As we all should know by now, the salary data put forth by the MLS Players Union is incomplete. We hear about this every time the data comes out. Thus, drawing direct conclusions out of it can be an effort in futility. But I've also been told that from a big-picture standpoint the numbers are accurate enough to give us a look at some trends.
Along those lines, I'm also a bit reluctant to deem someone under or overpaid based on less than a third of their season. Even if we assumed these numbers were accurate, I think it's probably a tad premature to make a grand declaration about someone being over or underpaid this early in the season. (And there will probably be two more of these releases, so we'd hate to blow our load now...)
Now seems as good a time as any to really reflect on the CBA the players' union agreed to before the start of the 2010 season and how much of an improvement it represents over the first year they started releasing salary data in 2007.
Although the league's total player-salary outlay has declined from about $99 million at the end of last season to closer to $89 million to start this season, the average player is seeing their situation improve. There are now 249 players making at least $100,000 a year, the highest number it has ever been. That equates to 45 percent of the entire league.
The numbers are even more encouraging if you only look at "senior" players. If we eliminate the 62 players who are signed to so-called "apprentice" contracts, that's fully half of the league. If we don't include the league's eight current millionaires nor the 62 apprentices, the average salary is about $135,000. That's not great money by professional sports standards, but it's certainly better money than almost anyone reading this article makes.
The really relevant issue, though, is how this compares to MLS of old. For whatever reason, the players union starting releasing this data the year David Beckham entered the league, perhaps as a way of showing just how bad the situation for some of the guys on the lower end of the salary structure.
Back then, there were 145 guys making less than the $35,152 a year that apprentices are now paid. Back then, the real minimum was $12,900, a rather embarrassing salary being paid to 50 players. Almost half (180) of the 371 players under contract were making less than $50,000. The situation only got marginally better in 2008, as the median snuck up to roughly $57,000.
The situation really started to improve with the implementation of a new CBA in 2010. Although the total number of players in the league fell from 410-388, the league raised its total payroll nearly $20 million to $71 million. Under this new CBA, the MLS middle class has gotten a little better each year and the situation at the bottom has improved to the point where guys are at least making enough money to reliably keep their lights on at their shared rentals.
From a worker's perspective, the union deserves some credit for agreeing to a contract that seems to have worked for both parties. The league has enjoyed some fantastic growth during the first three years of this CBA and the union done a good job in making sure that a fair percentage of those gains go toward its members.
Obviously, this still stands in stark contrast to what players in other major North American sports or the top soccer leagues are making. The current CBA is due to expire at the end of the 2014 season. The lack of free agency within the league is surely going to be the thing that gets the most attention, but that's probably a nonstarter from the league's perspective. More realistically, the union should focus on helping clarify the situation of returning national team players and improving the minimum standards. While new Designated Players are great for drawing attention, that money may be better spent improving the league's depth.