What I think I learned from the CBA Negotiations

Yes, I know the title channels Peter King a bit. Don’t worry, I promise not to mention lattes, field hockey, or the Red Sox. With that out of the way, let me move on to the big lessons of all this.

1. The “training wheels” theory of divided MLS ownership is, for the time being, completely and utterly debunked. I know Bill got to this point first, but I used to think that at least the possibility existed that some owners might want to spend more and have more personnel-related independence than other owners. Now, after the recent comments out of executives in LA, Seattle, and Toronto, that’s clearly untrue. It’s clear now that one of the main reasons these people chose to invest in MLS is the single-entity system. That indicates to me that single entity is not going anywhere in the near or medium term, whether Toronto or Seattle fans like it or not. It’s time to classify that discussion in the same category as promotion/relegation or moving to a winter calendar. It’s not an argument worth having.

2. This league still has a long way to go to long-term financial sustainability. Even if (like me) you think that LA is engaging in some fuzzy math when Garber says that only Toronto and Seattle are profitable, that’s still only 2-3 teams that make a profit. I think many of us have perhaps thought the league was further ahead of where it was and possibly been fooled a bit by the illusory images of big crowds in Toronto and Seattle and the cup final. Don’t get me wrong, I still think the league is on the right track, I just think this has served as a reminder that the league is a bit further back on the tracks than maybe we’d allowed ourselves to believe.

3. The MLS Players Union was not as stupid or reckless as we might have thought. I had been worried that Foose or the vocal senior players in the Union might be leading the players and the league to ruin. That proved not to be the case. I still wonder if the owners “broke” the union here. To their credit, Garber and the owners certainly aren’t talking like they did. But I am still not sure if the Union isn’t somewhat weakened by deciding not to strike, even for a small amount of time just to “send a message.” As I said in another column, I live in DC where where if one side isn’t winning something, that means it’s losing something, so maybe there is a concilliatory element to this that’s in my blind spot. Maybe I’m wrong, and the new CBA is a solution that both sides are legitimately happy with. That would certainly be a good thing, but I can’t tell at this point as we hardly know the details of the new CBA.

What other big (or small) lessons do you think we learned about MLS or the sport in general from this whole process?

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14 thoughts on “What I think I learned from the CBA Negotiations

  1. I think the idea of, “sending a message,” might be among the notions that the Seattle owner described as somewhat romantic. All it could possibly do is put the owners in a position to wait them out. All it could possibly have done is put the owners in a position to wait them out. Had they gone on strike, to “show unity,” they’d have had to break their own strike to come back to the table. That wouldn’t show strength.

  2. Fair enough, but does this not put the thought in owners’ heads that says “They didn’t strike now, they’re never going to strike, we can put the screws to them during this CBA period.”?

    I’m not really disagreeing with your points, just asking the question.

  3. Honestly, I had to change my thinking on this.

    I very clearly remember that back when the league was being formed the single entity plan was billed as being temporary. I’ve never found a single other soul who remembers it that way, but I am utterly positive.

    The idea was supposed to be that single entity would eliminate instability, moving and shutting teams until the thing became stable, at which point it would fade away.

    And I used to mention this from time to time because, frankly, MLS is NOT a “league” and therein lies a lot of misunderstanding.

    MLS is a corporation that conducts soccer exhibitions in various cities. They have local operations managers, nothing more. There is no real “competition”.

    Competition in professional sport consists of two things: on the field games and off the field maneuvering. Bidding, hedging your bets, playing the market, all of that and more, are integral parts of a truly competitive league.

    MLS has none of that. At MLS Cup, one owner gets his picture taken, but they all win and they all lose. It takes a good deal of the fun out of the whole thing knowing that it’s all just a show for the rubes.

    And I used to rail against this system and couldn’t wait until it was time to eliminate it.

    But as time went on and it became clear that the owners like it the way it is and have very little incentive or even many valid reassons, to change it that it’s just flat not going to change.

    It’s not that I’m wild about the current setup. But it is what it is, it’s not going anywhere because the owners like the fact that it eliminates risk, and you can either resign yourself to the fact or run around tilting at windmills like an idiot.

    I don’t defend the system – although I do defend the right of the owners to have it however they want it, since it’s their money – I just think it’s stupid not to accept it, because that’s the way it is and wishing won’t change it..

  4. Do fans really care about the single entity structure of the league? The big complaint most fans have is the low salary cap, which prevents teams from signing better players. As far as I know this has nothing to do with single entity. If the owners wanted to they could set a salary cap of $100 million without affecting single entity and 95% of fan bitching about the league structure would disappear. Of course, most owners would disappear too with that salary cap or anything much higher than what we’ve got now.

  5. To follow up on Bill’s comments, I want to say that as one fan I don’t think it necessarily has to be true that competition on the field should be tied to competition in the board room.

    In fact I think competition in the business and accounting offices is my least favorite thing about most sports. It should not be about money. Should it?

    I don’t mind competition between GMs and coaches to see who can best find talent or who can best coach that talent to be better and win — but why does any of that have to have anything to do with money?

    Perhaps one of the reasons I love MLS so much is because in this league, at least, it doesn’t.

  6. Re: the question at the end of your third paragraph — what makes it have to do with money is the salary cap. In fact, this is why I actually *like* salary caps. It’s useful that they prevent runaway spending on players, yes; but what makes them cool is the constraints they place on team front offices. ‘It’s hard enough to put together a good team; but now you’ve got to put together a good team without spending more than this limit here.’ And all the teams have that same money constraint (*); so having an office that can play such games well is a tremendous asset.

