It's official: To be a major sports league you must have a knockdown, drag-out labor dispute.
In just the span of 10 hours last week, the Arena Football League and Major League Soccer each moved their disputes to higher levels that will determine their long-term existence. In the process, both leagues started to look a lot more like the four major U.S. sports leagues.
On Thursday night, Arena Football owners voted to cancel the 2000 season after the players association ignored league threats and pressed ahead with its federal antitrust lawsuit. The players claim pay and benefits have not grown commensurately to franchise values that have soared from $125,000 to nearly $10 million.
The MLS Players Association, meanwhile, won the right to a jury trial earlier Thursday to begin in September in Boston. Working on the case for three years, the MLSPA will finally get a chance to show if the league's single-entity structure violates antitrust laws and artificially depresses salaries.
The developments go well beyond the two leagues and raise a critical question: how to control salaries and ensure financial survival without immediately ending up in court. Don't think for a second the XFL, Spring Football League, Major League Football, Women's United Soccer Association and all the other new sports leagues sprouting up every 10 minutes aren't paying close attention.
"It's a very, very difficult question, and some kind of dispute is really inevitable for all those leagues," said Mark Conrad, law professor at Fordham University School of Business and an expert in sports law. "Labor problems will be central to the administration of any new sports league. Between the success of the other players unions and steady attempts to circumvent traditional labor laws, it's something they'll each have to deal with."
While such disputes are distasteful to the fans, league officials and many of the players, some labor leaders actually relish the chance to set a precedent for their sport.
"We are fighting for the same rights that people like Curt Flood fought for 30 years ago," said John Kerr Sr., MLSPA president, citing the landmark baseball case that helped bring free agency to that sport. "There are lots of revenues that the players clearly drive and deserve to access."
The MLS lawsuit, however, has left league officials scratching their heads. The single-entity structure specifically was set up to avoid the salary wars that doomed the once-thriving North American Soccer League in the early 1980s. But barely a year into the MLS' existence, the players filed suit in 1997 to set up exactly the free market system the MLS didn't want.
"It is very unfortunate the players continue to refuse to seek to resolve their differences through traditional collective bargaining," said Mark Abbott, MLS chief operating officer. …