Brek Shea, and a dirty word

I wouldn't say this is how money flows in MLS, but it totally is.

I wouldn’t say this is how the money flows in MLS, but it totally is.

Contributing writer Shane Nicholson is back to blow the cover off the MLS monopoly…

There’s a “C-word” that keeps coming to mind when I think of the men in charge of MLS.

Not that one. I’d just call them cunts if that what I was thinking.

No, the word is “collusion,” and it’s not one that owners and league commissioners like to hear tossed about.

We’re all familiar with how MLS handles its negotiations with its players. In a nutshell, MLS is like one club on the global landscape with 19 retail outlets to sell its product, and all the employees are bound to HQ. It’s not a league in any sense as the rest of the world knows it.

Enter Brek Shea.

Brek fancied getting out of the dead end that is MLS, and even flew over to visit Premier League side Stoke City for a one-week trial to show off his goods. Tony Pulis was pleased, a bid was made, and his club accepted; yet Brek Shea will remain in MLS for the foreseeable future because, as Don Garber has made clear before, when it comes to being a professional footballer and “club” in the MLS cabal, “It’s not just what the player wants and what the club might want.”

Nope, you see, in MLS the term “club” has no meaning in the traditional sense. You are beholden to the league office first and foremost. And you, the player — the product — you’re nothing more than a commodity to be pinged around at Garber and Gulati’s will.

Professional baseball existed in this country for over a century with a contract system commonly referred to as the “reserve clause,” which essentially bound a player to his team indefinitely. Players were given rolling one-year contracts and had no right to negotiate with any other club unless they were given their outright release. If they failed to sign a contract, the club could then unilaterally impose a new one for the next season.

Up stepped union leader/sparkling genius Marvin Miller and a willful participant in four-time All-Star Andy Messersmith (soon joined by an on-his-way-out-the-door Dave McNally) to say, “Wait a second, this isn’t going to do.” They filed a grievance and they won.

The Seitz decision brought an end to the stronghold owners had over players, effectively halting 100 years of collusion among the owners that kept salaries down and players under their collective whip. Seitz ushered in free agency in American sports, giving players that little bit of self-determination that would eventually pave the way to multi-million dollar endorsement contracts. Professional athletes became professional. The owners got pissed.

MLB owners tried to get their revenge with a series of collusion efforts throughout the 1980s. All were thwarted. They were meant to pay for them, but instead decided to expand the league and use the expansion fees to pay their settlement. They went for it again in 2002 and ended up dropping $12 million out of their shared revenues to the players. Once the wall came down – no matter how hard they tried – it could not be rebuilt.

MLS institutes a perhaps even more draconian model, all in the name of “long-term goals and objectives” as the commish so eloquently put it. You can sum those goals and objectives up pretty quickly: more money in the hands of the owners; less power to the individual players.

The league still operates under the assumption that it and its retail outlets — the 19 teams — are the product, not the players. This is simply not the case, and an inferior product does not sell. People want to see good football and that means paying good money to good players and developing a good league model that is functional and sustainable over a long period of time – and not just for the owners and their snake oil salesman of a commissioner.

I’m sure government handouts for stadiums and paying salaries on par with tiny eastern European nations is working out great for them right now, but for a man so concerned with the “long term” aspirations of football in the States Garber seems completely unaware of the coming pitfalls, even though he’s the guy with shovel-in-hand digging the pits.

Eventually there will be a Messersmith or a Bosman in MLS. It’s only a matter of time. And this, along with an empowered fanbase as I discussed prior, will be one of the major stepping stones to promotion and relegation in the US. More levels of football competing with a shared talent pool means more jobs for players and higher salaries across the board. Competition in terms of the league setup breeds competition in terms of the pay scale, which at the moment MLS is doing everything in its power to keep down. As “The Soccer Don” said, thinking about the long-term implications of player power is “what leagues are charged to do.” This is collusion, whether anyone wants to say it or not.

The players know this, their agents know this, their union knows this, and the owners are surely aware of what it could mean for their cosy setup. All it’s going to take is one player, a sharp legal mind behind him, and an arbitrator who understands precedent.

Maybe that rebellious little cunt stuck down in Dallas is just the guy to do it.

Contributing writer Shane Nicholson is the founder and Executive Editor of – He drinks a lot, has a beard, and lives in Rockford. You can find him on Twitter at @ofvoid

17 thoughts on “Brek Shea, and a dirty word

  1. This is all the truth, but…wanting a good product in these days means spending A LOT of money on players. Money that most teams in the MLS don’t have, and the few that do have any sort of money can make risky moves and the league needs to make sure that they don’t go bankrupt (like numerous recent clubs or the NASL back in the day). The clubs need to have stable finances so the league survives, but we want a better product on the field, so how does this come about without falling off the cliff?

    If I’m generalizing, I’m pro-union and collusion should be done away with. but part of the reason the league runs everything is so clubs don’t fuck up their finances and everybody can survive. If collusion is done away with, something else needs to happen in order to ensure that the clubs, players, and agents dont shit on everything and we end up with another NASL and I’m wearing historic Chicago Fire shirts instead of Chicago Sting shirts in 20 years time.

    Funny this article came up right now as well because “The Don” is cock-blocking Agudelo’s move to Celtic right now. Saying that he wants all the young players to stay in MLS forever.

    • I wonder, why do most of us assume MLS clubs’ finances aren’t stable? This, perhaps, is a trope they continue to take advantage of in order to justify their oligopolistic and monopolistic business practices.

      In the case of Chicago Fire, a team who plays in a stadium they don’t own, and doesn’t shell out big DP money, I tend to think that their coffers are well-stocked. In fact, I’d be willing to bet most other teams’ are as well.

