How MLS Avoided a Lockout, How the CBA Has Changed and the Fate of the League in 2020

MLS avoided a work stoppage and will return with a tournament in Orlando, but it wasn't simple. MLS commissioner Don Garber details the discussions that wound up with an amended and ratified CBA and the outlook for the year.
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Speaking publicly and at length for the first time since MLS paused its 25th season in early March, commissioner Don Garber on Wednesday revealed the league will take a $1 billion revenue hit because of the coronavirus pandemic, forcing “unimaginably difficult” negotiations with the players union that finally resulted in a revised collective bargaining agreement.

As a result of that deal, announced earlier Wednesday, the league’s 26 clubs will convene in Orlando at the end of June to restart the season with a made-for-TV tournament at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. Garber said most specifics of the competition were still being finalized, and that there still is no certainty about when or if teams might be able to play in their own stadiums.

The most important detail was that some sort of season will be salvaged. That wasn’t a given over the weekend, when Garber said he issued the first lockout threat in MLS history.

“It was something that, as the leader of this league, was necessary to get to the point today that we have reached an agreement,” he said.

MLS also yielded ground on a couple of issues, and in the end, it was enough to reach an accord and move forward. The new CBA, which runs through 2025, was based on the deal announced in February but never ratified.

“Labor negotiations are never easy,” Garber added. “It was more difficult [this time], but fortunately we’ve been able to reach agreement and collectively we’ll work to get back to playing, delivering for our fans and delivering for our players the sport they love. And then we will work hard to build back some of the value, if you will, in the relationship that we worked hard to create collectively in December and January of last year.”

Here’s a more detailed rundown of the key topics addressed by Garber, who was joined by MLS president Mark Abbott:

How the CBA has changed

Garber said the league was able to cut costs worth “hundreds of millions of dollars” and that after league and club staff took pay cuts, players were expected to do the same.

“After discussing with the leadership of the [MLSPA], not just the executives in D.C. but their executive committee and the broader bargaining committee, we developed an idea that involved a much lower salary reductions this year in exchange for a one-year extension of the CBA. I believe that basic framework was creative … and an effective way to manage through this.”

So the players agreed to a 5% pay reduction in 2020 in exchange for adding an extra year to the CBA reached in February, which was to expire following the 2024 season.

MLS also was able to recover some of the media rights revenue promised to the players. Originally, the players were to receive 25% of the money generated in the new broadcast deals expected to be reached in 2023. That total will drop to 12.5% in 2023, then return to 25% in 2024-25.

The league also successfully argued for the insertion of a force majeure clause, which would protect it in case of another interruption to the season. Details of that clause weren’t available Wednesday, but the MLSPA reportedly was successful in convincing MLS to avoid linking the clause to an attendance decline at a small number of stadiums.

MLS commissioner Don Garber

What we know about the Orlando tournament

MLS originally wanted its teams to be in central Florida for a lot longer than 35 days, but the union expressed reservations about player health and safety, along with time away from families. In the end, the league determined that something is better than nothing.

“The uncertainty as to when we can return, how many games we’ll have, what we’ll be able to deliver to our media partners and our national and corporate partners, have forced us to come up with a plan that we can ensure at least allows us to get back in front of our fans,” Garber explained. “Unlike the other leagues, their fan bases are deeply mature and have been around for generations. Our absence has created a void in [our fans’] lives and they love and care for our payers and clubs, but clearly our absence from the sports scene was really crucial to getting back.”

It’ll also help MLS salvage some of the money from its TV contract with ESPN, Fox and Univision, which is worth a reported $90 million annually.

Teams reportedly will head to Orlando around June 24 (clubs permitted to train fully in their own market might arrive later), where they will prepare to play three games that supposedly will count in the regular season games. Each MLS club had played twice before the season was postponed. From there, 16 survivors will enter bracket play, according to reports.

Garber said that $1 million in prize money and a trophy will be on the line. It was unclear whether the winning team would earn all $1 million or if the funds will be spread among additional top finishers.

The product itself will look much different from a typical match. MLS has made great strides as an in-stadium product in its first quarter century. The settings and stadiums look good, and the atmosphere can be colorful and raucous. As a TV product, however, it’s struggled. Teams appear interchangeable, quality of play is uneven, regular seasons stakes are low and ratings have been abysmal. The Orlando tournament will feature most of the latter and none of the former.

“I think our fans, and I think the media and certainly our payers, when they see how the games are produced, will be impressed with the technology and the thought that’s gone into trying to test a handful of new concepts,” Garber said. “We’ll have more cameras on this broadcast then would be on a typical [game, and] there’ll be more access to audio and video in these broadcasts than in a typical game.”

Healthy players will be expected to participate, Garber said, in contrast to the NWSL, which is permitting players to decide whether they want to be a part of the women’s league’s tournament in Utah. The league will be paying for coronavirus tests, Abbott confirmed, and players are expected to be confined to hotels and playing facilities.

“It’s an enormous expense and it is a big challenge to our players. I fully accept that going away from home and competing in a tournament of a maximum of 35 days is not an easy ask. … These are things we decided to do out of necessity,” Garber said. “We have done everything we can to ensure that this plan will address to the best of our ability the health and safety of our players.”

The ultimate fate of the 2020 season

Now that a deal’s been done, it’s expected that players will return to the individual and/or small group training that got underway for most teams last week. Coronavirus testing isn’t required because of social-distancing measures, Abbott said. Full-group training will require testing, and clubs that aren’t able to resume practicing in market because of local government restrictions or other reasons will have to do so once they reach Orlando.

As for what happens after Orlando, that’s anybody’s guess. Just because teams can train together doesn’t mean they can open and staff their stadium, or travel across the country for an away game, or admit fans.

“This process started three months ago, and I would’ve told you then that we thought the likelihood of returning to our stadiums was zero,” Garber acknowledged. “I feel today, as more and more states appear to be opening up, there's more of a likelihood that might happen. In how many states affecting how many teams, we have no certainty at all today. What I will tell you is that everything we do will be in the accordance of local health authorities, and we’re not going to do it unless we can ensure the safety of our players [and staff]. The plans we’re working on now are addressing all those issues.”

Abbott said no decision has been made about the timing of the transfer window (it was originally July 7-Aug. 5) or about a drop-dead date for the completion of the 2020 season. He pointed out that while MLS Cup originally was scheduled for Nov. 7, it was played in early December for most to the decade.

“Our goal is to play the season in 2020,” Abbott said. “There’s an opportunity to go into even deeper December than we were before. … I don’t think we’re looking at playing any of the regular season in 2021—possibly some playoff games. But the first choice is to complete it in calendar 2020.”