Can you be a legitimate league in North America and not have a work stoppage? Apparently MLS doesn’t think so, as it is on the verge of careening into their first one in their 25 years of existence.
How did we get here? Well, the root of it is like all the other leagues currently, which is what owners are claiming to have lost due to the pandemic, what they are claiming they will still lose, and the very raised and skeptical eyebrows of a players’ union in response.
To review: MLS and the MLSPA agreed to a new CBA last February, but neither side actually ratified it before the MLS season was halted two weeks in, thanks to the pandemic in March. Before the league came back in its Orlando tournament in July, the two sides had to amend the previously agreed-to CBA, including inserting a force majeure clause at the owners’ behest. Which just so happens to be the clause that owners invoked last month, claiming that the pandemic and the connected losses justify opening up the whole thing to negotiation again. That triggered a 30-day window for the two sides to come to an agreement on a new CBA, or new amendments to the existing one, that ends at midnight tonight, or the owners can walk from it and enforce a work stoppage.
That’s where we’re apparently heading, as the MLS commissioner’s office was definitely preparing the ground for that yesterday.
What the players’ union is suspecting, and has every right to, is that this isn’t “emergency but opportunity.” MLS can claim heavy losses last year, more so than other leagues, because their TV deal is basically Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree compared to other leagues (the league gets a paltry $90 million a year from it), and the league heavily depends on gate and related revenues. Did they lose $1 billion last year as they claim? No one will know for sure, but it is a safe bet that they did lose a ton.
Still, what MLS owners are asking for in a new CBA, or improved one for them, doesn’t necessarily speak to losing their ass. They are not requesting pay cuts for players this season, just a freezing of the salary cap for the next two years, which was only supposed to be this year in the updated agreement the two sides hammered out in the summer. The big prize the owners want out of this is an extension to the CBA through 2027, and pushing back the incremental raises of both cap and salary in the original CBA along with that.
This is where the endgame becomes a little clearer. One, MLS’s TV deal ends after the 2022 season, when the league would like to keep things frozen as they are now. The following season, 2023, is when the last confirmed expansion of the league is set, with Sacramento and St. Louis coming aboard. And we know, or highly suspect, that the league’s real revenue comes from those expansion fees. A new TV deal in 2023 would be their last bump in revenues for a bit, assuming a jump from their current TV deals (even local TV deals end after the 2022 season thanks to a Dan Garber directive), and you can see why these guys would want to have years of reaping in those revenues without any massive change to what they have to pay the players.
Second, as of now the CBA is supposed to end before the 2026 World Cup, which is being held on these shores. The hope is that tournament would only grow interest in the game and the league afterwards, and massively so. You could see why the players would be very interested in getting a new CBA in that suddenly much more promising landscape. The owners want to keep things as they are for as long as they can, at least until they can see how the landscape after the World Cup definitely looks.
There is time, but not a ton. Teams are supposed to report to training camp in just about a month, with the season scheduled to start April 3. However, with the vaccine schedule as is, it wouldn’t be a surprise if MLS owners are just fine having the season start later than that, with the hope that the back half of the season could be played in front of at least half-full stadiums, if not more.
Would this be a time for MLS to try the European calendar? Pffft, only charming and handsome writers on sites for the damned like this one believe that. It’s hard to know what kind of effect a work stoppage that actually lingers into the season would have on the league. It might be that when they return, fans would still not be allowed in stands, making it impossible to gauge or making little difference anyway. The NHL has proven you can stop the season regularly for CBA negotiations and only take a temporary hit.
But the NHL didn’t have to deal with alternatives, really, during their repeated lockouts. It was the only game in town essentially. Soccer is different. European leagues will still be playing in the spring for soccer fans to get their televised footy fix, at least. Euro 2020(1) is still scheduled for the summer. And NWSL is around and growing and will definitely play, and all of them (save two teams) are in MLS markets. It’s one thing to anger fans with a work stoppage. It’s another and much worse thing if they barely notice or defiantly take up other options.
It’s an awfully big risk for the league, and yet facing the prospect of more fanless games, maybe the owners don’t really have all that much to lose. That seems to be their wager.