Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Repercussions of an MLS Lockout

By Stefen Lovelace

2010 should be the year for soccer in the United States.

The World Cup will begin this summer in South Africa, which always brings American viewers interest to a peak. The current US team is already gaining tremendous support, thanks to great play in qualifying leading up to the Cup, and our best players (Landon Donovan, Tim Howard, Jozy Altitore) all playing against the best in the world overseas.

Soccer’s always had a hard time gaining mainstream exposure in the US. One reason is that our professional soccer league, the MLS, has always been looked at as inferior when compared to the top leagues in Europe. Still, with soccer on the mind of most Americans, the MLS could have hoped to see a boost in popularity based on the overall hype of the upcoming World Cup.

It looks like the MLS may actually be going in the opposite direction. It was reported today by USA Today that the MLS is in very real danger of having to lockout its upcoming season.

The league's first collective bargaining agreement expired Thursday after the sides twice extended the five-year deal, which originally was to have run out Jan. 31.

The MLS Players Union failed to match league management's no-lockout pledge with a no-strike offer, leaving the start of the season on March 25 in doubt.

The owners - seeing the importance of getting a product on the field during a year where soccer will be on the front of sports pages around the world - have agreed not to lock out the players. The players though, have not agreed to not strike if the owners don’t make concessions.

In this case, the player’s have a legitimate gripe. The MLS tries to market itself has a major league composed of the best talent the United States has to offer. Yet, according to a SportsBusiness Daily story last week, some of the players make less than $30,000. That’s a laughable amount for a professional athlete.

The timing of this argument couldn’t be worse. The MLS will probably never have the popularity of the NFL or NBA in this country (or even the NHL for that matter). But it can certainly fill a niche, and utilizing the exposure of the World Cup to bring attention to the league is an absolute must if the MLS hopes to survive.

The owners and the players need to come up with some resolution, and quickly. If they want their league to hold a torch to the big guys, the owners have to open up their checkbooks a bit. And the player’s need to realize that they’ll never command the salaries of their counterparts in the other sports leagues and accept it.

Time is running out for both sides too, as the league opener is a mere three weeks away.

The Philadelphia Union plays at Seattle in the MLS opener on March 25 and [Major League Soccer commissioner Don] Garber acknowledges that talks could go on until then.

"It's conceivable, but my expectation is not to be negotiating an agreement an hour before kickoff," Garber said. "I would describe these as big-league problems. Years ago we had nothing to fight about, so we didn't have labor issues.

"Now that the league is growing and there is a bit more at stake, the players want to see improvement in their salaries and their working conditions. And we need to understand, we need to listen and take their issues into consideration."

It’s good to see that Garber realizes how important it is to get this issue fixed as soon as possible. Time will tell if the rest of the MLS see that importance before its too late.

Stefen Lovelace is an Associate Account Executive. You can contact him at stefen@maroonpr.com.

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