MLS Players Association executive director Bob Foose disputed assertions made by MLS commissioner Don Garber about the current negotiations for a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, questioning whether the decision to reopen CBA negotiations was more about "financial opportunity" than "financial necessity."
The MLSPA chief added that the players do not plan to strike if a new deal isn't reached.
The two sides completed negotiations on a CBA last February, but it wasn't ratified and when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the league was shut down last March, MLS opted to renegotiate.
An agreement was reached last June, but contained a force majeure clause that said in the case of an economic catastrophe like that cause by a pandemic, either side could opt to renegotiate the CBA. If a new deal isn't reached in 30 days, either side could then nullify the existing agreement.
With the distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine going slower than hoped, MLS is likely to start the season without fans in the stands. Given its dependence on game-day revenues, there was concern on the MLS side that they were looking at losses in 2021 similar to those they experienced in 2020, which the league has been pegging at $1 billion.
A source with knowledge of the situation added that $725 million of the $1bn in losses was due to the pandemic. For that reason MLS invoked the clause force majeure on Dec. 29 and submitted a CBA proposal to the MLSPA on Jan. 4.
Yesterday, Garber held a Zoom call with reporters saying that there needed to be "urgency" in the negotiations given that there were only 20 days left in the 30-day window. Garber also contended that the current offer that MLS has given to the MLSPA would leave 2021 salaries intact and would attempt to recoup dollars by extending the deal's terms by two years and freezing salary budget increases between 2021 and 2022.
All told, MLS hopes to save an additional $100 -110m over the life of the CBA. This is in addition to what the MLSPA said was $150m in concessions from the previous deal.
Foose countered Garber on a number of fronts. First, he said there was no requirement that the talks be completed within 30 days, and there is nothing stopping the two sides from continuing negotiations after that window. Even if MLS opts to nullify the CBA, the terms of the old deal would remain in effect until new terms are agreed upon, though there is the threat of a lockout.
"We're certainly not looking to continue these talks indefinitely," said Foose. 'At the same point in time it's critical that we have as much understanding as possible as to what 2021 is going to look like, in terms of our ability to have fans in stadiums and there's still a ways to go to get that knowledge to get that information."
The league quickly pushed back on the idea that the 30-day window isn't a hard deadline.
"Based on their statements today, we're concerned that the MLSPA doesn't have the urgency to meet and finalize an agreement within the 30-day period provided for in our collective bargaining agreement with the players," said MLS president and deputy commissioner Mark Abbott.
"The timing of this negotiating period, was specifically agreed to between the league and the players in June. And we have made a good faith thoughtful and simple proposal to facilitate and finalize an agreement promptly and before the end of the 30-day negotiating period."
In terms of when the MLSPA might deliver a counteroffer, Foose said that the MLSPA's analysis was ongoing.
"Once we have our analysis completed, and the input that we need from player leadership, we'll figure out how we're going to respond to the offer," he said.
Foose also said that it was "completely disingenuous" and "just false" to say that MLS' proposal would have no impact on player salaries for 2021 since the most recent CBA that was negotiated last June saw the players accept terms that required them to do just that. This included a freeze on salary budget increases from 2020 to 2021, thus slowing the rate of growth as it relates to future seasons.
"While the league is taken to saying that there are no salary reductions in 2021, the reality is that concessions have already been made in each year of the renegotiated CBA to account for the financial impacts of the virus," he said. "And while the league may continue to talk about 2020 losses, the reality is that the negotiation over those losses is finished. We had that negotiation last summer. The players have taken and will continue to take a significant financial hit that is equal to a significant portion of those losses."
One source also added that the union's analysis of the deal concluded that what the league is asking the MLSPA to give up is "considerably higher" than $110m.
"The fact is right now that neither we nor the league have any idea what impact the pandemic is going to have on finances in the 2021 season," said Foose.
Foose also said that the league is asking the players to shoulder the considerable burden of performing while the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage.
"[MLS} wants players to continue to do everything that they do; they want them to play a full season, accept being exposed to all the dangers that remain from the virus, continue to take all the risk from COVID that's out there in order to provide them with a full season," he said.
"Second, they want the players to give them additional concessions that exceed the value of the concessions given last year. So that's the proposal that's currently on the table from MLS."
Foose offered that the league and its teams could take other measures to cut costs, including cutting discretionary spending on salaries in 2021. Foose estimated that 40 percent of a team's salary budget falls into this category. This would have the effect of limiting salaries for players entering the league from leagues abroad.
"[The teams] certainly have the ability and had the ability and will continue to have the ability moving forward to cut significant amounts -- $1m to $2m per team per year - from their player spend if they determined that that's what's necessary based on the economic climates and the losses caused by the pandemic," he said.
In terms of the start of the season, Foose said that the MLSPA has heard "nothing" about when teams should report for preseason, and said it "seems like it'd be hard to" start the season in mid-March, as targeted by MLS."
"Teams haven't begun preseason planning, which makes me think it's [not going to happen]," Foose said. "We're not able to have an expectation at this point."
A source with knowledge of the situation added that the league is waiting to sit down with the MLSPA to communicate its plans.