As of 2pm today, the footballers of Cork City FC, a club that finished third in the League of Ireland last season, will be unemployed. After a disastrous catalogue of spiralling debts and broken promises, the club is being wound up in the High Court.
With it go the contracts of its players – and the outstanding payments they are owed. Along with the city’s place in the top division of Irish football.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Major League Soccer is on the brink of meltdown. With the season due to resume in less than five weeks, players and league officials are locked in labour negotiations – and strike talk is everywhere.
Player rep Jimmy Conrad of the Kansas City Wizards told ESPN yesterday that he can’t see the season kicking off as scheduled.
“We feel like we’ve made a huge effort to be reasonable, to propose things that are within the confines of the single-entity structure. At this point they’re not even humoring us with something tangible. If things stay where they are, then it’s inevitable that a work stoppage is going to happen.”
The “they” in Jimmy’s beef is the MLS itself. Like most labour wrangles, the players’ dispute has many tentacles. But the nub of the MLS Players Union’s frustrations generally boils down to one factor – the players are owned and contracted by the league itself – and doled out to its various clubs.
The irony of the USA being the great socialists of world sport never goes away. While the best our own football can produce to deliver a level playing field is the occasional bumpy pitch; salary caps, player drafts and central ownership are just some of the egalitarian measures that feature throughout American sport.
And no sport is more socialist than soccer. While the major franchises in the three sports that remain closest to American hearts manage various commercial manoeuvres to cast aside the tiresome shackles of fairness, Major League Soccer would seem, on the face of it at least, to be a competition immersed in equality.
Since the league’s inception in 1996, there have been eight different winners of the MLS Trophy, with only four-time champs DC United making any fist of assembling a dynasty.
The league itself owns at least 51 per cent of all its clubs and holds all broadcasting rights – as well as intellectual property rights and lots of other small print. It also owns all the players, recruiting them, negotiating all salaries and controlling pay levels.
MLS contracts operators to run each club – awarding the management companies a share of gate receipts and other revenues. It’s a model that has proven quite popular with investors, who know from the outset just what they are getting into.
League president Mark Abbott recently announced that operators have committed to inject $60 million into their clubs over five years.
MLS investment is essentially a low-risk roll of the dice. Costs are pretty fixed. Owners don’t have to listen to fans’ demands for wild spending in pursuit of glory and with the league gradually expanding and bedding down a following, there are genuine hopes of a return on investment down the line.
Try selling that line to a potential investor in Cork City.
Of course there are downsides to central contracts and ludicrous examples of players locked in unworkable situations that echo the state of players’ rights in the English league in the early seventies.
The trade system has left several players locked to clubs who no longer really want them. When US international goalkeeper Kevin Hartman couldn’t agree an extended contract with the league and his club Kansas City, the club recruited another goalkeeper to replace him.
However, because clubs hold rights to a player for two years after his contract has expired, even if they aren’t going to resign him, Hartman is in limbo. He cannot sign for another MLS side unless that team trades with Kansas for his services.
How this peculiar brand of slavery isn’t a breach of some kind of labour law beggars belief. Of course the 1995 European Court of Justice “Bosman Ruling” prohibits this type of situation happening in European football.
So the MLSPU certainly appears to have some right on its side. Free agency for out-of-contract players would appear to be a reasonable demand. It’s also true that MLS players aren’t particularly highly-paid.
Taking the Beckhams and Donovans out of the equation, a typical wage for an average MLS player is around $80,000 per season, but many players earn $30,000 or less.
Yet the MLSPU are asking for more than just better conditions, they want to open up the way the league is run and hand clubs – and ultimately players – control of their own financial destinies.
MLSPU Executive Director Bob Foose recently remarked: “MLS has made tremendous strides in its first 14 seasons. We believe it’s now time to take the training wheels off and give MLS clubs the freedom to truly compete against each other and other clubs outside of the league in a manner that is consistent with what occurs everywhere else in the world.”
In other words, give capitalism its chance!
But in a fledging league where clubs still don’t break even despite all the central support, it seems dangerously early to invite sugar daddies to the party unsupervised.
Sure, players might be better off in the short term. Salaries would undoubtedly go up. But in this country, where there are no training wheels and the main wheels are buckled anyway, we’ve seen where mindless spending in search of glory eventually leads.
They might be about to find out across the water as well, if Portsmouth don’t wriggle out of their current difficulties.
Cork City manager Roddy Collins was a little harsh last week when he attempted to cast his players as central villains in the pantomime surrounding the club.
“You don’t take blood out of a stone. To hand out the salaries that were handed out at this club was an absolute disgrace. It was a massive abuse of finances and the players are laughing their way to the bank. Loyalty is paramount to any success, whether it’s a marriage, a family or a football club.”
Blaming players for accepting money offered to them is unfair. But if Cork City went bust as an MLS club, the league would simply replace the franchise and assign the players to the new club.
Perhaps the MLSPU should be careful what they wish for.