ESPN’s Jeffrey Carlisle reported Tuesday that Major League Soccer would be invoking a force majeure clause in the current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) between the league and the MLS Players Association (MLSPA).
The current CBA was agreed upon in February 2020 and then modifications were made in June due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This edition of the CBA runs through the end of the 2025 season. The league’s decision to invoke the force majeure clause (which was introduced to the CBA in June) could potentially have massive ramifications for the 2021 MLS season and beyond.
First of all, the clause essentially gives the league the opportunity to force a re-negotiation, or “modification,” as ESPN puts it, for the current CBA. This period of re-negotiation can last for up to 30 days and if a new agreement isn’t met by that period, the CBA from June could be terminated and a potential lockout could follow.
All of these negotiations surrounding the CBA is due to the financial strain on the league and individual clubs caused by the Pandemic. In June, the Players Union and the league agreed to a 7.5% pay reduction for players and in November, MLS laid off 20% of its staff—right before the playoffs. This was still not enough to spare the league’s finances, as Commissioner Don Garber reported the league lost nearly $1 billion in 2020.
One of the biggest reasons for this massive hit in finances is the lack of fans at matches, which makes up a large part of league revenue. Because almost every match was played behind closed doors, this matchday revenue was almost completely lost to the league. The MLS is Back Tournament in Orlando also cost the league lots of money, as well as the cost of charter flights for every MLS club this season to minimize exposure during away matches and then to bring players back from international duty ahead of the playoffs to get around the quarantine period.
Now that the league has opened up the modification to the current CBA, many major issues could come into play for both the MLSPA and the league. The top two that come to mind are the obvious wage cuts, but also a potential reduction of league-granted money (Targeted and General Allocation Money).
This news is also particularly concerning considering the more-or-less negative negotiations between the parties in June. The Players Union was less than thrilled with how negotiations went last time, and with the league looking to save even more money, relations between the two parties could sour further.
San Jose Earthquakes veteran striker Chris Wondolowski told ESPN in June, “I’m glad I’m out at the end of this year, because five years from now with that CBA, the backbone of this league will be guys that will still feel wronged.” Of course, Wondolowski just re-signed for one more year with San Jose, but his point still stands. Rapids attacker Andre Shinyashiki also had thoughts about the last round of negotiations, telling The Cooligans, “we compromised on a lot of things that we felt like were non-negotiable and ended up being negotiable just because of being in a weird situation.”
One would have to assume that players will take a wage cut again this season. On the surface that seems fine, considering they are professional athletes and with players like Gonzalo Higuain and Nani coming to MLS for a final, multimillion-dollar payday before retirement.
But MLS has the lowest average salary out of all the major North American sports leagues, and at least a quarter of the league’s players make $100,000 or less a season. Outside of the Gonzalo Higuains, what about guys like Colorado Rapids’ Sebastian Anderson? In 2019, (2020 salary numbers weren’t released), Anderson made $56,000. If you apply the 7.5% wage cut to Anderson’s contract, it means he only made $51,800 in 2019. And, as mentioned above, he is hardly the only player on lower wages like that. Perhaps the best solution for the league is a higher wage cut for higher earners, who could afford a larger cut, while players like Anderson, who would make below the average income in the United States, face a much smaller wage cut.
I can understand where both sides are coming from in this debacle, but I back the players, especially the lower-earning ones, 100%. Players had to sacrifice time away from family for the MLS is Back Tournament, they had to endure the fear of potentially getting themselves, friends, and family sick, and now are forced to spend their little actual time off (between the regular season, playoffs, and preseason) negotiating a new deal. While I think everything should be done to avoid a lockout, the players have had to sacrifice so much in 2020, they should not settle for anything they do not approve of. Like Shinyashiki said above, they should not compromise on things they hold as non-negotiables.
Regardless of what parts of the CBA are modified for 2021, this negotiation could seriously have a huge impact on the future of MLS. After the horror show that was the year 2020, the last thing MLS fans need in the new year is the news of no agreement being reached, or worst-case scenario, a lockout.