LOS ANGELES -- In the rhetorical battle heading into the great Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiation of 2008-2009, MLS Commissioner Don Garber has his side down pat: focus on the economy.
No heavyhanded tactics were placed on the table. No hard lines were taken. But the message of economic concerns – and with it the implicit impact on the impending CBA negotiations – permeated throughout everything Garber discussed during his annual state of the league press conference on Friday afternoon.
Montreal's withdrawn expansion bid apparently fell to the worsening market realities, though one wonders how much the Saputo's persistent reluctance to meet the $40 million price tag had to do with it rather than any local financial hurdles to possible stadium improvements. Garber also expressed worries about how corporate America would react to the downturn and how the economic shifts would impact advertising revenues.
The league and its teams are already feeling the pinch by cutting personnel and spending, Garber said.
“We're trying to run leaner and meaner,” Garber said.
Those words should strike directly into the heart of a Players Union that wants more benefits for its players and more money at the top and bottom ends of the pay scale once the CBA expires at the end of 2009.
That money certainly won't arrive in 2009 even with revamped rosters. The reserve league will disappear and take most of the league's developmental slots with it. Cutting out the reserve league will allow teams to save money on developing players that for the most part simply weren't developing into players first-team coaches could use. Senior rosters will expand to a maximum of 20 players, with four additional players comprising the full roster, to allow teams more flexibility.
Garber took careful pains to say that the money to fund those extra senior roster players would come from a “reallocation of funds,” not from a direct increase to the salary budget. Nor will there be any changes to the Designated Player rule ahead of the 2009 campaign.
“Certainly to make any real changes while you're in the midst of a collective bargaining agreement doesn't make any sense,” Garber said. “We wouldn't do it.”
While the league needs the additional quality brought by raising the salary cap with expansion diluting the player pool, a salary budget increase in 2009 wouldn't fit into the thematic goal of the troubled economic times.
Not coincidentally, those economic concerns will aid the league's bargaining position when CBA talks get serious next year.
Preliminary discussions have taken place already, Garber said, but no real headway has been made.
“We have spent time talking about it at the board level,” Garber said. “We have also spent time – very productively – with our players union. They are actively involved about trying to put forth a deal towards our ownership that will be well thought out and one that we can start negotiating upon”
On this evidence, the players' union
will have significant work ahead to order to figure out how to
present its case and contradict the worsening economic picture Garber
How the union manages to combat Garber's message may indicate how successful the players will be in winning some of the reforms they so desperately seek.
Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and blogs frequently during the week for Goal.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.