In case you were worried that MLS finally figured out how to get out of its own way, don’t worry — they’re still running into rakes left and right.
But now, those rakes happened to be perched at the end of a cliff, and the league is about to smack itself in the head hard enough to fall off the edge, Wile E. Coyote style.
And just like the cartoon, it really has no one to blame but itself.
The saga of renegotiating the CBA that kicked off last month by the league invoking force majeure has ignited a firestorm. Where it has left us is with an 11:59pm EST deadline next Thursday for the two parties to come to an agreement. If not, then the league is prepared to terminate the current CBA and lock out the players for the first time in league history.
Before we dive into the deep implications of that coming to pass, let’s lay out the timeline of the developments that led us to the edge of this cliff.
So, how did we get here?
I previously outlined the league and owners invoking force majeure, and how it triggered this new round of negotiations barely six months after the previous ones ended. At the time, the league was using the rationale of the reported “$1 billion in losses” during 2020 to justify the need to renegotiate, but it seemed like the league was ultimately straining relations with the player’s union by forcing parties back to the table yet again. And what has transpired since has done little to refute that reality.
The main thesis of the league’s proposals is extending the current CBA by two additional years, through the end of the 2027 MLS season. In return, the league promises no new salary cuts for 2021 as well as … well, not much else by way of concessions to the players.
On the surface, it seems to be fair — maintain salaries during a pandemic in exchange for just two more years on the current deal — but in reality it surmounts to short term gain for the players, in exchange for significant long term loss of opportunity. By not being able to re-negotiate salaries for two additional years, the players lose the opportunity to take advantage of growing revenue and relevance for the league, which would ultimately result in lower compensation than would be possible under the current CBA timeline. When balancing the reported 2020 losses against what would be gained, the claim that force majeure was necessary for league survival is ... questionable, at best.
Did MLS really need to re-open CBA talks? Or are the negotiations a case of owners trying to leverage the pandemic into ripping up their contract w/ the players?— Sam Stejskal (@samstejskal) January 27, 2021
Look at their spending. Look at their offer. As a deadline looms, the evidence seems clear: https://t.co/jrlELhSXV5
Another event the players wouldn’t be able to take advantage of is a little thing called the FIFA World Cup. The United States, Canada, and Mexico are joint-hosting the event in 2026, and it is sure to provide a huge boost for soccer in America, as well as for MLS. The current CBA is structured to end in 2025, therefore giving parties the opportunity to create a new deal prior to the event. Under the league’s proposal, a new deal would be over a year removed from the tournament. To the players, and to the outside observer, it sure seemed like this proposal was an attempt by the league and owners to minimize its expenses by preventing the players from taking full advantage of the benefits of the World Cup.
The league apparently didn’t see it that way. They viewed their offer as “a fair proposal,” and the delay in response by the MLSPA as not acceptable. So much so in fact, that they basically subtweeted their own players in a letter to the fans, unveiled before the SuperDraft.
The MLSPA responded appropriately:
Since then, the players association had been hammering out their own counter proposal, which was delivered to the league and revealed publicly on Thursday. Yesterday was the final day in the thirty day window to negotiate, outlined by the league when it invoked force majeure.
While that was happening, however, MLS was also circulating a memo advising teams and staff to prepare for a lockout. For the first time since this shindig kicked off, the league looked prepared to take the nuclear option, blow up the CBA, and put the entire 2021 season in jeopardy.
Uh, wow. Okay, what happened yesterday?
The MLSPA, tired of being subtweeted, unveiled its latest counteroffer to the league. Among other things, they conceded a smaller percentage of revenue sharing from future media rights deals and also proposed extending the current CBA by one year, rather than two. It constituted real concessions from the players, and did amount to them giving up some, but not all, of the pieces of the pie that would be gained by the 2026 World Cup.
It was also accompanied by a pretty strong social media campaign from the players, wherein they expressed their support for the plan. And, presumably in response to the threat of lockout, they noted that they were ready and prepared to come to compromise and play soccer:
A proposal with real concessions, a fair proposal to help mitigate losses, and a deal that would allow the season to go on. Seems like a good offer that the league should accept, no?
