After a heated final round of negotiations, Major League Soccer and the MLS Players Association seemed on Tuesday to be on course toward playing a tournament this summer at Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex near Orlando, Fla.
There were a lot of bumps and bruises getting to this point.
Because the players haven’t yet ratified the collective bargaining agreement that was agreed to in February, owners moved to get back some of what they gave up in the deal. That reportedly included pay cuts and a change in how broadcast revenue is split between owners and players.
The players were willing to listen and negotiate. On Sunday, they offered a set of reductions in salaries, bonuses, and other concessions. The owners not only rejected the offer, but ESPN reported they threatened to lock out the players if they did not agree to the owners’ specific demands by noon Tuesday.
Those demands included the creation of a force majeure allowance to back out of the CBA. ESPN reported that owners wanted to trigger it upon a 25% decrease in attendance among any five teams from one season to another.
The report sparked a public outcry against the league the likes of which hasn’t been seen in quite a while. It was transparent to fans and media alike that attendance is within owners’ control. They can raise ticket prices, control capacities, and even fudge numbers without the truth being known. And they could play games behind closed doors in 2021 if there isn’t a coronavirus vaccine yet.
It is not known whether the players called the owners out on that logic specifically. But it is known that the players called the owners out, and many declined to attend voluntary practices this week as a protest. The Athletic reported they’d take a force majeure rule, but without the attendance clause. By Tuesday morning, the owners had dropped it.
There are other factors at play that fueled both the players and the public. MLS had an unprecedented opportunity to get onto the field this summer before the baseball season resumed, with broadcasts on ESPN that could have been the only live sports on TV in prime time. That opportunity might now be lost, since baseball has been aiming for a July 4 weekend restart. (Then again, if baseball keeps bumbling, that restart might be delayed more.)
Also lost is the opportunity to announce a return to play before the English Premier League, which is more popular than MLS among English-speaking soccer fans in the U.S. Though the EPL was always going to resume playing games sooner -- it had mid-June lined up a while ago -- MLS could have had a head start on good publicity.
American soccer fans also noted that the fractures in MLS came at the same time that the NWSL and its players’ union delivered a show of unity. NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird personally met with players from across that league, including mothers who wanted child-care arrangements as part of agreeing to the NWSL Challenge Cup. The league said yes, and last week announced with the union a comprehensive plan for its summer showcase.
The NWSL then announced the tournament schedule Monday, right when MLS was pushing the lockout threat.
By Tuesday morning, MLS and the MLSPA were talking again.