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Labor strife could bring irreparable harm to MLS

MLS has a huge TV deal and a chance to broaden its appeal, but labor dispute over free agency could devastate the product.

WHAT HAPPENS if a professional sports league goes on strike and hardly anyone cares?

Major League Soccer might soon find out.

On March 6, MLS is scheduled to kick off its 20th season when the reigning champion Los Angeles Galaxy plays the Chicago Fire.

With 20 teams - including expansion franchises in New York City and Orlando, Fla. - a 34-game schedule and long-desired international respect as a quality league, MLS is about as healthy as it has ever been.

Last May, MLS along with United States Soccer, signed a landmark 8-year, $720 million television and media rights deal with ESPN, Fox Sports and Univision Deportes to broadcast games from this year through 2022.

For the first time in history, MLS has all three of its television partners scheduled to broadcast a Game of the Week, giving soccer fans across the United States more access to MLS than they have ever had before.

Among the three networks, more than 150 MLS games are slated to be broadcast annually.

It is a vital cog in MLS' effort to maintain and possibly even expand beyond its niche in an extremely saturated American sports market.

All MLS and its players basically have to do is roll out the balls next week and kick-start themselves into a brighter future.

So, naturally, both parties are threatening to blow it all up as it appears a work stoppage is more and more imminent each day as the start of the regular season approaches.

MLS and the MLS Players Union appear in a standoff over free agency, with neither side seemingly ready to compromise.

And while free agency certainly is not the only issue to be negotiated, it seems to be the one a new collective bargaining agreement hinges on and the issue each side seems most adamant about getting its way over.

"I don't want to say [free agency] is priority No. 1, because there is so much that goes into a CBA," MLSPU executive board member Dan Kennedy said recently. "But certainly we feel, as players, that every other sports league in the world - whether it's soccer or not - enjoys a form of free agency, and we feel that we're at a level where we're playing in the same arena.

"We need those same rights. Certainly, we feel free agency is up there with some [salary] budget issues, being salary cap and minimum salary."

Of course, MLS should fear free agency. All it has to do is look at how free agency in every other professional sports league dramatically drove up player salaries.

What's weird about MLS is that it already has a form of free agency.

When a player's contract is up, he is free to sign a contract with a team not in MLS. Conversely, MLS participates in soccer's international transfer program and routinely sells and buys players from teams across the world.

Still, the idea of an MLS player being free to negotiate with another MLS team is viewed like the plague.

MLS operates as a single entity, in which the league's investors own and control each team. In effect, that means players' contracts are centrally owned by MLS.

The league views internal free agency as a significant threat to that.

There are reports that MLS is prepared to offer the union a significant increase in the salary cap and the minimum salary - most likely with the concession that internal free agency be taken off the table.

Frankly, it would take forever to explain the machinations of the "single-entity" concept, and, for the purpose of this column, it doesn't matter.

What matters is that MLS and MLSPU are playing a dangerous game of chicken, precisely at a moment when the league has a tremendous opportunity to move forward.

Certainly, the league and players must work out something equitable to both, but they should also keep in mind that MLS is not the NFL, NBA, NHL or MLB.

It does not yet have the clout or popularity to come out unscathed after a work stoppage.

With top European leagues such as the English Premier League, the German Bundesliga, Spanish Primera Division, Italian Serie A and French Ligue 1 available on cable and satellite television, Americans have easy access to higher quality of soccer played by the world's best.

Spanish-language networks such as Univision provide extensive coverage of the Mexican Liga MX, as well as leagues for such South American countries as Argentina, Brazil and Colombia.

There will no shortage of soccer for fans if MLS has to deal with a strike or lockout. After more than 20 years of clawing out a successful niche, a work stoppage could do irreparable damage to MLS.

Right now, MLS has built itself to the point at which a good number of people care about it, but if the season doesn't start on March 6 because of labor strife, the league could lose a lot of what it has gained.