Monday, November 30, 2009

MLS Players Union, Contracts and the rest of the Footballing World

Now that the MLS season has ended, attention this off-season will be focused on the Collective Bargaining Agreement between MLS and the Players Union, which ends in January and if the league, owners and players cannot come to an agreement, a work stoppage and/or a lockout is possible. Neither scenario is good for the league and the development of the game in the U.S.

In that light, the guys over at Major League Soccer Talk have been having a series of posts about the talks and the position of the Players Union and even the recent intervention of FIFPro, the international body that represents professional players around the world.

In a recent post, Eric Altshule discusses the difference between a MLS player contract and a European contract. Altshule writes:
If there is one thing the owners fear and will try to avoid at all costs, it is having a situation like what exists in Europe where a player contract is really a one-way street with the top players in a ridiculously powerful position. In American sports, a player contract is a binding and respected document, but in Europe, it is really only binding to the team.
I will admit that owners no doubt fear this kinds of arms race and I can see the desire of MLS to keep teams in rough parity. To that extent, Altshule is right. Altshule then makes the following analogy to professional baseball:
To illustrate the difference, let’s take the case of one of the best American athletes on a mediocre team – San Francisco Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum. Lincecum may be the best young pitcher in a generation having won two straight Cy Young awards while the Giants have missed the playoffs for the past six seasons. I am sure that a wealthy team like the New York Yankees have already photo-shopped pictures of Lincecum in pinstripes, but they know that Lincecum is contractually obligated to the Giants, in one form or another, until after the 2012 season. Until that time, Lincecum is a Giant, and there is no way for him to realistically agitate for a trade to the Yankees and there is no way for the Yankees to “unsettle” him without violating Major League Baseball rules in a way they would not dare. Lincecum knows that though he may be underpaid at the moment, he does have a humungous payday coming in 2012, and there is nothing he can do to change that date. He just needs to stay healthy and keep pitching well.
This is accurate insofar as it goes, but there is one aspect significantly missing in this analogy.

One of the demands that the Player's union is looking for is guaranteed contracts. I don't think they are going to get it, but I understand the demand. But in Europe, the contracts are guaranteed. As much as Altshule may protest about the contracts in Europe being slanted toward the player, the contracts are more or less guaranteed. European leagues are regulated by UEFA and includes specific legal protections that guarantee freedom to contract. The teams are used to this and there are, at least on paper, rules against tapping up a player. But lets assume that the world operates as Altshule notes, in that players can essentially engineer a transfer for themselves, their old club is at least compensated in the form of a transfer fee. Keep in mind that the earlier a player is in their contract, the larger the transfer fee will be.

But a big difference between a player in Europe, a Major League Baseball or NFL player and a MLS player is what happens when the player is that when his contract is up, he is a free agent. This is exactly how it is handled in Europe, a player whose contract has ended can transfer anywhere he likes. Case in point is Oguchi Onyewu, whose contract at Standard Liege had concluded and he went to AC Milan on a free transfer. Taking Lincecum above as an example. When his contract is over in 2012, he is a free agent, free to pursue a spot with Yankees or any other team in MLB or overseas.

In MLS that is not the case and that is a big problem. Take the case of Ricardo Clark, the Houston Dynamo holding midfielder whose contract is now over. Clark is looking for a transfer to Europe. Now he can do that as he is technically a free agent. But let's assume that Clark doesn't get that transfer to Europe and another team, say the Philadelphia is looking for a holding midfielder--that transfer is not necessarily going to happen because Houston will still hold the rights to Clark. Thus, he is not a free agent at all because he can't sign with any team he wants.

There in lies the problem, in the fear to prevent a price and player war, MLS and team owners have gone too far. It is not simply the veto power over player transfers, or even the common demand that players surrender the traditional 10% of the transfer fee they are entitled to get, but rather it is the overall control that MLS and clubs have over player and player rights.

As an analogy, imagine you are an IT specialist and you work for General Electric's shipbuilding division. But that division is facing cutbacks and you are told by the company "Thanks for the years of work, but your services are no longer required. Sorry." You try to get a job with another company, but it doesn't work out for you. You hear from a buddy that the electric generator section as General Electric is hiring IT people. But because you worked for the shipbuilding division, you can't take a job in the generator section because the shipbuilders have the rights to your services. You can't take the job with the generator division without the say so or release of the shipbuilders.

If you worked for General Electric, this state of affairs would never be allowed, particularly in the world of at will employment. Essentially what MLS has is the exact opposite of what Altshule claims to exist in Europe--here MLS player contract are cancellable at will by the teams and the MLS (up to a defined date where contracts and pay for the year are guaranteed) can fire a player without much notice and no recourse for the player. At least in Europe, when a player gets transferred there is a transfer fee that eases the blow for the club.

While I don't expect the owners and MLS to give in on the guaranteed contracts, I do believe there has to be some sort of true free agency at the end of a contract. If a player is transferred to another club via an intra-MLS trade, fine. But if the transfer is to Europe or elsewhere, then the player is not only entitled to his share of the transfer fee. There must be more parity between the parties to this contract.

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