No matter what sport you’re a fan of, everyone will agree that the off-season can be unbearable. Barring the rare blockbuster trade, there is little action to break up the monotony of waiting for opening day of next season. However, there is one day that draws significant interest around the major U.S. sports leagues: the opening day of free agency. In the weeks leading up to free agency, sports news is littered with speculation on possible destinations for all the big name free agents, and lists of team needs etc. The part that’s rarely talked about, is how free agency is treated under each league’s Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). The standards for becoming an Unrestricted Free Agent (UFA) provide insight into the philosophy of each league, and set the stage for the summer fun. UFA standards differ greatly amongst the major U.S. sports leagues. The discussion below will compare the NFL, NHL, and MLS unrestricted free agency models as examples.
Article 9, Section 1(a) of the 2011-2020 NFL CBA sets out the UFA criteria. The section states that any player that has four or more “Accrued Seasons” of experience can become a UFA at the expiration of their current player contract. Article 8, Section 1(a) defines an accrued season as one in which the player, “was on, or should have been on, full pay status for a total of six or more regular season games,”. The major NFL exception to UFA status is the commonly called franchise tag provision. Under Article 10, Section 1 each team may designate one otherwise unrestricted player from their team as a “Franchise Player”, which only requires the player to negotiate a new 1-year contract with the team. A second, more nuanced but important, exception is the “Fifth Year Option”. Article 7, Section 7 outlines the exception, which allows a team to add a fifth year onto a rookie contract at the same compensation as the standard four years, if the rookie was drafted in the first round.
Although the NHL does not have any team friendly loopholes like the NFL’s franchise tag or fifth year option, it typically takes a lot longer to become an NHL UFA. A standard NHL UFA is considered a Group 3 Free Agent under the 2013-2022 NHL CBA. Under Article 10, Section 10.1(a)(i) a Group Three UFA is a player that has seven “Accrued Seasons”, or has turned age twenty-seven by June 30th of the end of the prior league year, and is on an expiring contract. The Article 1 definition of “Accrued Season” is a season in which the player was on the NHL roster for a minimum of forty (thirty for a goalie) regular season games. Additionally, a player may declare themselves a Group 5 UFA one time under Article 10, Section 10.1(b)(i), if they have played in ten or more professional hockey seasons, including in overseas leagues, and did not earn more than the NHL league minimum salary in the final year of their standard player contract. Lastly, Group 6 free agents, under Article 10, Section 10.1(c)(i), become UFA’s at age twenty-five if they’ve played at least three professional seasons without appearing in more than eighty NHL games (twenty-eight for a goalie).
MLS players have the longest wait until UFA status. Article 29, Sections 29.5 and 29.6 explain unrestricted free agency. Section 29.5(a)(i) discusses free agency for players whose team options are declined. If the team declines an option to continue the player’s contract, and the player is 28 years old with 8 MLS service years of experience they become a UFA. An MLS Service Year is defined as one in which the player was on a team roster prior to August 15th or played in one regular or post season game. (Article 2(jj)). The player may then sign a contract with a new team for the declined option salary, equal to or less salary if his salary is under the maximum salary budget charge, or for less than the declined option but more than the maximum salary budget charge with League approval. (Section 29.5(b)(ii-iv)). The maximum salary budget charge is defined as 12.5% of the Team Salary Budget. (Article 10, Section 10.1(c)). Section 29.6 provides the same experience and age requirements for “out of contract” players. The rules are less restrictive regarding new contracts for those players, and they may sign a contract with a new team for any dollar amount within league regulations.
Overall, the MLS has the most stringent UFA regulations of these three leagues. Playing a professional sport for eight years is a fairly long career. Studies show that the average across the five major American leagues is much less. Even after becoming a MLS UFA, the players are still limited in the contracts they can sign. This model is unsurprising, given the league centric MLS structure, where the League as a whole has significant power over players and individual teams. Meanwhile, the NFL has the shortest potential time between free agency and UFA status. However, teams have at least two important cards to play with their high-profile players. Solid rookie NFL players and established premier veteran players naturally have the most to gain through becoming a UFA. Teams typically line up to overpay for their services. However, the CBA allows a team to retain a first round pick for an extra year on a reasonable salary, as well as retain the sole rights to negotiate with a franchise player.
The NHL is somewhere in the middle on unrestricted free agency. Seven years of at least forty games on an NHL roster is a significant amount of time. However, the NHL provides other means for becoming a UFA with the Group 5 and 6 categories. This mechanism protects a player’s interests by allowing them to leave a team that is not giving them an opportunity before their prime years are over. The NHL is also the only league that takes into account time spent in another professional league when determining free agent status.
Maybe the most interesting difference between the NFL, MLS, and NHL is the definition of time accrued. The MLS CBA only requires one regular or post season game of playing time or 2.9% of regular season games. The NFL requires six games on the roster, which accounts for 37.5% of regular season games. Lastly, the NHL requires 40 games on the roster, or 48.8%. So, although the MLS requires 8 years, the NHL actually has the highest requirements to obtain standard UFA status.
Overall, league UFA decisions come down to two concerns: team desire for player retention, and player desire for a lucrative contract. Management groups and coaches spend years scouting and developing players, and the last thing a team wants is to see good talent walk away as a UFA for no return on their investment. On the other hand, players want to be UFA eligible prior to the twilight of their careers. As a rookie or RFA, a player is in a much weaker negotiating position, and is forced to take team dictated deals in many cases. The biggest payday is on the open market where dozens of teams may offer a lucrative contract. While a balance must be struck, it would certainly make the offseason more interesting if players reached UFA status sooner.