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Collective bargaining impasse threatens MLS season - should players strike?

The soccer community in the US is a buzz with talk about the ongoing negotiations between Major League Soccer (MLS) and the Players Union (MLSPU).  Say what?  You haven't heard about any of this?  Well, crawl on out from underneath that rock and read on!  The Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) between the MLSPU and MLS expired on January 31st; and, while the current agreement has been extended twice already, Thursday marks the deadline for avoiding a potential work stoppage.  With the season set to kick off on March 25, fans have great reason for concern.

 

Among the issues at hand are guaranteed contracts; unilateral options; freedom of movement for players waived, terminated our out of contract and free agency.  According to Sports Business Daily, sources close to the negotiations state that the league has made concessions in the area of guaranteed contracts for a portion of the player pool and reducing the number of options in a players contract. They have even made a proposal to give players more rights at the end of the contract.  However, this does not adequately address the key sticking point of free agency from the players perspective.  They want true free agency, not restricted freedom of movement.  The MLS salary should effectively prevent teams from creating a bidding war for players.

As Thursday's deadline looms, the likelihood of a works stoppage seems far closer than it did just one week ago.  Last Friday the players let loose with a "shock-and-awe" barrage of attacks on MLS that was heard throughout the Internet as Bloggers and players alike lit up Twitter.  Houston Goalkeeper Pat Onstad was quoted by Soccer By Ives as saying  "We feel the league's not taking us very seriously at all."   Center Line Soccer carried a statement from Joe Cannon stating "I know on our side, we’re prepared to strike if we have to for what we want."

As the weekend ensued, MLS President Mark Abbott fired back stating that there "was some sense that the league had not been taking the negotations seriously, and had not made serious proposals, and nothing could be further from the truth..."  He reiterated the leagues opposition to free agency stating that they did not see free agency as "something that would be good for the league."  In response to the media out-lash by the players, Abbott stated  “Our view has been that the most effective way to negotiate a CBA extension is to do so in the bargaining room, across the table, and not in the media." 

Monday, the league announced that it was prepared to operate the 2010 season under the existing bargaining agreement and would likely not lock out the players.  Operating under the current agreement this year would mean that the players would not see any real progress toward their demands and would also prevent the players from going on strike.  A player lockout would not be good for the league particularly in a year featuring the World Cup and the debut of the expansion Philadelphia Union. 

So the question proposed today by Match Fit USA's Jason Davis was "Do the players HAVE to strike now after all the talk because they'll weaken themselves for future negotiations if they don't?"  That's an interesting question and the answer depends on whose perspective you take.  Most may be thinking of the perspective of the Players and the League.  Sure, the players may feel that they must stand strong to prove a point - "now they'll take us seriously!"  And the league may think that "the show will go on."  But the key perspective to take here is that of the customers - the fans!  To understand the potential implications, let's briefly examine the 1994-95 Major League Baseball strike.

In August of 1994, Major League Baseball (MLB) players went on strike.  This was the eighth work stoppage in baseball history and lasted for 232 Days - from August 12, 1994 to April 2, 1995.  This resulted in the cancellation of nearly 950 games including the entire postseason AND World Series. MLB became the first professional sport to lose its entire postseason as a result of a labor dispute.  In addition the loss of the season cost the league several hundred million dollars; it cost certain teams their best season and opportunity for postseason play; it costs players who were approaching league records and it cost the fans in loss of respect for "America's pastime."  Fans reacted through slogan-bearing t-shirts and other antics.  In Cincinnati, a fan paid for a plane to fly over Riverfront Stadium with a banner reading "Owners & Players:  To hell with all of you!"  Attendance plummeted.  Those who did attend, were more apt to boo than cheer.

In short, the MLB strike of 94-95 cost the league, players and fans dearly and it took many years for baseball to return to prominence.  Clearly, then, the question becomes easy to answer from a fan perspective - No!  The player's should not strike.  When you consider the impact the strike had on MLB, one must seriously question whether Major League Soccer could weather such a storm.  The clear solution is for the players and owners to take a customer-focused approach to resolving their differences in a timely manner - for the good of the game!

The Dayton Dutch Lions are scheduled to host a friendly match with the Columbus Crew in April.  The Dutch Lions open their regular season in May against the Cincinnati Kings.

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