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MLS salaries on the rise but the league minimum continues to lag behind

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While MLS clubs have begun to spend more money on star players the latest salary release continues to show how far the league is lagging behind when it comes to the minimum salary that a player can earn.

$12 million in salary right there.
$12 million in salary right there.
Jag Gundu

MLS teams are spending more money than ever.  With the latest release of salary information by the MLS Players' Union it is clear that wages in the league are heading in the right direction.  With the upcoming CBA negotiations these numbers will draw even more attention than normal as both sides continue posturing and fighting for the upper hand.

With the suits at MLS including Don Garber on the record as crying poor and claiming that the league is losing money it is interesting to see that teams continue to increase their spending.  While the salary cap continues to rise slowly on the schedule set out by the existing CBA clubs have begun to increase their spending in the Designated Player Market.

You do not have to go far back to find a time when MLS teams were spending far less on designated players.  When the numbers were released in the fall of 2011 the league only had nine players who were making over one-million dollars in guaranteed compensation.  That list was led by David Beckham (6.5 million) and Thierry Henry (5.6 million) and it included just one Canadian (Julian De Guzman) and one American (Landon Donovan).  Two teams had three players on that list back in 2011 with LAG having Donovan, Beckham, and Robbie Keane while Toronto FC had JDG along with Torsten Frings and Danny Koevermans.

Now in 2014 the list has grown to include a total of 12 players but more importantly it is no longer just three teams that are doing all the big spending.  In 2011 the list was comprised of three Toronto FC players, three L.A. Galaxy players, two New York Red Bulls players, and one Chivas USA player who was signed by NYRB before being moved.  This year, the total number of teams paying at least one player over $1 million dollars has grown to six with Toronto, LA, and New York being joined by the Seattle Sounders, Montreal Impact, and Vancouver Whitecaps.  Toronto and LA do continue to lead the way though with both teams having 3 DPs bringing in more that $1 million this season.

In terms of total payroll in the reported numbers Toronto FC are leading the way as they are spending nearly $16 million on base compensation.  They are followed by LA, New York, and Seattle who are all spending substantial amounts of money with payrolls that could top the $10 million mark this year.

While there is no longer a Canadian player making over $1 million in MLS (Will Johnson leads the way at $325,000) there are now a total of four Americans in that club.  Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, and Omar Gonzalez have joined Donovan in earning the big bucks but it is worth noting that there are another three Americans who are set to bring home over $500,000 this year.

The amount of money that American stars are able to make in MLS should be sending out a clear message to players around the World.  It is now possible for Americans to make money in their own domestic league and some of them are even earning a decent pay cheque now in MLS without having ever gone over to Europe.  The same is not yet true for Canadians but hopefully as spending continues to rise a few more Canadians join Johnson and Patrice Bernier in at least earning over $200,000.

The spending at the top may have increased but it is the bottom where things continue to lag behind for MLS.  In the most recent release 555 players have their salaries included.  Of them a total of 142 players (26%) are earning less that $50,000 in guaranteed compensation this season.  Another 92 players are set to earn between $50-75k which bring the total number of players making $75,000 or less in 2014 to 234 which works out to 42% of total players.  Add in the players making less than $100,000 and you have just shy of half the league.

Now for the average person the idea of making that kind of money would be great considering they are doing it playing a sport that we assume most of them love.  Problem is that when you compare those numbers to what other athletes are making in professional sports the MLS numbers are really lagging behind.

If you are a baseball player and you manage to make it to the show then you are going to be earning at least $500,000 which is more than all but 19 players in MLS.  In 2011-12 the lowest amount of money you could earn as an NHL player was $525,000 or more than all but 18 MLS players.  Make it to the NFL and the minimum salary for a rookie is $420,000 but that jumps up to $570,000 by the time you have two years of experience in the league.  In the NBA a rookie will make a minimum of $507,336 for the 2014-15 season and a player with 2 years experience would earn at least $915,243 in salary.

Both the NFL and NBA make use of a scale for their minimum salary which ensures that each year of experience (up to 10+ years) will see the player get an increase in their salary.  By the time you are 10 years in to your career the CBA ensures that you are making over three times as much as a rookie on a minimum salary.  No such system exists in MLS as they currently have two different minimum salaries one for the first 24 players on the roster ($48,500) and one for players 25-30 ($36,500).

So while the top end salary of the league has increased and more players are bringing in a substantial pay cheque each season it is the low end where MLS continues to fall significantly short of the other big professional leagues in North America.  It may not be realistic to hope for MLS to close that gap completely but hopefully with the new CBA they will begin to take steps in the right direction.  At least getting to the point where the lowest paid MLS player is making even 20% of their counterparts in other leagues would be a big step forward from the current 8.7% (MLS to NFL).

These numbers will certainly play a key role in the upcoming CBA negotiation which is why it is worth remembering that they are being presented to us by one side.  These salary figures come from the Players' Union and will be used to help their case when they meet with the league to work on a new CB so we should always apply some grains of salt to them.  The minimum salary figures all come directly from their respective leagues though so no matter how skeptical you are about the released figures that part of the equation should continue to hold water.

On the whole it is good to see the top end salaries in MLS increasing and more domestic players commanding a good salary but there is clearly a lot of work to go before MLS is competitive with other North American sports leagues and top European leagues and the area where that is the most obvious is the minimum salaries.