The last time Major League Soccer had one of its brief tussles over collective bargaining, Vancouver Whitecaps manager Carl Robinson was moving. Not in the way he'd thought.
The Welsh international had played three years in Toronto. Robinson did well, but in MLS "well" is about half the salary of an NBA assistant coach. He'd finally decided to buy a house in Etobicoke, Ont. Just as the sale went through, he was dealt to New York.
What happened to the house?
"I sold it after 18 months."
Made some money?
"I made a bit," Robinson says, wincing. "A very little bit."
This is the story of MLS all round. Aside from a few foreign caballeros who make real cash, you're doing this for less than you'd make at a bank.
Every five years, the players' union begins a furious push to change the basic economics of this league. There's a lot of hard talk about togetherness. Then it gets to the table and everything falls apart.
That was once again the case on Wednesday, when the union could not throw its cards down quickly enough. The players had been demanding free agency and higher base salaries. They got both things, but barely.
MLS players can now become free agents after age 28, provided they have eight years experience. Only one in 10 current players meet that criterion. That number won't rise.
The base salary "jumps" to something in the range of $60,000 (U.S.). All that means is more players will earn the base. The only real concession from ownership was reducing the length of the CBA from a proposed eight years to five.
History suggests it won't have much effect. The current deal was reached in the aftermath of a new TV contract that quintuples MLS's broadcast earnings (to $90-million a year). And still, no one was willing to share.The players were bulldozed. On the record, they're resigned. Off the record, they're also resigned.
"I'm happy the season's starting. I am," Vancouver's Jordan Harvey said. The superfluous "I am" suggested the opposite.
"It can't take its toll on you," Russell Teibert shrugged.
Both are members of the league's middle-class, earning a teacher's salary to do what they love. Just like teachers.
This skewed calculus (in sports terms) will never change because roughly half of MLS clubs lose money. That doesn't include Toronto FC, but if that club were to do its books straight up, it would be in the red for decades.
More than any North American league, MLS is financially irrational. What keeps it afloat is that it is irrational on a reasonable scale. When you overspend, you lose five million, rather than 50.
Nonetheless, the league continues to expand. Franchise fees are pushing over $100-million and all that buys you is a logo. The league controls each team.
Nobody seems to care. The Richie Riches of the world now think of sports teams the way they once thought of real estate – there's only so much of it and God isn't making any more.
Nobody's ever going to get a basketball or baseball team on the cheap again. Never and nowhere. If we're to believe the proposed figure of $450-million to put a hockey team in Las Vegas, even the NHL has gone nuts.
But soccer's still affordable. It's the billionaire playboy's starter home.
It's also a little like burying gold in the backyard. Your money isn't working for you – it's working against you. The unspoken wedge in any negotiations between ownership and the players is that owners profit from a work stoppage. That's if you consider losing less money "profiting."
Had the players forced their hand, the owners would happily have shut the league down for the colder months of the year. If you're a 25-year-old making a buck-twenty and looking down the barrel of a mortgage payment, how long do you think you're going to last on the picket line?
Remember, this isn't General Electric. You don't have 40 working years ahead of you. You've got five. Maybe. And in those five, you get to be a rock star.
The union would've folded up by June or July, just around the time Americans are getting into a cheap-day-out, soccer state of mind. Giving up at the get-go is smart business.
The players tried to make their point (and largely failed). As many as eight of 20 teams collectively voted "No" to the deal. It may be that everyone's unhappy, but no one sounds really unhappy.
"We thought that there were certainly things in [the CBA] that could have been better, along with seven other teams that thought that way. That's a big number," the Montreal Impact's player-union rep Evan Bush said. "But at the same time, the majority wins."
During their final preseason practice, Vancouver's Robinson put the whole schmozzle into perspective. Robinson's only 38 years old. While these are his students, they are also still his contemporaries.
He gathered them around to congratulate them on the deal and gave a small speech.
"I told them that, five years ago, I was on the players' side. I understand every aspect of it. The most important thing is playing on Saturday [in the season-opener against Toronto FC]. There's millions of people who'd give anything to be where you are. All negotiations are going to involve disagreement on the financials and free agency and stuff. But …" – and here Robinson widened his eyes – "… it's about playing every week. I've had that taken away because I'm retired. Everyone wants more. You earn a million, you want two. You earn 10, you want 20. But you can never give up what you have right here and right now. You are privileged. That's not your manager talking. That's a player who's been in your situation."
We get lost in the numbers, even vicariously. They love to tell us it's a business and we've started to believe it.
But if you're out on that field, it's a lot more than that. And if you had to make the same choice they do, you wouldn't choose any differently.