#360USA: MLS need free player movement and American tennis is in a State

Steve Brenner 10:39 09/03/2015
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Players and management were locked in a contact dispute that threatened the start of the MLS.

There was a point last week when Major League Soccer’s celebratory 20th season was in serious danger of becoming one of the worst parties of all time.

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Instead of everyone looking forward to what promises to be, and is being billed as, the biggest campaign since the League’s inception in 1994, the players and top brass were locked in discussions which lurched from fraught to edgy in a blink of an eye.

On Tuesday, the MLSPU (Major League Soccer Players Union) voted 18-1 to strike. Disaster loomed. Differences were ultimately ironed out, thanks in no part to a Federal mediator. But the 50 players involved in intense, wall-to-wall meetings weren’t skipping away from Washington DC in delight.

American sport, not just soccer, is besieged by a series of convoluted guidelines which all contribute to running the competition like a cartel. Club owners invest in one company – MLS – which owns all contracts. Everyone enjoys a slice of the pie.

And it was the desperation of commissioner Don Garber and his cohorts to ensure his fellow businessmen are not bidding against themselves and, in the process, pushing decreed salaries above market value that the season was almost stopped before it began over the weekend.

Garber proudly declares that all 20 teams are in with a shout of dethroning LA Galaxy as champions. Yes, parity is important. But when the quality of the product suffers in the process, it makes one wonder what’s best for those involved.

The players were threatening to strike for two main reasons: they wanted a free agency system installed so at the end of a contract, there was freedom of movement, a la the rest of the world following the Bosman ruling.

Secondly, an embarrassing minimum wage of $36,000 – a sum which compared to NFL wages look even worse – needed to be increased. Sixty one of the league’s 572 players (11 per cent) made the minimum last season while 219 (38 per cent) made $60,000 or less.

From now on the worst paid will receive $60,000. If your name is Kaka, Steven Gerrard or Michael Bradley, you’ve got no worries.

However, a journeyman player or a rookie with zero market value abroad is besieged with problems. A career is short. Players rightly attempt to maximise their chances to earn while they can.

Designated players such as (l-r) Villa, Kaka, Gerrard and Lampard are exempt from the MLS salary cap.

In the Land of the Free though, that opportunity in soccer (NFL, baseball, NBA all have free agency) is taken away. During the last round of Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) talks in 2009, a re-draft policy was introduced.

Out of contract? Fine. Want to go wherever you want? Forget about it. MLS will tell you where to go.

Garber has seen the astronomical money, and problems caused by massive spending in the Premier League and didn’t like it. He prides himself on his product being run well within its means.

He insists, despite gleefully seeing expansion fees rocket from $7.5 million to the $100 million spent by NYCFC, they are still losing $100 million – something which is seen by some as convenient financing on the commissioner’s part.

Three weeks of talks lurched deep into Wednesday night before, finally, a resolution was struck. Neither side got what they wanted. Yet a highly placed source told Sport360º the simple fact players were able to negotiate in the first place was a huge step forward.

Their dream of a complete free agency though was dashed. Under new guidelines, those over the age of 28 and with eight years experience will be allowed to negotiate with anyone.

It remains restrictive; only over 12 per cent fall into that category. It also risks scaring players away from chancing their arm in America. It doesn’t do up-and-coming stars any favours either.

The blow was softened with an increase in the salary cap: Wage budgets will go up seven per cent every year until the next CBA talks in 2019. Players who are making less than $100,000 will be limited to a 25 per cent raise, players making between $100,000-$200,000 limited to a 20 per cent hike, while those making more than $200,000 can’t exceed a 15 per cent boost.

Those who seriously impress won’t be restricted by any caps at all. The message is clear: Do well, represent the League, help it – and the US team – grow and you’ll be rewarded. Just don’t expect to have everything your way.

In these uncertain financial times, Garber is correct to exu-de caution, especially in such a saturated North American sporting market. But if MLS wants to achieve its dream of becoming an elite league by 2022, its vice like grip over movement needs to be relaxed further.

Tennis

Watching the dramatic defeat of John Isner to world No111 James Ward in the Davis Cup was enough to make the most ardent US tennis fan fearful of the future.

Yet, you would struggle to even know the catastrophic defeat happened in the first place, such was the absence of any coverage in the US.

A few lines here and there illustrates the apathy and lack of quality which is holding the men’s game in America back from the mainstream.

Where the next Jimmy Connors or Andre Agassi are coming from is the million dollar question no one has the answer to.

NCAA

You would think that any college sports team would strive to operate as paragons of virtue, with the players training and studying in a scholarly environment.

Yet once again, a disgraceful flouncing of rules has landed one of the most experienced and revered coaches hanging his head in pure shame.

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, who has been in charge for the last 39 seasons, was suspended on Friday for nine games next year while having 108 wins scrubbed off his sparkling record.

He was found to have given extra benefits to players, refusing to follow drug policy and sending emails from student’s accounts to teachers in a pathetic effort to keep them eligible.

The school will also lose three scholarships for the next four academic years ensuring it’s not just Boeheim who was affected, which makes it even more distasteful.

NFL

Seattle Seahawks fans were celebrating and breathing huge sighs of relief after hearing star running back Marshawn Lynch was going to stay and try to eradicate the nightmare of the last Super Bowl finish by winning the title next season.

Yet without doubt, the happiest of the lot must have been agent Doug Hendrickson who surely would have pocketed a nice tidy sum for constructing a deal which sees the 29 year-old earn $12 million next year while doubling his money in 2016 and 2017.

Originally he was pencilled in for a mere $7 million a year. And then came Hendrickson.

Every player needs a negotiator like him on their side.

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