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Behind the Curtain: The Old MLS CBA Revealed

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As MLS and the MLS Players Union are in the midst of negotiations over a new collective bargaining agreement, details resurfaced Wednesday about what was in the recently expired CBA.

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The MLS collective bargaining agreement in place from 2010 until last week has largely been shrouded in mystery for much of the past five years. The newly-expired CBA is much clearer today, however, thanks to a 2010 document sent from MLS headquarters to each of the clubs shortly after the completion of negotiations.

Although much, if perhaps all, of the information contained in the memorandum has come out in one form or another over the past five years, many of the old CBA’s provisions have fallen into obscurity along the way. With negotiations over a new CBA coming to a head over the next month, however, recalling what was in the old agreement will be vital to understanding the present discussions.

Some of the old CBA provisions are well-understood. For example, through the course of the now-expired CBA, the minimum salary for MLS players rose from $40,000 in 2010 to $48,500 in 2014. For MLS "apprentice players," however, the scale rose from $31,250 in 2010 to $36,500 in 2014.

In addition, the waivers process, or, as it is commonly known in MLS, the "re-entry" process, is spelled out in some detail and is described as being "one of the most contentious issues in the negotiations" in 2010. In those negotiations, the players pushed for free agency while MLS resisted. The product of this tussle was the re-entry process which, while spelled out in greater detail in the league memorandum, is substantively similar to that which was posted publicly in MLS’s Roster Rules. It is clear, however, that this battle has been renewed in the current CBA negotiations.

One lesser-known detail is the amount that constituted a bona-fide offer under the old CBA. In essence, under the old CBA a bona-fide offer was the amount a team must offer to a player whose contract has expired if that team wished to retain a right of first refusal to re-sign a player. For players over the age of 30 with at least 8 years of MLS service, the bona fide offer level was 105% of the player’s previous-season salary. For players over the age of 25 with at least 4 years of MLS experience, the bona-fide offer level was 100% of the player’s previous-year salary. If a team did not extend a bona-fide offer to a qualifying player, that player would enter the re-entry process.

Historically, player benefits have been one of the subjects the public knew least about. The memorandum, however, provides a revealing look into the non-salary compensation that players received under the old CBA.

First, all MLS players over the age of 24 with at least 3 years of service in the league had guaranteed contracts.  Players with non-guaranteed contracts were guaranteed one month of severance pay in the event they were let go by their team.

One of the biggest burdens on a professional athlete is the constant threat of relocation via trade, contract termination, and even draft. Under the old CBA, Newly-signed players in MLS had their relocation expenses covered up to $5,000, with draftees having an option to take $3,500 in cash instead of the $5,000 in relocation costs. Likely because of the sudden nature of their relocation, traded players received greater benefits, including relocation expenses, 2 months of reimbursement for rent or mortgage (up to $2,000 per month), 21 days of housing and meal expenses, 10 days of car rental, and two round-trip plane tickets for the player along with one round-trip plane ticket for each family member. Finally, players who have their contracts terminated received relocation expenses as well as reimbursement of two months of rent or mortgage up to $2,000 per month.

The now-expired CBA also contained provisions regarding players’ travel expenses. Along with providing for players’ transportation and lodging on road trips, players were each entitled to $75 per diem, including $15 for breakfast, $20 for lunch, $30 for dinner, and $10 for "additional" expenses.

Although midseason friendlies were a controversial topic among fans, in many instances players directly benefited from them. Any player who made the 18-man roster in a friendly against one of eight premium opponents received either a $1,500 or $2,000 appearance fee, depending on the opponent. For more typical friendlies, players would not receive an appearance fee for the first game in which the player made the 18-man roster, but would receive appearance fees on an escalating scale starting at $500 and rising to $1,000 for each additional game.

In addition to appearance fees for friendlies, players were entitled to an escalating scale of club promotional appearances, starting at $250 and rising, based on a few factors, as high as $750 per appearance. Charitable appearances, likely including appearances with the Portland Timbers’ Stand Together program, were excluded from this fee scale.

The CBA also had provisions regarding bonuses for performance in competitive games. For every MLS regular-season game won, a team’s players would collectively receive a $4,500 bonus to be divided among the players. If that team won the Supporters’ Shield, the players collectively received a $50,000 bonus. Finally, the MLS Cup winning team collectively took home a $200,000 bonus, which, assuming equal distribution across a 30-man roster, breaks down to $6,667 per player. Finally, the old CBA contained a provision whereby half of the winnings from any other tournament, up to $750,000, would be given to the players.

Over the past year, one of the biggest sources of public uncertainty about MLS contracts has been the validity of club-options whereby at the end of a season the club could unilaterally choose to extend a player’s contract for an additional year. Although not every player’s contract contained club-option years, many in MLS did, which became a source of consternation for some when Camilo Sanvezzo and Carlos Salcedo made noise about challenging the validity of such options so those players could move to new clubs without the receiving club paying a transfer fee. Neither player nor their new clubs mounted such a successful challenge, however, with both clubs ultimately paying transfer fees for their players.

The old CBA is almost certainly a significant reason for this; these options were specifically bargained-for between MLS and the Players Union in 2010. When club-options have been held unenforceable in other leagues, it has largely been because of the bargaining power disparity between club and an individual (usually young) player. Under the old CBA, however, that dynamic did not exist to the same extent in MLS because the Union and MLS negotiated the terms by which such options were permitted in the CBA negotiations - a much leveler bargaining playing field than that between an individual player and a club.

The terms themselves are interesting. Contracts for players over the age of 25 with four years of MLS experience could contain two club-option provisions. Contracts for all other players could contain a maximum of three option provisions. Moreover, players earning less than $125,000 who appeared in 66% of their team’s games the prior year were guaranteed at least a 10% wage increase if their club exercised an option in the player’s contract. If such a player played in 75% of their team’s games, the player was guaranteed a minimum 12.5% wage increase.  Thus, the combination of collective bargaining, limitations on the number of club-options a contract could contain, and guaranteed wage increases for players who appeared in certain numbers of games likely inoculated MLS club-options against outside challenges.

Without question, many of these provisions will change when the players and the league reach a new CBA. The club-option terms and free-agency provisions are certainly among the most hotly contested issues in the current round of negotiations. But the memorandum’s details provide an interesting look into the last CBA and help place the current discussions in greater context.