MLS players ratify seven-year collective bargaining agreement with league

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FILE - In this Feb. 26, 2020, file photo, Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garbe.
MLS Commissioner Don Garber thanked the players' union Monday for "their thoughtful and collaborative approach on the new CBA." (Richard Drew / Associated Press)

Major League Soccer and its players union signed off on a seven-year collective bargaining agreement Monday, removing the threat of a lockout and clearing the way for training camps to open later this month.

The CBA, which will run through the 2027 season, was tentatively approved by the union’s bargaining committee and executive board Friday but needed approval from the full membership as well as the league’s board of governors before it could take effect.

The deal restores pay cuts the union agreed to a year ago in the wake of the temporary COVID-19 shutout and trims a year off the qualification standards for free agency beginning in 2026, extending it to players 24 years of age with at least four years of MLS service time.

The CBA approved Monday will freeze team salary caps at the 2020 level of $4.9 million for the next two seasons but that figure will then grow an average of $433,600 over the following five years to $7.068 million. In addition, the minimum salary for players on the senior roster will jump from $81,375 in 2021 to $125,875 in 2027. The maximum budget charge against the salary cap for an individual player will remain frozen at $612,500 through 2022, but will then grow to just more than $833,000 by 2027.

Players will also share in the increased revenue generated by new media-rights deals beginning in 2023. The League’s current local, national and international media-rights partnerships expire at the end of 2022.

“We have enormous respect and appreciation for everything the players have done helping build the league and the sport throughout the years, and they've gone above and beyond during the pandemic,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said in a statement. “We thank the MLSPA leadership and the players for their thoughtful and collaborative approach on the new CBA.

“We worked together to address the ongoing impact of COVID-19 on the league and we appreciate the players’ efforts to develop a CBA that deals with the uncertainty of the pandemic while also providing stability during the next seven years to enable further growth. We look forward to seeing the players on the training field in a few weeks as they begin preparations for the upcoming season.”

Despite those words of cooperation, Garber had threatened to lock the players out twice in the last eight months, first in June and again last week, citing extreme financial hardship. MLS relies on game-day sales and sponsorships for much of its revenue and the commissioner has repeatedly said the pandemic cost the league nearly $1 billion in lost revenue last season.

Public health officials have said it is unlikely teams will be able to fill stadiums again until late summer or early fall, which will only add to the league’s losses.

“MLS players have made incredible sacrifices and overcome considerable challenges in the past year to continue doing their jobs during a difficult time for all of us,” the players association said in a statement of its own. “We owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to our player leadership for continuing to guide us during these unprecedented times.”

MLS and the players have negotiated three CBAs over the last 13 months, although the latest deal was basically an amended two-year extension of the contract approved last June when the league was in the third month of a four-month break in play brought on by COVID-19. During those talks the league insisted on the addition of a force majeure clause, which voids the CBA in the event of extraordinary circumstances such as a pandemic.

The league invoked the clause in December, forcing the union back to the bargaining table to work out a new deal. The union offered $53 million in concessions on top of the $150 million in concessions it agreed to in June, but wanted the deal to end after the 2026 season. The league insisted on a seven-year deal — two seasons longer than normal — in an effort to assure labor peace through the 2026 World Cup, which will be played in North America.

The tournament is expected to provide a substantial boost for soccer in the U.S. and Canada, where MLS teams play.

MLS training camps are expected to open Feb. 22 with the regular season kicking off in early April. The league said it expects to release its 2021 schedule shortly.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.