      Sure, the TV revenue isn’t there yet, but MLS attendance, sponsorship, and licensed merchandise purchases have trended upward for a few years now. Combine that with (most) clubs’ frugality, and again, I’d be willing to bet that MLS and its franchises’ finances are quite healthy.

      • Based solely on ticket sales, I would offer up New England Revolution, New York Red Bulls, FC Dallas, DC United, Columbus Crew, and Chivas USA, all of whom ran at 75% or lower of stadium capacity for tickets sold in 2012.

        When ticket sales is a main revenue catalyst, I’d say running 65-75% of capacity puts you in a precarious financial situation.

      • @Jeff – I see what you’re saying and it’s hard to tell how these teams are all doing balance sheet-wise. They can’t be trusted (and neither can the league) when it comes to reporting.

        That said, citing New England and DC aren’t helpful as they are in poor situations with regards to their stadiums. New England’s situation could improve with some more backing by their ownership. DC’s will be changing in the foreseeable future.

        Also citing New York and Chivas isn’t helpful as they are a club that is subsidized by a benefactor; NYRB are basically a part of the advertising budget for Red Bull and Chivas USA is just an offshoot/colony of Chivas Guadalajara.

        Columbus would be doing far better if they had a more exciting team and if they had sold the naming rights to the stadium when they built the thing. Not getting a few million for the stadium’s name was a major financial mistake.

        That leaves FC Dallas as a team that has financial problems without a relatively straightforward solution. Any FC Dallas fans out there that could help would be appreciated.

  2. The players have challenged the MLS before with this allegation of collusion and lost. The clubs are operated as franchises in a region where they are the only game in town. Clubs cannot collude with the league as they are legally one and the same. And until there is pressure on the MLS from other domestic leagues like NASL or USL things will not change in this respect. Right or wrong, Players will simply have to go elsewhere to get the big money while the league continues with its current structure. Either that or they start lobbying now for a greatly altered DP rule.

    • Let’s not forget as well that both FIFA and UEFA are trying to implement financial fair play rules to curb the excesses in the European game. Unbridled spending is not the solution to a successful league in the long run.

      • @Mark – I totally agree with the spending point, but I don’t see how it can credibly be stopped. I don’t want collusion amongst owners, but a salary cap looks a lot like collusion to me. The same holds true for quotas on origins of players. Other American companies don’t have rules with regards to how many foreigners can work for them – if they get the visa, then they can work.
        These clubs are all businesses and should have to play by the rules we have created for businesses (privately or publicly owned). There aren’t any MLS clubs with the member-owned structure like Bayern Munich or Barcelona, so they should be able to spend as they like. Irresponsible and foolish MLS owners would be punished like every other irresponsible and foolish business owner.
        Basically, I’m not sure how to get to the solution we both like without playing outside the rules/laws of modern business.

        • As I mentioned in my original comment, MLS operates on what is essentially a franchise set up and within that structure there legally cannot be collusion between clubs and the league. The players challenged that in court and lost. Now whether thi league structure is good for the game in North America in the long run is difficult to say. I believe that once the league is more of a competitive force globally there will be pressure on MLS to change its structure but I don’t see that happening for awhile.

      • Said I wouldn’t get involved in the comments but I just saw Mark’s last here. 😀

        Obviously the MLB structure is that of a “franchise” system, and has stronger anti-trust measures in its corner than MLS could ever dream of. They’ve lost many a collusion hearing, in fact every single one they’ve faced since free-agency came into play. The problem for the MLS players is a weak union lacking any sort of leadership.

        • MLB is exempt from anti-trust Laws in the United States. As for the MLS, stronger union or not, they have already challenged the MLS in court for collusion and lost because of the way the MLS is set up as a true owner/franchise system. Until that changes they have no basis in law to challenge the MLS for collusion.

    • That was my point though, Mark. MLB’s legal position is far stronger than MLS’s and they have lost time and again. The looser the grip the league office has, more individual owners, more power of choice for the clubs, the more likely it ultimately becomes they will lose an arbitration hearing on this. Hell, it may take a rebel owner coming along as well and saying, “These cunts are keeping me from making $X on $Y.”

      Anyway, their day will come, and I’ll laugh and I’ll laugh.

  3. Say most teams finances are stable, how can those clubs keep themselves in the black while competing in the open market so we can view a better product?

    This league is less than twenty years old. At no time in the near future is this league gonna be one of the top leagues in the world and clubs will have the means to spend absurd amounts of money.. That journey will be a long and arduous one.

    • They could spend money developing great players, forging a connection with their communities and making the gameday experience a fantastic one. People go to games in Turkey, Egypt, Scotland, etc. and they’re not seeing the best product. Millions of Americans attendcollege football and basketball and they are a completely inferior product to the pros. People aren’t interested in only watching the “best” whatever. They just want to be entertained and to come together with the “neighbor” to support something. No need to spend a ton in the short term while building for the long.

  4. Maybe someone can enlighten me, but did this collusion exist during the dark age beginnings of the EPL, La Liga or Serie A and their respective pyramids? I understand and fully support players’ power over club and league power, and I agree can’t come to fruition soon enough. But for that to happen, Scott R’s points are very valid. The MLS needs some policies that sure they stay afloat before they go the way of the rest of the world, instead of the old NASL.

  5. Pingback: Soccer News: More on USL/MLS, Klinsmann 24/7

  6. Pingback: Dear MLS/USMNT Writer Guy: The Brek Shea “redemption” story? Don’t write it. | On The Fire

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