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MLS hopes of growth, grandeur could be slowed by contract negotiations

Tense standoff with its referees union could have just been the start of a high-profile, tumultuous year

From the Jack London quote at the start of the Professional Soccer Referees Association press release, it was clear the stilted politeness that marks employer-employee relationships between labor disputes had become somewhat strained.

“The scab sells his birthright, country, his wife, his children and his fellowmen for an unfulfilled promise from his employer. Esau was a traitor to himself; Judas was a traitor to his God; Benedict Arnold was a traitor to his country. A scab is a traitor to his God, his country, his family and his class.”

The union in question and its employer, PRO, aren’t household names, but their recent dispute over a collective bargaining agreement for Major League Soccer referees, during which the use of replacement referees — whom the union called “scabs” — increased the tension, promises to be only the opening skirmish in a year of behind-the-scenes negotiations that may determine the future health of the league.

It may certainly determine the immediate fate of the MLS board’s stated ambition to be one of the top 10 leagues in the world by 2022.

The current agreement between the MLS players union and the league runs out at the end of this year, and with a new TV deal to also be negotiated — and the increased scrutiny that comes with a World Cup year — the negotiation of a new agreement could be a fraught period of the league’s growing pains.

Turning pro

PRO was founded two years ago as a joint initiative between the U.S. Soccer Federation and MLS to improve the quality of the domestic refereeing pool by professionalizing it. Former English Premier League referee Peter Walton was drafted to lead the new body, and, for the most part, his arrival was greeted as a welcome next step in the development of the game in the U.S. And Walton, at least to begin with, stressed that his initial role would be largely observational — though he did trim the pool of referees after the first year.

When negotiations for a first collective bargaining agreement for referees broke down after the 2013 season, amid accusations by the union of “bad faith bargaining and management threats” — and Walton’s counter that PRO’s offer had been “fair and reasonable” in offering a deal that would have paid the referees more than the average earned by their global peers — the stage was set for a toxic dispute. The union refused to take strike action off the table, and PRO instituted a lockout that saw replacement referees used for each of the first two rounds of the 2014 MLS season.

While the dispute was resolved after those two weeks, it is the replacement referees who may have lost the most in the settlement. Referees union head Steve Taylor made it clear that the perceived betrayals of the recent dispute still rankle.

“Many of them are United States Soccer Federation referees who had aspirations to work games at the professional level, and they mistakenly saw this as an opportunity for themselves to make it on the big stage,” he said. “And now they’ve done some serious damage they’ll have to work really hard to overcome. Our group is unified. It’s a brotherhood and a fraternity, and none of us who’ve got to MLS level got there on our own … I don’t know what they’re expecting in terms of camaraderie or brotherhood going forward, having crossed our line.”

The initial disparity between the two sides in the dispute was not that great in financial terms — with various reports placing it between $400,000 and just over $1 million. The likely gulf between the players and owners later this year will be considerably larger.

Forced parity

The particular economics of MLS shape the context for these disputes — the league, in line with other major U.S. sports, uses a single entity structure, in which club owners are business partners off the field and rivals on it. A player signing from a club in another country actually signs a contract with MLS rather than the club he is playing for, while the in-league market is controlled by the concept of forced parity — a salary cap and numerous arcane financial rules govern the management of teams, to ensure competitiveness.

The effect for players, and a potential bone of contention for the forthcoming collective bargaining process, is a perceived artificial suppression of wages and fewer rights over freedom of movement, with MLS owners having few competitive incentives to reflect the conditions set by the wider soccer marketplace of what is, after all, a global game. 

The singular MLS working conditions also mean that an MLS player can be told to pack his bags overnight as his contract is traded to another club without his consent. One Scottish player, Adam Moffat, was traded from Houston to Seattle to Dallas within a few months last season.

“It sucks” was his succinct assessment.

His case may be extreme, but not atypical for journeymen players shuttling through a world of forced parity.

Even such quotidian rules as restrictions over the number of charter flights a team may take in a year have effects on players’ lives — as conditioned athletes work around airline schedules and economy seating conditions to manage their recovery times from games. 

Flight restrictions are just one of the negotiating points expected to come up when MLS and the MLS Players Union sit down later in the year to try and hammer out a new deal before the 2015 season starts. The last time they did so, before the 2010 season, strike action by players was only averted at the 11th hour. In this bellwether year, a strike is unthinkable for MLS.

Saber rattling

Thus far this year, the main moves between the league and the players have been a kind of discreet saber rattling, as MLS Commissioner Don Garber has made a point of inserting the fact that the league is still not profitable into each of his early-season public appearances. The claim is a delicate one to make when he is also publicly celebrating the vibrancy and transformative potential of a much expanded ownership group (Atlanta, with the Home Depot billions of Arthur Blank, was announced as the latest expansion team this week). And with negotiations looming, the league has also recruited former New York Yankees manager of pro scouting Will Kuntz as its new director of player relations, while the players union has hired recently retired veteran midfielder John Thorrington to beef up its side of the table.

These are the first subtle shifts away from what’s generally been a tone of cordial respect between the union and the league since the last agreement. Representatives for both sides have been consistent in speaking of a “mutual desire to grow the league.” Even now, asked if there is an inevitable cooling of relations as the negotiations approach, MLS Players Union President Bob Foose said, “I wouldn’t call it a ‘cooling’ necessarily, but what does happen is that people become more cautious about the public statements that they make,” though he does laugh lightly when the commissioner’s remarks about lack of profitability are mentioned.

The fact that the referees’ dispute went to a lockout doesn’t necessarily mean that there will be a similarly dramatic outcome in the players’ negotiations, though there are plenty of points of contention — not least MLS players’ restrictive right of movement in a year when the world players union, FIFPro, is legally challenging the transfer system itself.

And while league officials can point to the positive demographics for youth and Hispanic viewership, in particular, and be bullish about their long-term prospects, an inconvenient reality for them is that for their goals to be reached, progress has to be made on the field. And those tasked with carrying out that work may be about to assert their rights.

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Soccer, Unions

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