups of amateur athletes unconvincingly masquerading as NFL players while the real players—many of them millionaires—walked picket lines, unconvincingly masquerading as blue-collar working stiffs.

A previous strike in 1982 led owners to prepare replacement players as the labour agreement negotiations broke down in 1987.

This strategy, a throwback to the early 20th century, was calculated to wear down the union. The owners were taking a long-term view. This approach was effective because unlike 1982, the games went on. This, coupled with the breakdown in player solidarity, probably won the strike for the owners. But there was a bargaining issue that also contributed to the union’s failure: free agency.

The owners simply would not budge on this issue, and as the strike went on and the players changed their demand on free agency to restrict it to only players with four years experience or more, divisions amongst the players on the importance of this issue grew — it obviously benefited veteran players much more than poorer players, in the short term at least. And the short-term was the problem for the union.

Despite the NFL players’ relatively rich salaries, the union was ill-prepared for a strike; there was no strike fund to provide benefits, no line of credit for player loans. It’s interesting also to look at the economic impact, again from Monthly Labor Review:

What was the impact on players and owners? The strikers lost an average of $15,000 per game, and approximately $80 million altogether. All teams refunded monies to fans who had purchased tickets but did not attend strike games. Although gate receipts and television ratings were down, the owners saved on salaries by paying the replacement players comparatively little. The average owner’s profit per game actually rose from $800,000 before the strike to $921,000 during the strike. This profit was temporary, however, because the league has to refund $60 million to the networks over the next two seasons for the one missed weekend of play, the reduced ratings, and the decline in advertising revenues.

In MLS, the owners will surely save money in the short term in the event of a strike. Television deals in MLS are not worth a great deal. I don’t know if the MLS players’ union has a strike fund or a line of credit to help striking players out, but I rather doubt it. This is a young league that hasn’t had much time to prepare for a strike.

In 1987, an ESPN poll found that the NFL owners won the public relations battle. Though attendance dropped, the second week of the strike saw many fans return to games. Regular officials showed up, and regular television presenters appeared. 16% of the players crossed the picket line. After twenty days, the players’ union made a proposal to the league that was rejected, and their strike collapsed four days later. The result was a disaster for the union.

The 1987 strike ended in total defeat for the NFL Players Association. Having lost all leverage, the players crawled back to work without winning free agency, without winning a guaranteed share of league revenue, without even reaching agreement on a collective bargaining agreement. The owners’ victory was so crushing that in 1989 the Players Association actually went out of business as a union; under federal labor law, workers gained standing to file class-action lawsuits against their employers only if they didn’t belong to a union. Therefore, having been utterly thwarted in their 1987 strike, the players took the radical step of decertifying the union two years later to pursue their goals in court.

This may or may not be a relevant historical example for the present state of MLS; there are plenty of other examples we could look at. But it’s hard to say that the MLS players’ union is in a stronger position than the NFL players union was in 1987, with players even worse off economically, and the real value of free agency still somewhat amorphous given the hard salary cap in place (ironically, in the NFL, following several court cases and the reformation of the players union, in 1993 free agency in the NFL was granted essentially in exchange for the introduction of a hard salary cap).

If there’s a strike in MLS, will the players be able to hold firm for more than a couple of weeks? How important is free agency to most of the players? Will MLS really be prepared to take “very aggressive” action and bring in replacements? Will fans show up to watch? Will Keanu Reeves appear in a soccer sequel to the Replacements?

Quick Hits

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