Updated: Feb 1, 2021
This week is arguably one of the most consequential in league history. Less than one year after agreeing to a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), Major League Soccer owners decided to call for a force majeure clause, meaning that they would like to rip up and renegotiate the CBA that was just agreed during the 2020 season. Their rationale for the clause was that the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the MLS model and the revenues that they are used to getting due to the lack of fans attendings games.
The whole thing is pretty messy though, which is why I'm going to try and break it down into layman's terms as much a possible so that everyone can understand (including myself).
What is this really about?
The owners of MLS claim that their revenues have gone down and therefore, cannot sustain the business model that was agreed to in the last CBA.
“Unfortunately, based on the assessment of public health officials, it is clear that the impact of COVID-19 and the restrictions on attendance at sporting events will continue into the 2021 MLS season,” MLS president and deputy commissioner Mark Abbott said in a statement to The Athletic. "We recognize the impact that the pandemic has had on our players and appreciate their efforts to restart and complete the 2020 season. But, like the other leagues in the United States and Canada, MLS needs to address the ongoing challenges caused by the pandemic and will engage in good faith discussions with our players about ways to manage the significant economic issues we are facing.”
Abbott claimed that due to the lack of fans, the expensive MLS is Back tournament in Orlando, Florida, and doing COVID testing of the players, the league ended up losing almost $1 billion. Yet, Abbott points out, the league and clubs still paid 95% of the player's salaries for the season. During the 2020 season, the players did agree to cut their salaries in order to help out, but only for the 2020 season.
So, what is MLS proposing?
In the end, the league is proposing an extension of the current CBA to last another couple of seasons. So instead of ending in the 2025 season, it will go until 2027. The owners would not change the salary structure though, so that would remain in tact.
So, what do the players want?
The players on the other hand do not want to change the CBA at all. Sources that talked to both ESPN and The Athletic said that they know that this is just a cash grab from the owners, one source going as far and saying that "the league is going to be fine in two years." Trying to negotiate in good faith though, the MLS Players Association (MLSPA) proposed last week a one-year extension (to 2026) and lower player wages and revenue sharing throughout the deal. A source from within the MLSPA explained that the players are willing to give up $50 million in the lifetime of the CBA in order to just get a one-year extension.
Why is either a one-year or two-year extension a sticky part of this CBA re-negotiation?
It all boils down to one massive world event happening in 2026: The World Cup.
I think it's pretty obvious that both the players and owners know that the lead up to the World Cup and post-World Cup will be a significant boost for MLS. The boost that soccer got after the 1994 World Cup without a professional league was massive, imagine what it will mean when you have at least 30 teams! The revenues are potentially going to be massive, and neither the players nor the owners want to miss out on capitalizing on it. To put it simply: the owners will want to hold onto as much money as possible without paying the players for the potential growth of the league; and the players just want to make sure that they are fairly paid for the amount of work and risk they take in playing the game.
What deadline are we looking at?
And this is why this week could be one of the most consequential in MLS history. The original deadline was last week on Jan. 28 at midnight. The deadline came and went and the morning of Jan. 28, it was announced that the deadline was moved to Feb. 4 by both parties. Usually, you could expect the deadline to continue to be moved, as long as both parties are talking (which they are), but ESPN got their hands on a memo from MLS that told the owners to expect a lockout if nothing has been agreed to by the new deadline in February.
Seriously, a lockout!?
Maybe this shows that MLS is finally growing up and becoming a legitimate sports league within the United States, but yes, a lockout is possible. If the deadline comes and goes without either a new CBA or an extension of the deadline, it becomes likely that MLS will terminate the CBA and thus, lockout the players. The MLSPA has said time and time again that they are not going to strike, so the owners locking out the players seems like it is the best bet forward.
So, what now?
Now it is just a waiting game. Maybe the owners realize that having a lockout would be a bad move and harm the league. Or maybe the players concede and hope that they make more money post the 2026 World Cup. Regardless, it will be one of the most fascinating battles off the pitch in the world of soccer this week.