By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Dec 17, 2020) US Soccer Players – Collective bargaining negotiations can be lengthy, tense, and painful. That’s one reason why they tend to be multi-year agreements. The MLS Players Association was on the receiving end of an unwelcome exception to that this year, as the union found itself at the negotiating table with the league not once, but twice.
First, in more normal times, they worked through a CBA process last winter that ended ahead of the usual schedule, reaching an agreement almost a month before the start of the 2020 season with both sides sounding pleased.
Then the league brought the players back to the bargaining table to revise the deal in light of COVID-19 and related changes in the wider environment. After a far more bruising process, the players agreed to return to play in the midst of a deadly pandemic. That started with a bubble tournament in Florida that separated them from their loved ones for weeks/ Players made what they say were close to $150 million in financial concessions on wage cuts and bonuses trimmed 70% on average.
So it’s not hard to understand why MLSPA representatives sounded wary, weary, and worried when they spoke to media in a conference call last week.
Commissioner Don Garber has spoken of a billion dollars lost in 2020. The league recently laid off some 20% of its staff. All but one of MLS’s incoming expansion teams have delayed their scheduled date of entry in light of the pressures brought on by coronavirus and its accompanying economic woes. A league that relies heavily on gameday revenue is staring at the prospect of empty or mostly-empty stadiums enduring well into 2021.
So after a grueling year, “unquestionably the most difficult season in MLS history,” in the words of executive director Bob Foose, whose very completion was a major achievement, there’s the prospect of MLS insisting on doing it all over again. That means the potential for more pay cuts, more contentious bargaining, and more uncertainty.
“We now have reached the end of the season without official word,” Foose said. “But amid rumblings, and that’s what they are at this point, the rumblings that the league may be contemplating invoking the force majeure clause and terminating the CBA a second time this year in order to seek even more financial concessions from the players moving forward. This would be a mistake.”
MLS and its players union have generally been less antagonistic than other such management and labor relationships. The players recognize that a key way for them to gain more pay and benefits is for the league to grow and flourish. When things are going well, they speak of being partners and use inclusive “we” language. That may no longer be the case.
Players felt threatened and insulted by the owners’ sudden threat of a lockout late in the June talks. That was before they had to make myriad sacrifices and take on extra risks to finish the season. Foose said nearly 20% of the players caught COVID-19. All of them spent long periods of 75 to 120 days away from their families, particularly the three Canadian teams forced to take up extended residency in the United States due to border restrictions.
“One of the biggest difficulties we have to face as a player pool is risking our health in order to try and avoid the possibility of losing your source of income, health care. And a lot of us are in situations where we can’t afford to do that, because our families are getting hit by COVID and the pandemic. So it’s up to us to make sure that we continue holding everyone afloat,” said LAFC midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye. “I thought that it’d be a time where we would come together as a league and just try to help everyone out and be like, we’re all going to lose something here. But the players, that’s like hundreds and hundreds of families. I honestly know that the owners lose a lot of money and businesses, yeah, you lose money sometimes. But it’s like there’s more people who get affected on the ground level by something like this.”
MLS was one of the first sports leagues to return to work after the initial COVID shutdowns. Those with safety concerns faced the loss of wages if they opted out of competition. Those of us on the outside may never truly grasp what all that demanded of the individuals involved.
“As professional footballers, we were just constantly weighed down by situations where we were asked to balance preparing and putting everything into winning games, or being able to see our families at times, and it was brutal,” said Toronto FC’s Patrick Mullins, who was kept apart by his fiancee for weeks due to the border situation. “And that weight was constant.”
Beyond pointing out the obvious sacrifices they made to get the league going again, Kaye, Mullins, and their colleagues are making an appeal to the humanity and common sense of the owners and executives. The poor and middle-class are suffering vastly more than the wealthy during this extended international crisis, as a range of data points illustrates.
Will the league’s investor/operators treat their workforce like the centerpiece of their business, the commodity that will pace MLS towards its ambitious goals of world-class status, or a budget item to be hacked into shape?
“If we have to go into another negotiation, you lose faith in the league, because we’re supposed to try and build this league to be a top-five league in the world, right?” said Kaye. “And that’s aspirations the league have been saying they want to do for so long. But in order to do that, you have to bring your players along with you.”
With COVID vaccines rolling out as we speak, the overall prospects of a recovery are looking up, even if it will take months. MLS would seem to have justification for claiming an act-of-God level disruption to their business in 2020, not 2021. The 2026 World Cup so widely predicted to be a watershed for the sport in North America grows closer with each passing day.
“God willing, we get back to a more normal MLS in whenever, late spring, early summer of this year; this is a growth league with very, very bright prospects that has been improving substantially on a year-to-year basis,” said Foose. “And that requires spending more money, and particularly spending more money on players. So to take this hit, and then suddenly retrench on that spending doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. It’s likely to devalue franchises. Because this is a world market.”
The players took big risks so the show could go on this year. Will MLS’s leaders back up years of bold talk with some bold bets on the sport instead of against it? That’s the crux of the decisions before them.
“All of us, we need to recalibrate our thinking towards trying to get back to building MLS, making it the best league that we can,” said Foose. “We’re doing that with a less secure foundation and the relationship than we had 12 months ago or 10 months ago. So we need time to rebuild that.”
Charles Boehm is a Washington, DC-based writer and the editor of The Soccer Wire. Contact him at:email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at:http://twitter.com/cboehm.
More from Charles Boehm:
- USMNT takes care of business to cap a strange 2020
- USMNT squeeze in one more game before a tumultuous year’s end
- The MLS playoffs as entertainment
- The USMNT’s two sides of the ocean
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