What are the deadlines?
The collective bargaining agreement between Major League Soccer and the league’s Players Association (MLSPA) will expire on Friday after the two parties negotiated a brief extension. The sides have promised “productive discussions” are ongoing, but if there has been any progress, the sides have been tight-lipped. If they can’t agree terms, then one realistic option is for the players to strike. It’s happened in other major leagues in the US, the last work stoppage coming in the NHL’s 2012-13 season lockout, when nearly 50% of games were cancelled.
There’s a bit of a cushion until the regular season, which is due to kick off on 29 February. However, the first indication of actual strife between the two parties will be if a work stoppage continues through the first round of Concacaf Champions League matches, on 18 February.
If a strike extended to the start of the MLS season and beyond, it would be the first time in the league’s history that regular-season games were affected by a work stoppage.
What are the stakes?
The 2020 season marks the 25th year in the relatively brief history of MLS, and the league is adding two teams a season between now and 2022. The league hopes one team in particular, the David Beckham owned Inter Miami, will give it a boost in publicity in America’s crowded sports market. If the strike means Miami can’t even take the field when the season starts, it hardly sends out the message that MLS is a league meant to be taken seriously.
Added to that, MLS is starting to think about its next broadcast deal, which is due to expire at the end of 2022. The current deal brought in an average of around $90m per year. That number is expected to climb, but to exactly what is unsure. MLS will likely downplay the prospect of that deal increasing in an era of increased cable-cutting, even though the league is touting an all-time high 46 network televised games for 2020. Again, the potential chaos of a strike will not help a league attempting to portray itself as a smooth-running operation when it goes to the negotiating table with broadcasters.
What are the key sticking points?
Flights, for a start. Under the existing agreement, teams were limited to four charter flights a year, meaning they often flew commercial. That led to amusing images – for fans anyway – of the likes of Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic squeezed into an economy class seat between two salesmen from Omaha. Rooney even went on Twitter at one point to vent about the situation. With Inter Miami joining the league, the longest distance away trip, for Vancouver v Miami, will be more than 2,700 miles. The MLSPA are looking for more charter flights, where players will be on a private jet, under the new agreement. MLS commissioner Don Garber has indicated the league is willing to budge on the matter. “I can assure you that there will be more charter travel in the new CBA,” he said. “Whether it goes all the way to 100%, I think it’s a function of how negotiations go.”
Changes to free agency are also on the players’ wishlist. The current set-up gives owners incredible control over player movement. Free agency is currently only allowed for players that are 28 or older and have played eight seasons in the league, with a cap on the pay increase they can receive. The MLSPA will hope to see both the age and season requirements reduced.
Another point of dispute has been the discussion of allocation money. Entire articles could, and have been written on the Byzantine structure of MLS salary rules. But no salary mechanism is more complex than the difference between general allocation money (GAM) and targeted allocation money (TAM), and how you can attain and spend each one of them.
Essentially, both are funds outside of the existing salary cap that are allocated (hence the name) to teams from a league fund. The MLSPA has argued against TAM, which can only be used to pay players earning $530,000 and $1.5m, which increases pay to a very specific range of players while leaving other players behind. The list of players that TAM has helped the league sign or hold onto contains some of its most successful and popular names, something that MLS will argue is necessary for the league.
Where are the sides now?
There’s been little information on exactly where the sides are, but negotiations are ongoing, and the last-minute extension and continuing pre-season are promising signs. There is also the fact that we’ve been in a similar situation before: the 2015 agreement made marginal gains for the players under a deal struck shortly before the season began. This was after arguments from MLS that the health of the league would be affected by a strike.
MLS will have a more difficult time making the same argument this time around, particularly when expansion teams now reportedly pay $325m entrance fees to join the league. MLS has also grown from the 20 teams that played in 2015, when the previous deal was signed, to 24 in the 2019 season and 30 teams by 2022.
MLS will likely state that its revenue is in the red, and it can’t afford to hand out more money. Forbes estimates that the league’s teams collectively lost more than $100m over the course of the 2018 season, with only seven franchises turning a profit, and Garber has regularly cited this argument. However in a recent interview with the Athletic, Arthur Blank, owner of Atlanta United FC, contradicted this, saying, “[MLS] has grown and yet maintained, I think, financial integrity and stability. Not all the clubs are profitable, but most are, and most are getting more profitable.”