By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Apr 27, 2017) US Soccer Players – It’s become something of a biannual holiday among hardcore fans and other MLS observers, and it arrived this week: The MLS Players Union’s public release of its members’ salary information.
“The salary drop,” as it’s informally dubbed, spawns a litany of chatter and media content. We see pieces containing various combinations of phrases like “most overpaid,” “best values,” and the biggest “steals” in one direction or another. Though it’s the players’ choice to release this info, it inevitably leads to some awkwardness in one form or another. That includes some not-so-flattering exposure for those perceived to be falling short in performances vs wages.
So how did we get here? Why does this happen in the first place? MLSPU executive director Bob Foose was kind enough to chat with me about the salary drop and related topics this week. The following is a selection of highlights from that conversation.
Let’s start from the beginning – why does MLSPU release salary information and how did the decision come about?
Our players and our players’ agents need full salary transparency in order to put themselves in the best position to negotiate their individual contracts. From my perspective, that is a universal truth in any and all labor situations. It was the first thing we did, literally, when we formed the union [in 2003]. Up to that point, believe it or not, MLS contracts had a confidentiality provision that purported to prohibit employees from sharing their salary [info].
We have a right, under labor law, to all those contracts. So the first thing we did was make sure that every player had access to everybody’s salary numbers, which was absolutely essential to know what they need to know to negotiate their own deals. In the early days we distributed a release to what looks similar to what we now publish to players and to agents, and what we found happening over a multi-year period was chunks of the release were getting published here and there on sort of a piecemeal basis. Local beat writers would publish the numbers for their club in some places, not in others. The end result was, most of the information was getting out but not all of it.
So the rationale on our side was, if this is going to get out there anyway, why not just release it all, so that we know that what’s out there is accurate? So we voted that and we voted it since then as well. As all of our major decisions, it’s entirely player-driven. And it’s not a set schedule that we voted, but frankly we would vote it any time we wanted to. I don’t know if this is 100 percent accurate but I don’t recall anyone ever objecting. It’s uncomfortable, we certainly understand that. But it serves a very, very important purpose. The biggest challenge, I think, is it’s not the way things are done in Europe, therefore guys coming from Europe are somewhat struck by it.
Secrecy seems to be a recurring theme throughout MLS history. Do you feel that you’re battling to open as many doors and windows as possible?
Certainly we are big believers in transparency across the board, and I think that’s been an ongoing challenge for the league. Things have gotten better on that front, but from our perspective there’s still a long way to go.
We occasionally see members of the media and others express doubts about the accuracy of the salary numbers. What do you say to those who question them?
I think we’re pretty clear in detailing how we get the numbers and what we release. This has no correlation to [team salary] budgets and the budget calculation, which is public in the CBA [collective bargaining agreement]. That’s a completely different construct. Base salary is very, very simple and straightforward, and then our guaranteed compensation number, it’s not a ‘real number’ because it’s a construct to provide players and agents with as good a sense as we can of what a guy really makes.
The reason it’s not a ‘real number’ is because we spread non-base-salary guaranteed payments over the course of the number of years of the deal. And the reason we do that is, if you had a deal that was three years at $300[,000] a year but had a $250,000 signing bonus up front, if we were to publish that as 550, 300, 300, we feel like that’s kind of misleading in all three years, as to what the player’s actually making, for purposes of negotiation. So we take that 250 and we divide it over the three years and we publish the guaranteed top number, in that case, as $383,333 for the three years. The numbers we publish are 100 accurate and transparent – we’re not infallible, so I’m sure we’ve made a mistake here or there, although we correct them as soon as we know there was a mistake.
They are what is contained in the player’s MLS contract, in any marketing agreement he’s got with the league, period. Those numbers are what’s in those contracts. There are issues – clearly – where there is other compensation, and the only situation in which that wouldn’t be in our numbers is if we don’t have it. So I know there are situations in transfers sometimes where when a player is purchased and a transfer fee is paid for the player, that player may be entitled from his prior contract to a portion of that transfer fee from his prior club. We don’t have access to that so we can’t publish it. And then the second piece – which, who knows? – is the extent anybody is making a payment to a player off the books. It’s not something we know about, so it’s not something we can disclose. I’m not naive enough to think that doesn’t happen, but I think it happens a whole lot less than people might think that it does.
We’re not attempting to publish the full details of the contract. We provide far more information to players and to agents so they see a full picture of the deal, but there’s no real reason for us to do that publicly – and at some point we may revisit whether we do [release any numbers] publicly. But at this point I think we’d have a mutiny on our hands from everyone out there who likes to see them.
The hot MLS acronym of the moment is TAM [Targeted Allocation Money]. Has that new spending initiative changed the picture for MLSPU or the salary release?
It’s unfortunate, I think there’s massive misperception of what TAM is and what TAM isn’t. Same thing with Designated Players. The reality is, it’s just money. It’s not functionally different from general allocation, and whether a player is a DP or a TAM player or neither is a random decision made by a club. In other words, the same player on the exact same salary can be a DP, can be a TAM player or could be neither. It’s all just salary budget space.
It has been laid out in a totally unnecessarily complex fashion, and confused people for years, which is unfortunate because I don’t think it serves a whole lot of purpose. TAM is the mechanism through which the league has chosen to ramp up compensation. All player compensation, from our perspective, is positive. We feel very strongly that there are restrictions and complexities to the way this system operates that don’t yield any results whatsoever – they’re just complexity for the sake of complexity.
From our perspective, we are well past the point where teams should just be allowed to spend what they’re going to be allowed to spend. They know far better than anyone else how to spend it. Doesn’t mean they won’t make mistakes, but they know far better than anybody else how the money should be spent. So this notion of effective centralized planning is very much a false premise. It’s just not. It’s not even real. Teams spend the money on who they’re going to spend the money on, without regard to these various mechanisms.
The mechanisms require them to jump through some hoops here and there, to do things a little differently here and there, but they have virtually no impact – or maybe a very small, marginal percentage – on the decisions that are ultimately made. … Had all this money just been put into salary budget, I think we’d be looking at a remarkably similar array of salaries and players.
Spending on salaries has gone up, but some perceive TAM and other such things to be an end run around the CBA. Can you give us a sense of what the temperature is like among your members as we count down towards the next round of CBA talks? (The current MLS CBA runs through the 2019 season.)
There’s no question, things have gotten better, continue to get better and we expect that trend to continue in the future. Player compensation is up across the full roster at every level, and that’s a good thing. Now we certainly have some strong opinions on various issues and will be bargaining over them, as you said, before we know it. But the news is positive and the trends are positive and salaries are moving in the right direction and we expect that will continue.
And it has to continue – salaries in all of the leagues that we’re chasing around the world are going up. So standing still for us means falling behind. That’s not really an option unless the ownership decides that they’re going to sort of give up on MLS continuing to improve, and I don’t see any indication amongst the owners that that’s what they intend to do. I think everyone’s intention is for us to – in some number of time – be among the best leagues in the world and I fully expect that to happen.
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