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MLS Is Showing Us How Ugly A Pandemic Labor Battle Can Get

Don Garber
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

American sports leagues have thus far managed to avoid any lockouts or strikes during the COVID-19 era. That could all be changing at midnight tonight, thanks to the shamelessness of MLS.

According to ESPN, MLS deputy commissioner Mark Abbott issued a memo to all the team owners and staff instructing them to prepare for a lockout. Those preparations need to be made because the owners will have the option to terminate the league’s current CBA at midnight, which would require the players’ union and the league to negotiate a new CBA from scratch before the start of the new season on Feb. 22. The unlikelihood of that happening just about guarantees a lockout if the current CBA is terminated tonight.

One only has to look at the sequence of events that led to this point in order understand how galling it is that the owners might toss out the CBA tonight. Last February, before the coronavirus pandemic halted sports around the world, the league and the players’ association agreed to a five-year CBA that provided the players with some hard-fought gains. That agreement was never officially ratified before the pandemic cut the 2020 season short, though, and last June the league forced the players to renegotiate key components of the CBA before returning to play in the summer. The players agreed to take a five percent pay cut, to extend the term of the CBA by a full year, and to delay the start of some of the more significant economic gains they made in February. From The Athletic:

All terms of the previously-agreed CBA have been pushed back by one year, so increases for 2021 will now begin in 2022. In addition, the CBA was extended one year, through the 2025 season. Players also agreed to take a reduction in the television revenue share that was previously agreed beginning in 2023. Players were initially set to receive 25 percent of the net increase in media revenue that exceeds $100 million above 2022 levels inserted into the salary budget and general allocation money. Instead, players will receive 12.5 percent in 2023 before returning to 25 percent in 2024 and 2025.

The Athletic

The players also agreed to insert a force majeure clause into the CBA, which gave the owners the option to terminate the agreement in its entirety if the pandemic cut too far into league revenues. That clause was exercised by the owners on Dec. 29, which initiated a 30-day window in which the league and the players would have to once again renegotiate the CBA in order to stop it from being voided.

MLS has justified these actions by crowing about how much money the league has lost due to the absence of fans in the stadiums, with league commissioner Don Garber claiming that the league has lost $1 billion in revenue since the start of the pandemic. But no matter what the economic impacts of the pandemic have been, there’s no excuse for a professional sport league the shove its labor force to the negotiating table for the third time in less than a year. The players negotiated in good faith in February, then again in June, and now all they’ve received as thanks for those efforts is the threat of a lockout.

The owners aren’t even being shy about their true motivations for invoking the force majeure clause, which seem to have very little to do with plugging short-term financial holes. According to The Athletic, the league made a proposal on Jan. 5 that would have kept the players earning their full salaries in exchange for extending the term of the CBA by yet another year, meaning it wouldn’t expire until 2027. Why would the league care so much about making the CBA last for seven years instead of five? Because the 2026 World Cup is going to be played in the US, Canada, and Mexico, and the expected increase in interest—and thus revenue—that event can be expected to bring to MLS is a negotiating chip the owners don’t want the players to have. The owners didn’t activate the force majeure clause because they are desperately trying to save their league from going under due to the pandemic, but because they saw an opportunity to use the pandemic as a way to deny the players a stronger negotiating position in the future.

Maybe you don’t care too much about this because you don’t watch or care about MLS, but any fan of American sports leagues should be worried by what MLS owners are currently trying to pull off. They are demonstrating how the pandemic can be seen not as a crisis but as an opportunity for the ownership class, one that presents them with heavier tools than they’ve ever had with which to extract money from the players. Every league in the country is going to have big scary numbers—$1 billion in losses!—to throw around for the next few years, and gains to be sought out. MLS may be the first sports league to have explicitly started using the pandemic as a hammer, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be the last.

Anyway, Major League Baseball’s CBA expires on Dec. 21, 2021.