The Sweeper: “Western Civilization Does Not Hang in the Balance”

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Garber and Foose shake hands

So said George H. Cohen, director of the U.S. Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service and mediator in the MLS/MLSPA collective bargaining agreement talks, following the news yesterday that MLS commissioner Don Garber and MLS players union boss Bob Foose had signed a new five year CBA, ending the prospect of a players strike that would have delayed the start of the 2010 MLS season.  Steve Goff offers the best rundown of yesterday’s agreement, noting the small areas of compromise on the part of league toward guaranteeing contracts, in addition to formulating a draft system for waived players:

*For the first time, a majority of players will have guaranteed contracts.
*The players’ ability to move freely within the league will be greatly improved.
*Player compensation will be increased substantially.

Importantly for Don Garber, none of these concessions threaten the core basis of MLS’ single-entity status, which he reiterated yesterday: “MLS was founded on the principle that our owners would not be keeping against each other for player services. When we think of free agency, it is that concept of internal bidding, and there will not be internal bidding for player services.”  And Bob Foose can at least go back to the players with some substantial gains in player compensation and contracts.

History will certainly recognize that the league had the upper hand in negotiations.  As Jason Davis points out, “the power of the Union was mitigated by the youth of the league, the unprofitably of its clubs, and imperative that MLS continue uninterrupted and without the black stain of a labor stoppage.”  Indeed, several papers reprinted the league’s reminder that only two MLS clubs were profitable last year (Toronto and Seattle) as if it was news.  Taking those losses into account, if you accept the premise that the sort of free agency the MLSPA was demanding would have led to internal bidding among team owners investor/operators (credit: Tomasch) and, in turn, higher costs, the players didn’t have much economic leverage to push for their demands.

Indeed, it’s often the case that in many sports labour collective bargaining talks, the players are in the most difficult position: if the league is already successful and the players rich, it’s very difficult for them to garner any public sympathy during labour disputes.  If the players are relatively low-paid or restricted in movement compared to other professional leagues, the owners can simply point to low or non-existent profits as a reason not to meet players’ “costly” demands.  Using a work stoppage as leverage often alienates fans and threatens the long term viability of the sport, yet whether or not you take issue with Foose and the players association for pushing their agenda to the brink of an all-out strike, it’s arguable that Garber and the league may not have shifted on some demands had they not realized that, indeed, “Western civilization does not hang in the balance.”

Anyway, that’s a discussion for later.  What we might ask now is, were there any positives to come out of the last few months of MLS CBA angst?  I would say, perhaps surprisingly, yes.  For American and Canadian soccer fans with a vested interest in MLS, the labour/management dispute helped ground discussions in a concrete understanding of the underlying economics of the league.  And the CBA talks made public and (often) included players and owners in a discussion that has often gone on behind the scenes in American pro soccer; is a highly-centralized, single-entity approach the best model for what many perceive to be a sport with shallow roots in the Northern part of this continent?

While a huge relief for MLS fans, the new five-year CBA still doesn’t definitively answer that question.  The conclusion of the MLS CBA talks won’t end what is still a fierce debate on the future of American pro soccer as MLS gets older, and hopefully, healthier.

Quick Hits

  • At first it seems like a Dante-like vision of hell: “There will be an England World Cup song after all this year, recorded by an unlikely alliance of 11 television football commentators and the Cotswold Male Voice Choir, in aid of the Prince’s Trust.”  Until you find out the commentators won’t be doing any actual singing.
  • Karsten Blaas details a hitherto-ignored scandal in German refereeing, one that has more to do with homophobia than match-fixing.
  • Amy Lawrence with a piece on how far French football has come this year: “The French coaching system is flourishing. An extraordinary 18 of 20 clubs in Ligue 1 are guided by local talent. Blanc and Puel, along with Didier Deschamps and Rudi Garcia – the pair whose teams fell out of the Europa League but retain excellent reputations for their progressive work at Marseille and Lille – are leading the way while all in their forties. All have benefitted from the methods introduced by Gérard Houllier, who set up a training programme at Clairefontaine in the 1990s. It is a three-year course, involves several internships, and evidently its graduates are given a fantastic schooling.”