The Key To MLS Success? Striking A Balance

Last year at this time, I wrote an article for MediaPost about Major League Soccer’s significant growth. The focus was on how the league’s increasing success in attracting world-class talent earlier in their careers and developing domestic players through the Homegrown program, has improved the quality of the players on the field each year, ultimately, driving up the league’s rights value and popularity.

The year since then has been a whirlwind for MLS. They announced a new TV deal with ESPN, FS1 and Univision rumored to be eight years/$720 million – with each network airing more than 125 matches a season. They geared up to launch their 19th and 20th franchises in Orlando and New York with splashy signings – Kaka, Frank Lampard, Brek Shea, Mix Diskerud. They now claim 14 veterans of the vaunted 2014 World Cup squad. Just last week, MLS announced a landmark deal with Sky Sports – the dominant subscription television sports brand in the UK and Ireland. They even launched an innovative new crest-style logo, debuting to mostly positive reception.

With a young and promising USMNT pulling most of its prospects from MLS to compete in major contests this summer – an Olympic qualifying tournament and the CONCACAF Gold Cup, both held primarily in America – domestic soccer is poised to reach an all-time high awareness level in MLS’ 20th season. 

Just one little glitch. The most recent collective bargaining agreement between the MLS Player’s Union (MLSPU) and MLS expired last fall, and the sides haven’t agreed on a new one. With the season scheduled to start on March 6, the league is inching closer to a strike or lockout.

It’s clear that MLS is committed to increasing both minimum salaries and the salary cap, great news for all of the players they employ. Where the sides are in opposition is the issue of free agency. The players want it; the league isn’t willing to concede it.

Because the league is structured as a single entity, free agency would leave the door open on antitrust lawsuits being filed against them – an issue they beat in the early 2000s on the grounds that leagues both domestic and abroad constitute other options for players. It’s easy to see why players want free agency, and it’s easy to see why the league’s current model of governance has facilitated such steady growth. There will have to be some significant compromise to get a deal done.

This kind of assertion of leverage comes predictably at points of rapid growth. In any business, when things are going well, employees rightly feel ownership over the organization’s success. It’s only natural. Everyone wants to feel like their contribution is recognized and rewarded fairly, whether financially or otherwise. It’s something to which anyone managing a growing business can relate.

The unenviable issue facing MLS currently is finding a balance between rewarding players with new measures of compensation and staying true to the business values that got it here.

NHL players have gone on strike once and locked out three times – losing games or seasons each time. The NBA’s locked out four times – twice shortening seasons. MLB’s gone on strike five times and locked out thrice. Football has even more – five strikes and two lockouts twice shortening seasons. NFL referees even locked out once. This stuff happens a lot.

And it often happens on the heels of lucrative new television deals or an influx of talent drawing in casual fans. Strikes and lockouts have also come when players feel their movement between teams is restricted, the core concern of the MLSPU in 2015.

The NBA’s lockouts correlate strongly with LeBron’s and Jordan’s peaks. Two NFL lockouts focused almost entirely on better free agency and also threw around the word “antitrust.” The NHL’s first lockout came during the advent of the merchandising era, when players became concerned with managing rights to their likenesses. The MLB’s myriad disagreements have covered it all. The good news is that there’s precedent from which Don Garber and MLS can draw.

In business, growing often isn’t the hard part, but growing the right way is. MLS has said they won’t sacrifice success in coming decades to avoid a work stoppage now. It may not be what fans – or even players – alike want to hear, but this is the right approach. In sports, as in business, sometimes efficiencies – and even disgruntled employees – should be sacrificed in the short term to find the right course of action for the long haul. You’ve got to build success the right way.

MLS has an incredible opportunity here to capitalize on what may be a landmark season. As fans of the sport, we’ll be hoping to see both sides come to a mutually beneficial agreement sooner rather than later. Hopefully, the players don’t strike while the MLS iron is hot. There’s some great American soccer yet to be played.

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