There's a battle brewing in MLS. Yes, there's a season getting ready to start, but that may prove to serve as a mere backdrop to what will likely be going behind the scenes in the boardrooms where the owners are negotiating a new Collective Bargaining Agreement with the players.
The last time the two sides did this, the landscape was very different. It was 2010, as you may remember, and all the talk was about how avoiding a work stoppage was of utmost importance because big things seemed to be on the horizon. It was a World Cup year, Red Bull Arena was set to become the first real American soccer palace and the Philadelphia Union were getting ready to join after an unprecedented level of grass-roots support. The league wasn't "there" yet, but you could see the building blocks forming.
Despite negotiations running deep into the preseason, a work-stoppage was ultimately avoided. Players didn't get the free agency they had wanted, but they got a 10 percent bump on the salary cap followed by four more years of 5 percent annual raises. They also received a significant increase in the minimum salary, as well as guaranteed raises built into contracts for more experienced players. There were lots of small steps that added up to the average player being better off.
That deal, which ran for five years, also set the foundation for remarkable growth across the league. The league's total attendance was a 16 percent higher in 2013 than it was in 2009; the number of roster spots available has mushroomed from 360 in 2009 to 570 in 2014; the average salary has grown from about $120,000 in 2009 to almost $150,000 in 2013; and, perhaps the most encouraging gain, was that the minimum went from a paltry $12,900 as recently as 2007 to a semi-respectable $37,500 last year.
The league, as a business, is hardly recognizable to what it was prior to the current CBA. A league that was still talking about survival back at the start of 2010 is now openly gunning for a position among the world's top leagues (however that's defined).
And that's what makes this looming battle over the CBA so interesting.
The players know all this. They can see massive amounts of money being spent on the likes of Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and Jermain Defoe. When they hear that a MLS team might be willing to guarantee a 36-year-old Didier Drogba about $9 million, they believe it's at least a possibility. You can rest assured they are aware that the new TV rights deal could bring in upwards of $100 million a year. Expansion fees are rising at a remarkable rate.
The league is going to counter that many teams are still losing money and that the Chivas USA situation shows just how volatile the market remains. They are going to want to retain as much control over how they spend their money as possible.
There's also the reality that for all the gains the upper and lower earners in the league have made, the median MLS salary has not gotten much better over the course of the current CBA. In 2009, the median MLS player made about $76,000. Keeping in mind that the players pool has grown dramatically, it's less encouraging that the median now hovers around $90,000. That's an increase of about 18 percent, which is well short of the salary cap rising about 30 percent over the same period.
Considering there are a lot more players that make close to the median than can even aspire to being Designated Players, you can understand why this could prove to be a real rallying point for the union.
The MLS owners are going to surely be willing to raise the salary, maybe be even more than the 10 percent initial bump they gave in 2010. It wouldn't be a surprise to me that over the course of a five-year CBA that they'd even be willing to go as high as 50 or 60 percent. But they are also going to want to pick and choose how to spend that money. Maybe that means adding a fourth DP, which depending on how it's structured, could eat up a significant portion of that salary-cap bump. Owners are also going to want more latitude when it comes to signing foreigners, as that's the easiest and fastest way to improve the talent pool.
But neither of those things are automatically going help your average American soccer player. Now, it can certainly be argued that the domestic league should be worried primarily about putting out the best league possible, but its connection to the American development system and to the United States national team are undeniable. While the MLS Players' Union isn't expressly tasked with addressing those issues either, they have a bit more of a vested interest as the vast majority of their members are American.
Sure, the Players Union is going to push for free agency and all kinds of things like that which the average MLS fan may not ultimately care about. But watch these negotiations closely, and more specifically what gains the union is able to make in terms of securing a more stable middle-class. That's where the future of American soccer may really lie.