MLS may have won CBA negotiations but damage to relationship with players is ‘irreparable’

    Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC.

Four months ago, when MLS and the MLS Players Association agreed on a framework for a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, the mood among the players was almost euphoric. The MLSPA made gains in free agency and hit upon a creative revenue-sharing agreement that allowed players to take part in the gains of what is expected to be a significant increase in domestic broadcast rights. There were wins for the rank and file as well, with an increase in potential bonuses for players at the lower end of the pay scale.

Except that euphoria has now given way to deep frustration. The coronavirus pandemic meant that that CBA was never ratified, opening the door for MLS to force a renegotiation of the deal. As a result, more than $100 million of gains from the February version will be wiped out over the next five years. That it came amid a threat from the league to lockout the players in the middle of a pandemic left many in the MLSPA membership — including the six that ESPN spoke with — incensed.

The concessions include a 7.5% salary cut for this season. That may not sound like much, and the players are well aware of what is happening in the world right now, but when you consider that at least a quarter of the league’s players make $100,000 or less, it cuts a bit deeper than one might initially think.

The much-lauded bonuses for 2020 are capped at $5m. The revenue-sharing agreement for future domestic broadcast rights was modified to cut the agreed-upon percentage in half in 2023. A force majeure clause, which would allow either side to cancel the CBA in the event of a catastrophic event like a pandemic, was also included. The CBA terms were also extended a year, with 2021’s terms moving to 2022, 2022 to 2023 and so on until the end of the deal, which now expires in January of 2026.

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The gains for MLS will no doubt take the sting out of what commissioner Don Garber characterized on Wednesday as a $1 billion revenue hit. There could be some hidden costs associated, however.

“We’re back to 2015”

To a man, the players are furious with what they view as the league’s heavy-handed approach to negotiations. It started six weeks ago with MLS asking the players to take a 50% pay cut as it related to the entire 2020 payroll. With four months of paychecks already in the bank for this year, players would have seen an even greater hit moving forward. A deal was ultimately struck, but the negotiations ended with the threat of a lockout.

(MLS declined to comment.)

It’s easy to say in hindsight that the league would have never followed through with its threat to lock the players out, that it was merely a negotiating tactic and nothing more. But a league source with knowledge of the talks said MLS was feeling the pressure of time given that it needed to make commitments for the proposed Orlando tournament in July. Nashville SC midfielder Dax McCarty said MLS moved the deadline back “four or five times.”

“Once you move the deadline once, we’re going to start thinking that you’re full of s—,” he told ESPN.

The league also contended that the MLSPA inserted clauses to supposed “final offers” that hadn’t been discussed before. (One player said that characterization was “totally false.”)

But what did MLS really gain by threatening a lockout? The players held firm in terms of the force majeure clause, removing language that would have allowed the league to invoked the clause if five teams sustained restrictions on stadium capacity of 25 percent or more. And the two sides were inching closer on the issues of salary cuts and revenue sharing. In the end, all the threat of a lockout achieved was to increase the ire of the players, which isn’t abating.

“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,” San Jose Earthquakes veteran forward Chris Wondolowski told ESPN. “And I don’t want to be on the other side of the talks in five years. The owners can and will try to smooth things out and I hope they do. But for me, I think it’s like an open can of Coke. Once you open it, you can’t save it for later. It’s not the same no matter what you do.”

One player who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution said that the relationship between the players and the league may be even worse than it was in 2015, when a bitter CBA negotiation was followed by the league imposing salary-related items such as Targeted Allocation Money, extra cap space that benefited just a fraction of the league’s players. The vibe now is similar, with one player calling the damage “irreparable.”

“We were hoping that we’d be able to find a solution together to all these things and be consulted on certain things, have a dialogue about what return-to-play looks like,” the player said about the recently concluded negotiations. “And we just really didn’t have it. It was just all kind of jammed down our throats. ‘Accept or get locked out.'”

Just how long-lasting those sentiments will be is difficult to discern. It could be argued that the agreement is a stain for MLS given the tactics it employed, and that the players will be looking for payback during the next negotiation. But wounds heal, memories fade and players move on.

Five years is also a long time. The enmity that existed after the 2015 deal didn’t prevent a relatively stress-free negotiation five years later. What’s likely to emerge is a warier and wiser union membership.

A win for MLS as a league

In the aftermath of a deal, which in labor situations are always tense and emotional, there is often talk of winners and losers. On a conference call with reporters, Inter Miami CF goalkeeper Luis Robles said there were “no winners.”

