Bob Foose, the executive director of the MLS Players Association, said that "almost 20%" of MLS players contracted COVID-19 over the course of the season, and that the players surrendered close to $150 million in potential earnings because of the renegotiated collective bargaining agreement (CBA) that was agreed to in June.
Speaking to reporters via a conference call Thursday, Foose called 2020 "unquestionably the most difficult season in MLS history."
The MLSPA thought it had reached an agreement on a new CBA in February, only for the COVID-19 pandemic to hit before the deal could be formally ratified by either side. When the league shut down on March 12, MLS used that as leverage, as well as the threat of a lockout, to negotiate considerable financial concessions. Those included a 7.5% pay cut in terms of salaries over the remainder of the season, as well as what Foose described as a 70% reduction in player bonuses. The revenue sharing plan tied to the next media rights deal also was delayed by a year.
"The players were willing to do all that to ensure that the season would be saved and that there would be games played," Foose said.
On top of the financial concessions, the players were forced to complete the 2020 season amid the pandemic. Outbreaks within the FC Dallas and Nashville SC teams forced them to pull out of the MLS is Back tournament in July. Later, an outbreak in the Colorado Rapids' organization resulted in the cancellation of five games, resulting in the league having to go to points per game to determine placement in the standings, and who qualified for the playoffs.
"Almost 20% of the players in the league, at one point or another, were infected with the virus, which meant that those who became infected and those who didn't become infected, became dangerous and dangerous to their partners, their family and their friends just by virtue of doing their jobs," Foose said.
MLS did not immediately respond to The Associated Press' request for comment on the figure, which would mean about 150 players tested positive. The league's protocols called for several tests to confirm cases. Some of the league's players also tested positive only after international duty.
The new CBA also included a force majeure clause that allows either side to terminate the CBA in the case of catastrophic conditions. The clause gives more power to MLS in that it can be invoked in a bid to force the MLSPA back to the bargaining table.
At his State of the League address on Tuesday, MLS commissioner Don Garber said the decision to invoke the force majeure clause would have to be made before the league could fully determine when fans will be allowed back in the stands.
"The impact of [the pandemic] is probably deeper than what we expected. That is concerning to us," Garber said. "But our owners have been understanding this impact from the very beginning. We are concerned about what this will look like in 2021, and are working on how we can manage through that. I'm hopeful that 2021 will be a way better year than 2020, because I don't think any business could sustain the kind of impact that we sustained in 2020 for two years in a row."
Foose said there have been "rumblings" the league will invoke the clause.
"That would be a mistake," he said.
He added, "What we can't do, what we can't allow, is for the pandemic to set us back any further than it already has. And choosing to terminate the CBA a second time, and thrusting all of us back into a third major labor negotiation within a year, will do just that."
MLS is aiming to start the 2021 season in early to mid-March, but Foose stated that the timing didn't make sense for "a whole host of reasons," namely tied to player health and safety.
"It's just not enough time for guys to heal," Foose said. "We always have this issue and there's a significant amount of physical healing that has to happen."