With MLS Asking for a Response in CBA Talks, Players Association Delivers a Pointed One

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MLS commissioner Don Garber wanted some kind of response from the players to the league’s 2021 CBA offer and on Wednesday afternoon, after his own press conference the day before and more than a week of silence from the MLS Players Association, he got it.

There was no counteroffer from MLSPA executive director Bob Foose, but there was frustration—frustration over what he called the league’s “opportunistic” attempt to renegotiate CBA terms after invoking a force majeure clause; over MLS’s doomsday prediction for the coronavirus climate and its potential impact on the 2021 season; over the hard 30-day deadline issued by Garber; over the lack of clarity to the offseason schedule; and over the league’s apparent decision to negotiate through the media.

What comes next will be the product of continued discussions among MLSPA leadership, its executive board and the player pool. Last spring, the players took a 5% pay cut and agreed to participate in the MLS is Back Tournament bubble to help MLS salvage its 2020 season. This year, instead of a salary cut, the league has asked the MLSPA to extend the current CBA for two additional seasons, through 2027, thereby flattening the compensation growth rate and potentially forcing players to miss out on the increases they might expect leading up to and after the 2026 World Cup.

“Extending the CBA is an enormous, enormous ask from the league from the player pool and a very, very expensive one as well,” Foose said.

Garber positioned the MLS offer as a favor.

“We came up with a plan that took into consideration what was the most emotional and difficult aspect of the negotiations last spring, and those were really tough meetings that we had, and the players said they just can’t withstand taking salary cuts,” Garber said Tuesday. “While salary cuts would help the economics in the short term, we as a league have been thinking long term about building our business, and we basically took that to heart. And we’re trading the short-term hurt for some value, if you will, that can be derived over the long term.”

Garber reiterated that their proposed CBA extension would save the league $100 million to $110 million. He also said the 30-day negotiating window opened by the force majeure clause required a “laser” focus on reaching a new agreement.

“There has to be a real sense of urgency,” Garber said.

MLS commissioner Don Garber

With the league’s Jan. 28 deadline approaching, Foose expressed some bemusement over that claim. MLS hasn't threatened to lock out the players, and the MLSPA, Foose said, has “no intention of going on strike.” There’s no set date for the start of the regular season—MLS said it’s hoping for mid-March, meaning training camps in late January—nor is there a preseason or training camp schedule. So why the deadline?

“The only place we’ve heard that is from Don, yesterday,” Foose said. “I can’t understand why Jan. 27 or 28 or whatever the day is would bear any significance, particularly given that it’s not looking all that likely we’re even going to be in preseason yet. So where that sense of urgency comes from, the only explanation I can come up with is a belief that they have this negotiation done and dusted before things start to get better.”

Under the terms of the current CBA, MLS could terminate the entire agreement at the conclusion of the 30-day window. In that case, according to ESPN, MLS could lock out its players or continue under the old (now current) CBA until new terms are negotiated.

“We are concerned that the MLSPA doesn’t have the urgency to meet and finalize an agreement within the 30-day period provided for in our CBA,” MLS president Mark Abbott said later Wednesday. “The timing of this negotiating period was specifically agreed to between the league and the players in June. And we have made a good faith, thoughtful and simple proposal to facilitate and finalize an agreement promptly and before the end of the 30-day negotiating period.”

The union’s belief that things might get better in 2021 is central to its lack of relative urgency. Vaccines have been developed, and although distribution hasn’t been as efficient as everyone would like, the prospect of welcoming fans back into stadiums some time over the summer may not be a fantasy.

“It’s critical that we have as much understanding as possible as to what 2021 is going to look like in terms of our ability to have fans in stadiums and there’s still a ways to go to get that knowledge,” Foose said, citing a report that suggested half the USA might be vaccinated by June.

“We don’t want to try to drag this out, but we’re also not going to jump into a decision before we have answers to the questions that we need answered,” he said.

Garber said the pandemic “is really impacting our league’s financial outlook for this upcoming season … and perhaps even our view of the years beyond 2021.”

Without agreement on what the 2021 losses might be, reaching an agreement on how to compensate for those losses will be difficult. The league and players have either 20 days or more to get there, depending on whom you ask. And the start of the 2021 campaign may or may not hang in the balance, depending on whom you ask.

“We understand and respect that owners have made an enormous investment in this league and that losses caused by this pandemic have been real,” Foose said. “The reality is though that … the 2020 losses have been negotiated and paid for substantially by the player pool. Whatever losses happen in 2021 related to the pandemic, which is impossible to know right now, the league has every opportunity to recoup out of [discretionary] player expenses [like Designated Players and Targeted Allocation Money] and they have simply chosen not to.

“Once again, we’re just seeing, unfortunately, just an opportunism apparently from the league and a lack of consideration and a lack of understanding of their players,” Foose concluded.