MLS players approved a revised collective bargaining agreement with team owners Wednesday, avoiding a threatened lockout and clearing the way for MLS to end it COVID-19 suspension and become the first major professional sports league in the U.S. to return to play — early next month in Florida.
The players agreed to substantial financial concessions, including a 7.5% salary cut (5% annualized) and a reduction in individual and team bonuses. Additionally, terms of a five-year collective-bargaining agreement approved last winter won’t take effect until next season, delaying pay increases. The union also accepted a one-year reduction in its share of revenue from a new broadcast deal to give the league some financial relief.
“We hope our return to the field will allow fans a momentary release and a semblance of normalcy,” the union said in a statement.
The league and the union added a force majeure clause into the CBA to allow either side to back out of the contract under extraordinary and unforeseen circumstances, such as a new wave of COVID-19 infections that would force MLS to shut down again.
“I can assure you, our entire industry and really all business globally, force majeure clauses are going to be a part of agreements going forward,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said in Zoom conference with reporters.
Garber said he estimates the long-term cost of the COVID-19 shutdown for MLS at $1 billion. The league halted play March 12, two games into its 25th anniversary season, and will return with a televised league tournament to be played behind closed doors at ESPN’s sprawling Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando in early July.
“For us it’s really important that this is coming to a close and we’re going to have some definitive plan moving forward,“ said Nashville defender Daniel Lovitz, one of the expansion team’s three union representatives. “I think I speak for everybody in sharing how excited and relieved we all are to be returning to the field relatively soon.”
As for the CBA negotiations, Lovitz said both sides took hits from the coronavirus shutdown.
“There was no winner. I want to be clear about that,” he said. “This is a really terrible situation for all parties involved.”
The Orlando tournament will begin with all 26 teams playing three group-stage games, with the top two team in each group advancing to the elimination rounds. Only the group-play games would count in the regular-season standings.
Players and staff, expected to total more than 1,000 people, will be housed in a Disney resort for up to 35 days beginning in the final week of June. Everyone inside the protective bubble will undergo regular COVID-19 testing, paid for by MLS.
“I have been in contact with a lot of players from a lot of different teams in a lot of different markets during this whole process and I can tell you that there are groups of guys that are not excited about going to Orlando. That’s just the fact,” Lovitz said.
Garber said after the tournament teams would return to their home markets, where he was hopeful they would be able to complete the 34-game regular season even if it means playing in empty stadiums — another blow to a league that counts game-day spending as its largest source of revenue.
“The task is monumental. And we accept that, for the most part, those games will be played without fans,” Garber said.
Added Lovitz: “We want to play the whole season. That is the goal for both sides.”
Galaxy general manager Dennis te Kloese, who has long called for a careful, cautious approach to reopening, said there are many loose ends still to be tied up. But he’s happy with the progress so far.
“It’s very positive to start planning and programming everything to return to play. We’ll keep more than a close eye on players’ safety and health and will be proud to show our team again,” he said.
“There’s still a lot of details to support players, their families and how to be prepare in these challenging times. We will attempt with our club and its support staff to create an atmosphere where they feel safe and valued.”
Garber said some players with preexisting medical conditions or family concerns will be able to opt out of the Orlando tournament but Te Kloese said Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, his team’s highest-paid player, would take part despite the fact his wife is pregnant with the couple’s second child.
LAFC general manager John Thorrington was less definitive about Carlos Vela, the league’s reigning MVP, whose wife is also pregnant.
“We are going to address every individual on a case-by-case basis,” he said. “We understand players have unique circumstances. We’ll work with players and the league to come up with the right solution.”
But Thorrington promised whomever LAFC takes to Florida, they’re going to be happy to be playing again.
“The culture of our club is whatever we’re in, we’re going to try to win. And I don’t see this being any different,” he said. “This is a Herculean task to pull off. It’s going to require a monumental effort from everybody. But in so doing we will throw everything at it that we can.”
Although MLS was the first of the top-five U.S. leagues to announce a return-to-play agreement with its players, the NBA and NHL could finalize their plans for a restart this week. Major League Baseball appears far from a deal with its players.
The nine-team National Women’s Soccer League announced last week it would begin its season June 27 in Utah with a 25-game tournament to be played in two empty stadiums in Salt Lake City area.