By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Sep 2, 2021) US Soccer Players – The gathering was SoCal casual, held in a breezy warehouse space in Los Angeles’ gritty Fashion District. With raised garage-style doors and courtyards allowing for airflow and social distancing, a DJ played music across from a jersey customization station. There was a regulation-size goal atop a temporary turf surface, underlining that this was about soccer.
It was the kind of hip event that’s become a regular feature of MLS All-Star weeks. Except this time, the host was not the league but the MLS Players Association. There was a long list of past and present players on hand with more to celebrate than just the first such in-person gathering in two years.
The PA was announcing a new agreement with Konami’s eFootball video game. The union licensed the names of its members with “ambassador” roles for 11 of the league’s top stars. The PA’s leaders hope both the partnership and the celebration can represent a bold step forward for the association and its members.
“It was just that tangible, that physical [sign] that you could tell that this is a new phase,” Ty Harden, MLSPA’s Director of Player Relations, told USSoccerPlayers a few days later. “This is the physical showing of what we really built to do in the last five years.”
The Konami deal is the most prominent example from the MLSPA’s alliance with OneTeam Partners. That’s the joint venture launched in 2019 by the unions representing NFL and MLB players and private equity firm RedBird Capital Partners. It has also welcomed their counterparts from the USWNT, WNBA, and the US Rugby Players Association. What it offers is a new pathway to empower top athletes by optimizing their marketing and promotion prospects without having to work through leagues and governing bodies.
“Over the last years with everything that’s gone on, what’s kind of gone unnoticed, somewhat intentionally, is all the work that we’ve done to change the commercial landscape for the players,” explained MLSPA Chief Operating Officer Dan Jones. “There was a construct that existed, really since the beginning, where group player rights were given back to the league and they would be dealt royalty shares back to the PA. That world ended about two years ago. And we’re now in a position today where we not only have the rights, but control all the sales and marketing around them.”
That’s where the OneTeam model is important because it can increase the scale of its member unions. That opens up new revenue streams for players through their PA.
“Our view is when we do well with our commercial programs, the pie grows. It grows for the players, it grows for the PA, and I believe that it grows for the league as well,” said Jones. “This creates new opportunities for guys… it can impact guys at every stage in their career and every level. For some of the higher-profile players, there’s opportunities to be brand ambassadors, to do appearances, to participate in some of the traditional marketing stuff [but] as well for some of the younger players, some of the guys on minimum contracts.”
Having to focus on core duties meant that the soccer public generally only sees or thinks about the MLSPA during collective bargaining negotiations. The Players Association is now showing that it has other stories to tell. Weathering the league’s latest two rounds of salary clawbacks has further underlined the importance of developing the commercial side. In that light, the OneTeam arrangement brings economies of scale across multiple sports. That means direct payments from licensing revenue to players.
“We’ve had a lot of success, in some ways kind of entirely reshaping how this model works, the value equation between leagues and their rights and players and their rights,” said Jones. “Not surprisingly, we think it’s the players that drive a lot of the value, whether it’s video games, trading cards, the league…. And we think it’s not only different, but it’s increasingly shifting in the players’ favor.”
The stingy MLS salary structure has made for some bruising collective bargaining episodes over the decades, most painfully in the form of three distinct phases of tense negotiations since the start of 2020.
“You know what the last two years has looked like for bargaining negotiations,” said Harden, a defender with Chicago, San Jose, Colorado and the LA Galaxy from 2007-15. “And that was front and center in a lot of ways for players. But a lot was happening on the commercial piece as well that we just weren’t able to focus on in the same ways.”
The MLSPA and its partners now have the bandwidth to explore those new opportunities. It should also allow the players to strengthen the solidarity forged by the tribulations of the recent past.
“Over the last few years, with so much bargaining and negotiations happening, the times when we’ve gotten everybody together,” said Harden, “when you have that many people from many different backgrounds, and we’re all moving together in one direction, which is honestly what we’ve seen over the last two years, it’s really powerful.”
More from Charles Boehm:
- 5 questions about the USMNT’s September window
- Major League Soccer’s autumn chill approaches
- Gonzalo Pineda to Atlanta
- Berhalter shows some personality, and so does the USMNT
Graphic courtesy of the MLSPA