Well if you’ve been following along to this point, you already know the answer to that.
In the early hours of Friday morning, news came out that MLS has essentially rejected the union’s proposal. The league and players association have agreed to a one week extension on negotiations, and a statement from the league made sure to identify that sides still “remain far apart” in securing a deal. If the parties cannot come to an agreement by 11:59pm EST next Thursday, it all goes up in smoke.
#MLS announces that it has agreed to a one-week extension with #MLSPA on #MLSCBA talks. If deal isn't reached in that time, it will terminate CBA and lock out players. MLS says 2 sides are "far apart" on a deal. We'll see how much of that is posturing & how much is reality.— Jeff Carlisle (@JeffreyCarlisle) January 29, 2021
To be clear — the MLSPA made significant and real concessions in a negotiation that they didn’t even ask for, giving up real revenue and long term benefits, all for a process which may have been unnecessary in the first place. They came halfway in the negotiations. And the league has come out and basically said “nope”.
Oh my God why would they do that?
On face value, it seems like the biggest sticking point for the league is the CBA extension. Purely speculating, but it seems that they can foresee the large windfall that the 2026 World Cup will bring, and they want to ensure now that they can maximize their profits then. It seems that the league doesn’t even want to touch the CBA until well after the World Cup bump has passed so that the league can reap the full benefits of the 2026 tournament.
Yes, being able to keep the league successful and support itself through the ongoing impacts of the pandemic is very real and undoubtedly a concern for all parties. But with the league rejecting concessions that would help mitigate the negative impacts of this season, it can be argued that that was never the real reason in the first place.
But beyond face value ... I’m not really sure why the league would do this. By holding the threat of lockout over the players it can be assumed that the threat is credible, and if no deal is reached players will be locked out. However if the league does that, it torpedoes any kind of momentum that the league is building. Which is essential for ... maximizing the benefits of the 2026 World Cup.
It would certainly be the most American soccer thing ever for the league to lockout the players over the expected boost from a World Cup that's coming in 5 years, thereby preemptively limiting the effect of that boost.— Jason Davis (@davisjsn) January 29, 2021
The league is jeopardizing itself by its own actions. A lock out would have huge financial consequences and hurt MLS’s reputation. Forget the impact of not having fans in the stands for most of 2021 — the league will undoubtedly lose significant money and prestige by losing part of the season. Which will in turn damage the league’s status as it approaches hosting the biggest soccer event in the world.
Whatever the reasons may be, both sides are still stuck where they are; with one week left to stave off the first player lockout in MLS history.
Okay, what happens next?
Ideally, the parties come to an agreement. Both sides have agreed to a regular meeting schedule over the next week, and in a best case scenario everyone comes together to mete out a deal that everyone is happy with, and we all get to enjoy some soccer this year.
But realistically, it’s a whole lot murkier than that. It takes two to tango in any labor negotiation. Despite their reluctant and very legitimate grievances, the MLSPA danced and put forth a compromise. The league decided to just stare at them while they did that, take off their dancing shoes, and just go home.
Sitting here thinking about how the MLSPA met the league halfway and the owners' reaction was, "We unanimously vote to lock them out."— Paul Tenorio (@PaulTenorio) January 29, 2021
Sending a pretty strong message of how much they plan on actually compromising here and what the end game looks to be.
Relations between the two sides, already strained, are probably close to reaching their breaking point. It must be frustrating for the MLSPA to feel like they’re the only one jumping through the hoops and being willing to compromise. And to then be told that they will be locked out if they don’t mortgage their own future under dubious rationales? I know I would be angry.
There’s no telling how the rest of this will play out. Will the MLSPA relent and cave, as has happened in prior negotiations? Will MLS offer any real concessions and try to meet the players halfway? Will the fans be left with a lockout, and players left with looking for short-term deals abroad so they can play soccer this year? Will I write another CBA piece next week that’s even longer than this one? Who knows.
What we do know is that the clock is still ticking, only more urgently now. And we as fans are left to watch the league continue to come perilously close to knocking itself off a cliff.
And it will still be its own fault.