Like that gif of Sideshow Bob continuously running into rakes, MLS just can’t get out of its own way.
Last Tuesday, reports first surfaced via ESPN that the league notified the MLS Player’s Association that it will invoke the force majeure clause in the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Despite sounding like a dubious tasting marmalade, invoking the force majeure clause will obligate both the league and the players’ union to return to the negotiating table, where they will negotiate modifications to the existing CBA for 30 days. If no agreement can be reached at the end of the 30 day period, the existing CBA can be terminated.
Before we dive into the deep implications of this, let’s take a look at how we got here. According to a report by Jeff Reuter and Matt Pentz of the Athletic, MLS cites losses of “nearly $1 billion” during the 2020 season as one of the main justifications for invoking the clause. The league relies heavily upon gameday revenue and broadcasting deals — two things that were heavily disrupted by the pandemic-impacted 2020 season. The former is likely to continue to be affected in 2021, as the anticipated timeline of vaccinations sets the safe return of mass gatherings (like having stadiums full of soccer fans) for around late summer at the absolute earliest.
With more anticipated lost revenue at the gates and in its stadiums next season and other expected income from broadcasting deals up in the air, the league made the call that the terms of the CBA negotiated back in June are no longer sufficient for league success. They were terms that were contentious and drawn out and nearly ended in a lockout. Terms that resulted in players taking a pay cut just to help the league survive. And terms that were negotiated during a global pandemic.
With this move signaling its willingness to burn the previous CBA down, the league is destroying all of the scant goodwill it built with the players last season, and jeopardizing not only continued trust with it’s own players, but also the very occurrence of it’s own competition next year.
It is not in doubt that the league lost money during the 2020 season, but it’s short-sighted to believe it was the only party who had skin in the game last year. As previously mentioned, the players agreed to a pay cut to help mitigate losses. For the large swath of players in the league who do not make the six-figure salary level, this was not an insignificant decrease.
Plus, these same players who sacrificed wages also had to literally put their health on the line to do their jobs. The outbreaks of COVID-19 during the season that impacted teams last season impacted not only the competitive balance, but also potentially the career of an afflicted player. All of the players also agreed to go into a month-long bubble in Orlando of all places, just to be able to fulfill the league’s wishes and play soccer.
After all of that sacrifice, after putting all of that trust in the league, to then be told “Nah, sorry, all of that wasn’t good enough, we need you to potentially take another pay cut and sacrifice things we agreed to before,” is a slap in the face. And the MLS Players Association is unquestionably viewing it as such:
The fact that the 2020 MLS season happened was a near-miracle. Despite all of the forces that stacked up against it, the players and league reached an amicable agreement that allowed MLS to become the first men’s American sports league to return to play last summer. After a shaky start, the Orlando bubble held. And, in spite of teams suffering through internal COVID-19 outbreaks, a regular season was held, and an MLS Cup champion was crowned (again, shouts to Caleb Porter for tearing Seattle to shreds).
All of that was built on trust between the union and the league & owners. The CBA was agreed upon until 2025, and there were several wins for the players in the deal. Things such as an increased minimum salary, greater free agency flexibility, and increased funds for travel amenities such as charter flights were important benefits that allowed the players to take advantage of Major League Soccer’s increasing profile and success.
They were important steps towards equity — all agreed upon during what was perhaps the most challenging time in the league’s history. The agreement built a small amount of goodwill that even in the worst of times, the players will still be able to be prioritized and taken care of by the league they play for.
With the league’s move to invoke force majeure, all of that goodwill and trust is going up in flames. The reality is that the league is signaling that they are willing to completely terminate the CBA if they do not get the new terms that they want. The players are left in an exhausting spot: After working so hard over the summer to sacrifice and get terms that they were satisfied with, they are now being asked to sacrifice potentially even more, and may even have to bear witness to their deal being completely torn to shreds.
Do I profess to know the exact amounts of revenue lost, or the continued shortfall the league is projecting? Of course not. The numbers may be suggesting that MLS could be in an untenable spot if the CBA isn’t reworked. I do not doubt that 2021 will again be a bizarre and difficult season, and I’m sure that MLS will not make as much money as the league was anticipating.
But I do know that the optics of terminating a negotiated deal with your players while still in the midst of a global pandemic, jeopardizing their financial security in the process at perhaps the worst possible time, is really bad. And doing so a little more than six months after reaching a landmark agreement that allowed soccer to even happen in 2020 is extra bad. Everything reported so far suggests that the players are unequivocally pissed at the league for doing this, and I can’t say I’m not on their side.
The league is also taking a risk by invoking the clause. There is a strong possibility that this ultimately ends in one or both parties walking away, and the CBA gets terminated. If that transpires, we are likely looking at a work stoppage, and not for an insignificant amount of time. If the league would lose money during an “as close to regular as it can be” 2021 season, it will definitely lose money during a “no soccer is even happening” delayed 2021 season. So it will also be coming to negotiations with strong motivations and emotions, creating just as about as charged of a bargaining environment as can exist.
Feelings aside, the reality is that all parties will be at the (Zoom-enabled) negotiation table very soon, if they’re not even already there. The deadline for reaching a deal appears to be January 28th, as does potential questions around the CBA: What concessions will the league ask for? If there are additional pay cuts proposed, how much will they be? From their bargaining position, will the players be prepared to strike ?
If you think those questions sound similar to ones that may have been asked this past summer ... you’re probably right. MLS has forced itself and its players to go through another round of what are bound to be contentious labor negotiations yet again, and all during this ongoing pandemic.
The fact that this is the case is testing the patience and willingness of the players to collaborate. Whatever the justifications for negotiation may be, relationships between the union and the league appear to be significantly damaged. Have they been damaged to a point where we will see a work stoppage? Time will tell, and the clock is ticking. And MLS has ensured that any goodwill that was left in the room after the summer has now packed up and departed for the winter.