Let’s Please, Please, Please Not Screw This Up

One encouraging sign in the ongoing fiasco/soap opera that is the Major League Soccer collective bargaining agreement negotiation process is the fact that both sides have now agreed to bring in a federal mediator.

Another encouraging sign is the fact that tonight, the first competitive match of 2010 will take place as scheduled, even without a new CBA, when the Columbus Crew hosts Toluca in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals. MLS owners have declared that they won’t lock players out under any circumstances this year and are willing to play the 2010 season even without a new agreement, and while the players’ union has not made a similar commitment not to strike, the fact that the preseason and now, international competition continues to go on as scheduled without a new agreement — an almost unprecedented thing in pro sports here — seems to indicate a lack of willingness to strike — for now.

The problem is that, unlike many labor/management conflicts, in this case both sides have really, really good points that are largely incompatible with one another. From the ownership standpoint, it probably is the strict adherence to the MLS single-entity model that has allowed the league to survive, expand and prevent an NASL-style flame-out over the last 15 years. And the owners do have a very strong case that this still is a very young league that isn’t yet on firm financial footing, so the single-entity system must be continued for now.

From the players’ standpoint, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the lack of free agency the single-entity model creates just isn’t right. No other professional sports leagues in the US and Canada do this, nor do the other soccer leagues globally. It is ridiculous that if a player is signed by one team, because his contract is technically owned by the league, if he gets cut from that team, he has to hope the team that cuts him is able to work out a trade with another team in the league that wants him in order to keep working, because he is not allowed to sign with another team as a free agent after being cut.

But, that’s part and parcel of the single entity model. Trying to work out a compromise between these two positions is something akin to squaring a circle, and I don’t envy the negotiators nor the mediator one bit.

But they must get it done somehow. A work stoppage now would not only likely halt all the momentum the sport is building here (MLS has now leapfrogged the NBA and the NHL in average per-game attendance, TV revenues are up and TV exposure of soccer in general is way up, the U.S. men’s national team is actually starting to get taken seriously by the rest of the world, etc.), it would likely lead to the destruction of top-level pro soccer here for another generation. AGAIN. Which, I think, is why both sides have so far been so unwilling to engage in posturing and brinksmanship and will hopefully remain unwilling to do so.

Which brings me to why I’m writing all of this. I’m from the Philadelphia sports market. I was born in 1977. Philadelphia hasn’t had a top-level men’s soccer team since 1979, when the Philadelphia Fury of the NASL pulled up stakes and moved Montreal after the season concluded. The NASL itself went belly-up in 1984. I was too young to remember any of this. By the time Major League Soccer began its first season in 1996, I was in college. We got an all-too-brief taste of pro soccer here on the women’s side from 2001 to 2003, when the Charge played in the absurdly mismanaged WUSA.

Now it’s 2010. Philadelphia is finally about to get both women’s and men’s teams again. I’ve actually already bought my ticket for the first-ever WPS game for the Philadelphia Independence April 11. I’ve made arrangements to be able to go to the first home game for the MLS Philadelphia Union April 10, but I haven’t taken the plunge and purchased a seat for that one yet, no matter how much I’ve wanted to, and no matter of the fact that I’ve been looking forward to that hypothetical day for years.

I’m holding off. As a stay-at-home-parent raising two kids in a family with one income, I am absolutely not willing to blow money on a ticket for a game that may or may not end up happening. And, I’m sure I can’t be the only one in the Philadelphia area who’s been hesitant to do so, either. Actually, I’m pretty sure that I speak for a lot of soccer fans around here who have been waiting years for this moment when I say that if it is snatched away right at the start like this, it will be unforgivable.

So, for now I continue to wait to see if a new collective bargaining agreement gets signed between now and the start of the MLS season March 25, or if one doesn’t get implemented, whether or not the players decide to go ahead with the season anyway. Hopefully, there will still be some tickets available at the Linc by that point.

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One Response to “Let’s Please, Please, Please Not Screw This Up”

  1. Let's Please, Please, Please Not Screw This Up « A Tale Told by an … | Philadelphia Union MLS Announcer Says:

    […] See the article here: Let's Please, Please, Please Not Screw This Up « A Tale Told by an … […]

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