MLS discussing drastic wage cuts with players' union - sources

MLS has begun discussions with the MLS Players' Association (MLSPA) about having players accept significant salary cuts due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to multiple sources.

The talks took place on Thursday via a conference call that included MLS commissioner Don Garber, deputy commissioner Mark Abbott, and the MLSPA executive board. The discussions came amid the backdrop of the league-wide shutdown that has been in place since March 12.

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Speaking to ESPN on Friday, Abbott confirmed some of the broader details, saying: "MLS remains focused on exploring a wide variety of formats for playing the entire 2020 season, including pushing back MLS Cup into December or later. Based on the most recent government guidance, we have extended the moratorium on matches until at least June 8.

"Like all leagues, we are in discussion with our players about changes to player compensation due to the financial impact on the league and our clubs from the COVID-19 crisis. We are seeking to work collaboratively with the MLSPA to find a solution that provides a safety net for all players, opportunity to earn full salary in the scenario where all matches are played with fans, and in particular provides protection for the players at the lower end of the salary scale."

The MLSPA didn't respond to a request for comment.

A range of topics were discussed at Thursday's meeting, including return-to-play scenarios and competition format. But it also included a broad outline of what MLS is seeking in terms of salary reductions. The sources said that MLS stopped short of submitting a formal proposal, but said that the league is asking the bulk of its players to take as much as a 50% pay cut of their overall pay for the season, though there are some important caveats. The reduction would take place only if games are canceled. Even if no more games are played this season, the players would still earn at least 50% of their salaries. That number will go up based on how much of the regular season is played. Having games played behind closed doors will also impact the extent of cuts, though to what degree isn't known.

Players making less than $100,000 would not be affected, and players making above $100,000 wouldn't have their salaries fall below that threshold. If the plan is implemented, the league would reduce its total player payroll by $150 million. Based on salary figures released by the MLSPA last year, and with expansion sides Miami and Nashville joining this season, the total league payroll is estimated to be north of $310 million.

Complicating any discussions on salaries is the uncertain future of the league season, which was suspended after just two games. Among the scenarios discussed was returning to play in six weeks or later in the summer. It's also unclear whether the league will return with fans or play games behind closed doors, though the latter scenario seems more likely at this point.

The league and the MLSPA agreed to a framework for a new collective bargaining agreement back in February. But due in part to the ongoing pandemic, the agreement was never ratified by either side.

Critically, neither the new nor the old CBA contained a force majeure clause that would allow the league to stop paying salaries in the case of a catastrophic event like a pandemic, leaving the players with some leverage.

In an April 6 interview with ESPN, MLSPA executive director Bob Foose said discussions with the league about CBA ratification had been pushed to the side, but could be resumed if the situation improves.

"If we do settle down a little bit, then obviously [the CBA is] one of the things we can jump back into, which is just looking at the actual CBA language and that kind of stuff," he said. "I think most of that is fairly straightforward. Our term sheet actually has a lot of the sort of agreements that were written already in CBA-like type language. It gets easier each time. So I don't anticipate problems there. I think we will turn to it when we can turn to it."

Editor's Note: ESPN previously reported that the players were asked to take a 50% pay cut. That percentage was based on their overall compensation for the season, not what they are still owed.