As owners push for concessions, MLS approaches lockout

Written By Harrison Hamm on February 4, 2021

This week, MLS appears to be on the verge of a lockout. With the pandemic damaging revenues, owners invoked the force majeure clause of the Collective Bargaining Agreement to renegotiate it, and if the players don’t agree to the owners’ new terms by Thursday, the league will lock the players out.

It is important to remember that a lockout would suck for everyone but the owners. It is also important to remember that rich people (like sports owners) have enriched themselves during the pandemic despite often crying poor. Understanding this, it becomes clearer to see what is happening here: MLS’s owners (some of whom make up the Labor Committee, which does not disclose its members) are trying to capitalize on an opportunity to shaft the players and get richer.

MLS labor negotiations: where they stand

The owners’ offer, and the negotiations overall, have been highlighted by the reporting of Sam Stejskal and Paul Tenorio at The Athletic. To recap: owners are willing to concede full salaries to the players this season, but they want to extend the length of the CBA by two years through 2027, which saves money for owners by deferring the creation of a new CBA. The length is particularly important in this situation because of the 2026 World Cup, which will likely increase league revenue and popularity and help the players’ leverage when this CBA expires.

The league is willing to take hard stances like this because it is not afraid of a lockout. Unlike major American sports leagues, many MLS players are not financially secure, and would have a difficult time getting by without a regular salary. Owners would get out of paying players for however long the lockout lasts, and losing games with limited or no fans doesn’t hurt too badly. Besides, these are very rich people — they’re doing okay regardless.

Proposed CBA bad for players

The proposed CBA by the owners would undoubtedly be bad for players, who seem to have negotiated in good faith and made significant concessions already to owners, but players don’t have a ton of leverage. They don’t want a lockout, and some players simply can’t afford it. To avoid a lockout, it appears that players will have to accept the owners’ proposal by Thursday.

A lockout, of course, would be bad for the league as a whole. Every player would become a free agent until the end of the lockout, meaning they would be able to sign elsewhere and play until the lockout is over. Options would be limited, however, given that the European transfer window ended earlier this week.

Young players who need reps in front of scouts would lose playing time. There is always a danger of fans losing interest, though MLS’s TV ratings stayed steady in 2020 despite the pandemic layoff (which did not happen elsewhere in American sports). The issue is that MLS should be gaining fans and cultivating interest, particularly as it adds expansion clubs.

Austin FC is supposed to kick off its existence when the scheduled start of the season comes, in early April. A lockout would damage the growth of the league overall. This is without even mentioning the possibility of transfers being affected and players wanting to leave.

Owners do not appear to care about any of this. They value their personal enrichment over the growth of the league. It is unfortunate, but it is the reality of the situation. Barring another postponement of the deadline, we will find out on Thursday whether a lockout is on the horizon.

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