    * = modulo the fact that the League likes to play Calvinball with team cap limitations from time to time. That, of course, sucks.

  7. My quick-fire responses.

    1, Yeah, ultimately it’s not terribly surprising that the owners see S-E as a very effective means of restraining cost, that the players would like to have it gone for that very reason, and that the players won’t have enough power to make that happen for a while. There would probably have to be 5 or 6 teams in the Toronto/Seattle bracket, and that would include, (and this is where I think fans of those teams led themselves astray a bit) those teams staying in that bracket long enough that they really feel comfortable there, so that the reward outweighs the risk.

    2 Lest we be too worried, the best attempts we’ve seen at profitability analysis suggest there are are probably besides those 2-3 generally profitable teams, 4 or 5 more or less break-even operations whose owners don’t have cause to be worried, and for whom we could find replacement owners rather easily if necessary. Unfortunately, that’s still a somewhat slim majority of a 16 team league, but it’s still trending better.

    3. Yeah, well someone unprepared to strike still has to act prepared to strike, if they want as much as they can squeeze. But at the end of the day, just like most analysts looking at this carefully had been saying all along, they just didn’t have the hand to be going all in. The owners got most of what they wanted, it sure looks like to me.*

    But Economics is unfairly labeled as the ‘dismal science’–unlike politics, it isn’t all zero-sum, there are pareto superior outcomes, mutually beneficial exchange. Even though the owners got the majority of the points under debate in their favor, it’s also true the players walk out of this process better off than they walked in. Plus, even though in the short run they were fighting a losing battle, if this league does grow in the longer term, it’s quite possible they’re fighting a winning war. (Given a time-scale of the next 25 years, I’m betting on the players to win on most of these issues.)

    * Footnote, we haven’t seen the re-entry draft in operation. The reason it was dropped in baseball, from my understanding, was that it operated so much like ‘real free agency’ that it was pointless to have the charade. Devil’s in the details.

  8. 1. I’ve never made the “training wheels” argument because I haven’t any information to base that argument on. I haven’t attacked that argument either – likewise out of ignorance.

    However, I don’t think it was completely and utterly debunked by comments from the likes of Lieweke and Roth. Their comments were carefully calculated to strengthen the argument of the owners, and for no other purpose. They said whatever would best accomplish that. Governments, companies, non-profits, etc, all have many sharp disagreements behind close doors, and then all repeat the company line with a smile on their faces in public – especially when doing so is perceived as necessary to avoid a situation they all agree they do not want. As such, I don’t think we can learn anything about their private feelings from their public words.

    So I still have no opinion about this theory (apart from the fact that paying a 30 million expansion fee indicates a significant degree of acceptance of the existing business model, in my opinion), but I don’t think we learned anything from the public comments by Lieweke, Roth, etc.

  9. Lieweke didn’t bother to remind everyone that the Giants stadium lease disappears this year. Surprised BA never called them on it. I didn’t expect the owners to remind the MLSPU, but between that cash suck disappearing, one more expansion fee and revenue bump as the Union SSS is added, the owners had to avoid that projection during negotiations. It may come up during the next health of the league sales pitch to a prospective owner or stadium authority though!

  10. I always thought Economics was very fairly called the “dismal science” because though the general phenomena described in economics all seem to exist, Economics only seems to be great for describing what happened after the fact.

    It also seems to be remarkably accurate in those few cases where all the assumptions hold.

    That is, when people really do all act like simple automata performing basic optimization algorithms and when nothing unexpected happens for a meaningful amount of time.

    Beyond that, it seems to have all the predictive power of five twigs and a pool of entrails.
    [/quote]

  11. [QUOTE=stonesean;bt52689]I always thought Economics was very fairly called the “dismal science” because though the general phenomena described in economics all seem to exist, Economics only seems to be great for describing what happened after the fact.

    It also seems to be remarkably accurate in those few cases where all the assumptions hold.

    That is, when people really do all act like simple automata performing basic optimization algorithms and when nothing unexpected happens for a meaningful amount of time.

    Beyond that, it seems to have all the predictive power of five twigs and a pool of entrails.

  12. In being a fan day to day of a team in the league (United), no, I don’t think about the single-entity deal very often. Where I do think about single entity is when player “allocations” come up that leave you scratching your head as to what MLS player acquisition rule was applied in this particular case and for what reason. And I’m sure there are fans of every team who could point to fans of just about every other team in the league (including DC) and openly question how Player A was acquired.

    The perception that Commissioner Garber and his crew sit in an office with a dartboard, cheese balls and a 6-pack of Sterling and decide what player goes where is completely false – we think. Not having single entity would probably eliminate this confusion each time a player is “allocated” or “discovered” or whatever the right term is in a particular situation. Teams working of their own accord (within salary cap confinements that are equal to all 16 clubs) could sign their players however necessary, and there wouldn’t be the stain (even if only incorrectly perceived) of league involvement.

    All that said, even if it seems loopy, sometimes almost shady, it’s given us a league that now prepares for a 15th season – far and beyond what some (or many) may have expected way back when. There have been stumbles (sorry South Florida), but it’s hard for me to question the system any further when the league is still fully operational, and labor chaos has been avoided.

  13. Most of those criticisms have some validity (though they’re a bit reductionist–economics may seldom really tell you what’s gonna happen in advance, but it can tell you a lot about what’s not gonna happen). . . but none are germane to why economics is typically called the ‘dismal science’ and why that label would fit political science better. (And we can’t have an apples-to-apples comparison of predictive track records, since political scientists hardly ever make something you’d call a prediction.)

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