Financial transparency and MLS: what could the Premier League learn?

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Given the considerable movement in world football towards financial regulation, you have to wonder if the Premier League could learn from their cousins in MLS. Unlike any league in Europe, Major League Soccer releases an annual list of player’s salaries. The PDF document was published in May and, as always, it made for interesting reading.

The number crunchers among MLS fans are keen to digest the numbers then discuss them in depth; Who is overvalued? Who is undervalued? Even mock fantasy teams in which you try to stay under the salary cap all provide an exciting (if not slightly anorak) side discussion for fans of Major League Soccer.

Ultimately, the concept garners a mixed response from players. As you may have read last year, friend of FourFourTwo Luke Rodgers was not entirely sold on the somewhat alien concept, admitting; “I’ll be honest and say I’m not a fan of the transparency when it comes to salaries. I just think it causes trouble, and I don’t see the relevance of it.”

Critics say it can often divide a squad, to know a teammate is earning significantly more can breed contempt. Of course, one is reminded of the harsh story involving the Dutch National team and a salary discussion over breakfast. Huddled around the table, midfielder Wesley Sneijder asked Vitesse goalkeeper Piet Velthuzien how much he earned, to which Velthuzien confidently replied, “€400,000.” Ever the comedian, Sneijder retorted “Don’t you think it’s funny I earn 20 times that figure?” Financial comparisons are obviously not new in the realms of football, but to have it so openly documented can seem strange.

That’s certainly not the opinion of Alexi Lalas. The former US International has seen both sides of the negotiating table- his successful playing career followed by time spent as general manager for three separate MLS Franchises. Now working as an analyst for ESPN & ABC Sports, he has a simple message to those with complaints; “Welcome to life.”

Lalas goes on to explain just why he feels those against transparency are wrong, “Let’s grow up a little, you’re either a professional or you’re not. I’m not saying guys aren’t going to talk about it, but I’d much rather have it out there. I think to a certain extent it creates a much more realistic sense of expectation, and ultimately it’s good for the big picture and for the players.”

As for players being potentially short changed, the former LA Galaxy player believes that responsibility falls with the players and their representatives- “The reality is you are worth what you negotiate,” He says before adding, “ Some players have done a good job in doing that, some haven’t. Equally some GM’s have done a good job in doing that and some haven’t. You’re always going to have your bargains and your busts.”

Lalas - former general manager of LA Galaxy - thinks transparency is vital

The analysis of the salary sheet is not a new occurrence, and as a former GM, it is something Lalas is well aware of: “The day after this sheet comes out we all play this game. How is player X being paid this amount when he isn’t worth close to this? Then we say; ‘What about player Y? He’s earning this amount when he’s starting every game and playing great’. Well I say when that contract is up, go and negotiate it and get more money.”

More than just discourse about which players may be over or underpaid, Lalas admits the release of players' salaries often sparks a slew of phone calls. “I guarantee the telephones of GMs and of agents start ringing when that list comes out," he tells “Either agents complaining to GM’s about what this or that may say about their client, or clients complaining to their agents about what they are seeing on the sheet.”

As Lalas rightly points out, seeing that a teammate is earning more could very easily raise ire. However that same set of figures can also be used as benefit to the player. For example; To know a midfielder with lesser stats than yourself earns double what you do makes your bargaining position far stronger.

Unrelenting in his defense of the concept Lalas does make one concession; “ I will concede that from both perspectives it will cause challenges and problems but the goods far outweigh the negatives. You are what you can negotiate. If as a GM I don’t feel player X is worth 100k I won’t pay him 100k - that’s negotiating.”

Having spent time in Italy with Padova, Lalas believes transparency in Europe could be beneficial. “Part of management is dealing with personalities and egos,” He explains, “When money gets involved those things tend to crop up more easily - I respect and completely understand that. I just think to have it all quiet is sweeping it under the rug and I don’t like that. I think it’s better from a fan perspective, the more transparency the better. I think it can influence how you judge a player and to have that in your arsenal as to how you judge a player is a good thing.”

Whether players from Europe’s top leagues would ever agree to having their pay details made public seems unlikely - especially given the furore surrounding the discovery of John Arne Riise’s monthly wage during his time at Liverpool, albeit by methods bereft of scruples.

Furthermore, seeing the vast amounts players earn could very easily disillusion football fans that already feel a huge gulf of common ground between the players they admire and themselves. However given the constant negativity player salaries garner in the English media, transparency could very easily provide accountability to players and remove conjecture.

Despite noted drawbacks, this level of transparency does seem a positive notion. It still seems unlikely it is an idea which will quickly spread beyond the shores of the United States - given the vast amounts clubs in the Premier League have already spent, England’s pressing economic obstacle would seem to be the implementation of Financial Fair Play - but perhaps then they may begin the arduous journey towards complete financial transparency.