McCarty added, “I think that the only time that you’ll be able to see how the how the negotiations played out this time around is when we have another round of negotiations next time.”

But it is telling that the respective moods of each side were at opposite ends of the spectrum. One league source characterized the agreement as “really creative” in that the players kept the bulk of their salaries in exchange for long-term sacrifices like the modified revenue-sharing plan. If you’re MLS, it’s easy to be magnanimous when you’re clawing back more than $100m.

On the player side, the reaction to the actual deal itself was more mixed, and leaned toward thinking of what was given up. One player who asked not to be identified did say he felt the deal gave the players “massive security.” The paychecks will still arrive, at least for another seven months. But that was something the players thought they had back in February, only to have the proverbial rug pulled out from under them. And it took considerable concessions to maintain that security.

One aspect to keep an eye on going forward is the impact these talks will have on interest from international players. Certainly had a lockout occurred, that would likely have given international players — and their agents — pause as to how desirable a destination the league is. For now it looks like an obstacle has been dodged for MLS.

“I still think MLS has a lot to give to players,” the Chicago Fire’s Dutch defender Johan Kappelhof told ESPN. “And it’s still a great experience. This [CBA] negotiation is just part of the whole. But I wouldn’t be negative to other players about the league, or advise them not to come because of this.”

But Kappelhof added that the experience of the past few months has been eye-opening. “It goes both ways,” he said. “I don’t necessarily like how everything went in the CBA negotiations, but I also understand that MLS was also looking for their best interest.

“That’s a part of the game, unfortunately. I don’t think it’s a nice game, but I’m glad that we’re good for the next five years.”

Who has leverage?

The dynamic between MLS and the MLSPA remains one in which the owners have the power. The league’s spend on player compensation means that MLS players make far less than those in other North American sports or the world’s major soccer leagues. The MLSPA is also a young union, with modest resources: its net assets at the end of 2019 were $12.6m. (By comparison, the National Basketball Players Association has total assets of over $200m.)

Yet there have been moments when the players have stood up to the league and gained concessions. In 2015, the MLSPA actually took a strike vote, bringing MLS back to the table, when it looked like talks were dead, and cracking open the free agency door. This time around the players held firm, and rebuffed an onerous force majeure clause that was tied to specific reductions in stadium capacity.

So do the players perhaps have more leverage than they think? They are the product, after all, and the unity the union showed in this instance served them well at times. The union will grow too, yet the sheer economic power of the league looms over any negotiation.

“As long as we have guys at the bottom end of the pay scale who can’t afford a work stoppage, it is really hard to use a strike in our favor to get us moving forward in the direction we want to go,” LAFC midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye told ESPN. “I’m hoping that in due time, the players can find a way to try and fight back and get a little bit more power going forward.”

What’s next for the MLSPA?

The aftermath of a negotiation is always an opportunity to reflect on the performance of the MLSPA leadership. In 2015, there was more than an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the performance of executive director Bob Foose, a sentiment that largely disappeared in the ensuing years. This time around, the consensus was that the union leadership did the best they could under difficult circumstances.

“I want to give a lot of credit to the leadership, not only the PA staff, but our executive board as well,” said McCarty. “I think that they handled everything that was thrown at them in a professional manner. I think that the communication at times probably could have been clearer, but ultimately, I trust our PA staff and our executive board to handle delicate situations.

“In a negotiation like this, you’re never going to please everybody. There are factions and portions of our player pool that I’m sure are not happy with the deal that was struck and that’s what you’re going to run into.”

The MLSPA will no doubt reexamine their processes, and it’s almost guaranteed that in the future it will never again leave a CBA framework dangling without ratification without some protections put in.

Return-to-play plans in Orlando

Now the players will have to muster up the energy to head to Orlando and resume the season. Without question, the six-week maximum that a team would be gone is much more palatable than the 10-week slog that was initially proposed. But at the moment, it feels like the players are being asked to eat their vegetables.

“Nobody exactly knows how to navigate a situation like this,” said McCarty. “For me, I’m excited to get back on the field. But I’m not excited to be away from my wife and my young son for 4-6 weeks, however long it’s going to be. That’s going to be very different for me.”

Several players acknowledged that there are still some unknowns in terms of testing of staff and meal preparation that have yet to be fully explained. That isn’t making the reality any more palatable.

“[Orlando] is something that certainly doesn’t have wide-range support in the player pool,” said one player. “But again, it’s something that we were pretty much forced to accept: ‘You’re going to accept Orlando, or we’re going to lock you out.'”

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