As restrictions begin to ease around the world and as sports leagues begin to plot their return from the pandemic pause, Major League Soccer appears to be on the verge of shooting itself in the foot. Or tripping over both feet. Or scoring an own goal. Pick your idiom for a self-inflicted wound.
A negotiation originally centered on staging a behind-closed-doors tournament that nobody asked for has devolved into a standoff over an agreed-to-but-unratified collective bargaining agreement, leaving MLS players on the verge of a lockout that could cripple the league and wreck any chance of salvaging the 2020 season.
Players have until noon Tuesday to agree to a package of concessions and revisions to the new five-year CBA, according to ESPN. [UPDATE: ESPN now reports that the deadline has been moved to noon on Wednesday as the owners are revising their proposal.] The deadline follows weeks of talks prompted by the league’s effort to stage a tournament at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex in Orlando. The made-for-TV event, which would include all 26 MLS clubs, would require all players and team personnel to isolate at area hotels. It’s more in line with what the NHL and NBA are proposing than what the Bundesliga and other European soccer leagues are putting in place, whereby games are played at home venues under strict protocols.
And that isn’t a simple ask. Unlike the NHL and NBA, MLS isn’t tasked with finishing a season well underway and crowning a champion. MLS was only two matches in when the coronavirus took hold in early March. And unlike the NHL and NBA, MLS barely registers on TV, posting paltry ratings under a modest contract that’s worth a reported $90 million a year, or around $3.5 million per club.
In order to recoup a portion of that amount and boost its relationship with one of its TV partners (we assume Fox and Univision won’t be broadcasting from ESPN turf), MLS concocted the Orlando plan. It requires players and personnel to uproot and leave families behind for six weeks (it was eight-plus prior to negotiations) to play matches of dubious importance that are stripped entirely of MLS’s most obvious asset—the in-stadium atmosphere.
Through negotiations that followed the February agreement on a new CBA, ratification of which was delayed by the pandemic, the league and MLS Players Association found some common ground. The format and health/safety particulars of the Orlando tournament were mostly settled, and the players agreed to a series of concessions worth more than $100 million, including a 7.5% pay cut, reduced bonuses, and a one-year extension to the CBA through 2025, according to The Washington Post. Last year, the average base salary for a senior roster, non-Designated Player was $345,876, according to the MLSPA.
But that’s apparently insufficient for MLS owners, who are now looking to leverage their position (and the pandemic) to sweeten the unratified CBA. According to ESPN, the league is seeking an increased share of post-2022 TV revenue, along with a force majeure clause allowing MLS to terminate the CBA if five clubs suffer a year-over-year attendance decline of at least 25%. It’s unclear whether that clause would apply to 2020, which will almost certainly see that decline.
Faced with the prospect of a lockout or the potential dissolution of the months of negotiating that produced the CBA, players throughout the league sat out individual training sessions on Monday, according to reports.
Minnesota United midfielder Ethan Finlay, a member of the MLSPA’s seven-man executive board, wrote on Twitter, “Players made a CHOICE to focus their time and energy on an important decision which includes the threat of a lockout instead of volunteering to attend on-field training for a tournament we already agreed to attend. Refuse is not the word I would use.”