Saturday, December 26, 2009

Major League Soccer's actions may provide a clue to the likelihood of a 2011 NFL lockout

By Evan Weiner

December 26, 2009

For those who follow the National Football League, here is a suggestion. Take a good, hard look at what could happen with Major League Soccer players in February because what the MLS owners, which include the New England Patriots’ Kraft family, the Kansas City Chiefs Hunt family, Seattle Seahawks owner Paul Allen, could lockout their players around February 1.

At least that is the opinion of one of Allen’s employees, Seattle Sounders goalkeeper Kasey Keller.

Keller has outlined some of the sticking points between the two sides and it sounds a lot like any other management-players association dispute centering on free agency, guaranteed contracts and money. The players want a bigger share of the revenues and the owners want to keep as much of the revenues that are generated.

Major League Soccer is not the National Football League, but collective bargaining agreements end in the NFL and the National Basketball Association in 2011. The National Hockey League might also have a contract negotiation in 2011 if the owners or players decide to pull out of their present collective bargaining agreement a year early and Major League Baseball’s collective bargaining agreement is done in 2012.

If you take a close look at the money behind the MLS, you begin to see that the same people who are behind the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB run the MLS. In 2004, the National Hockey League ownership group decided to play hardball with the players association and locked out the players in September of that year and shut down the league for a year.

Bettman is thought to be the father of the National Basketball Association’s salary cap that was implemented in 1984.

The NHL owners wanted cost containment and a salary cap. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman gave the owners exactly want they wanted. One of Bettman’s owners in 2004 was Phil Anschutz of the Los Angeles Kings. Anschutz is still the power behind Major League Soccer with ownership of the Los Angeles Galaxy and the Houston Dynamo. At one time, Anschutz owned six MLS teams, if Phil Anschutz wants to lock out the players; chances are good that the MLS will not be preparing for the 2010 season in February.

The NHL labor action of 2004-05 had a profound affect on other sports. The National Basketball Association Commissioner David Stern, who had been Bettman’s NBA boss between 1984 and 1993, kept a close eye on the NHL negotiations and certainly had a lot of leverage in his negotiations with NBA players. Stern could always point to the NHL players and tell NBA players look we can do the same to you.

There was a quick agreement between the NBA owners and players in 2005 and Major League Baseball, whose interim commissioner Bud Selig in 1994 when the baseball players went on strike was emotional at a news conference when the baseball playoffs and World Series were about to go down the drain in saying he heard from a hockey owner, presumably Chicago’s Bill Wirtz, that the baseball owners needed to hang in and not cave into the players.

Whether people or fans want to believe this or not, Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League are tied at the hip through overlapping ownership of not only teams (Texas Rangers-Dallas Stars Tom Hicks, the New York Knicks- Rangers Cablevision/Dolan Family, the Philadelphia Flyers and 76ers, Comcast, Chicago White Sox-Bulls, Jerry Reinsdorf. The Toronto Maple Leafs-Raptors-Toronto FC/MLS, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment to just name a few), there are overlapping ownership of regional cable TV networks as well (Reinsdorf, the Wirtz and the Chicago Cubs each have a piece of the Chicago regional network, the New York Yankees and the New Jersey Nets have an agreement with the YES Network, the Boston Red Sox group owns 80 percent of the New England Sports Network with the other 20 percent in the hands of the Boston Bruins group just to name a few).

The MLS has ties to the NHL (Anschutz, the Maple Leafs, St. Louis’ Dave Checketts, Colorado’s Kroenke Sports Enterprises), the NBA (Kroenke), Major League Baseball (Oakland’s Lewis Wolff, San Francisco’s William H. C. Chang) so this is not a minor league even though the MLS is not recognized as one of the top soccer leagues in the world. In fact, it is probably more of a minor league based on talent and the league has problems attracting major talent because of the salary cap.

The exception being Anschutz’s signing of David Beckham. But it is Anschutz’s league, he can write the rules if he so chooses.

The MLS is in a bit of a bind. Will American football fans notice if the league doesn’t operate in 2010 with the World Cup taking place? The World Cup supersedes the English Premiership and all the other more prominent leagues globally and people cheer for their home country. The World Cup qualifier in 1969 set off a four-day war between El Salvador and Honduras. Earlier this year,
Egypt and Algeria nearly had an international incident after reports that Algerian fans attacked Egyptian partisans after Algeria beat Egypt in a qualifier in Khartoum, Sudan that escalated into a rowdy protest by Egyptian partisans at the Algerian Embassy in Cairo that ended with 20 arrests, dozens of Egyptian police suffering injuries and 15 cars damaged.

There is not that sort of passion for football in the United States or Canada.

Of course the same thing was said about the National Hockey League in 2004 and 2005, did fans really miss the NHL? The truth is that owners don’t want fans, they want customers who don’t mind paying top dollar or loonie to attend games, corporations bought tickets then as an inducement for business and since the regional sports cable TV networks are owned by teams or people like Rupert Murdoch (who is heavily involved in funding Major League Baseball, the NFL and teams in both the NHL and NBA), there was no pressure from the regionals to settle the dispute.

To this date, no cable subscriber in the United States has been reimbursed for missed games from the 1994 NHL lockout or the 2004-05 lockout, nor has more been returned from the 1998-99 NBA lockout or the various Major League Baseball work stoppages.

The corporate ticket buyers along with marketing partners returned to the NHL. The MLS has major TV partners, major sponsors and is building a corporate base and has been successful in getting municipalities to fund new stadiums around North America. More than likely, any potential lockout will blow over but you won’t see the baseball-like diehards screaming they will never attend a game again because of greedy players.

It is still too early in the negotiating game to say there will be or will not be an MLS lockout. But owners like Kraft, Hunt and Allen (presuming his health problems will allow him to monitor the situation, Allen is a minority owner of the Sounders) could tip their collective hand in the National Football League's bargaining by backing a MLS lockout. The MLS might be an after thought to most of the remaining American newspapers sports editors and to American sports talk radio, but it is the rabbit in the race, the MLS will set the pace in what might be a very tumultuous few years in sports starting in February.

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