MLS proposal won't cut players' salaries but wants CBA extension

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Major League Soccer submitted a verbal proposal to the MLS Players Association on Tuesday in which it won't insist on salary cuts for the upcoming season in exchange for extending the current collective bargaining agreement for two years.

Multiple sources told ESPN that the proposal would freeze compensation growth between 2021 and 2022. The move could help save MLS between $100-110 million over the life of the CBA, sources added.

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Yahoo Sports was the first to report the news.

One source told ESPN that the meeting was attended by members of both the MLSPA's executive committee and bargaining committee. The source added that MLSPA expects to receive a formal proposal in writing as soon as tomorrow.

The proposal is the opening gambit in CBA negotiations that have been reopened as a result of MLS invoking a force majeure clause last week. MLS invoked the clause due to the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, one that prevented fans from attending games for the vast majority of the 2020 season. Given MLS's dependence on game-day revenues, the lack of fans cut deeply into the league's finances, with MLS commissioner Don Garber stating during his State of the League address last month that MLS had sustained a drop in revenues of "almost $1 [billion]." Given the slow rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine, this economic climate looks set to continue well into 2021.

"According to public health officials, the restrictions on attendance at live sporting events will continue far into the 2021 MLS season," said MLS president and deputy commissioner Mark Abbott in a statement. "In 2020, despite MLS and its clubs suffering extraordinary and unsustainable losses, players received 95% of their salaries. To address the ongoing impact of the pandemic in 2021, MLS is proposing to extend the term of the existing collective bargaining agreement for two years rather than seeking any salary reduction. This proposal will help ensure the long-term health of the League while paying MLS players 100% of their salaries."

The MLSPA didn't immediately respond to a request for comment, but in response to a question about MLS invoking the force majeure clause, MLSPA executive director Bob Foose said, "After making considerable concessions and sacrifices to come to an agreement in June, players intended to honor the commitments that were made in the renegotiated CBA. The league's action last week, while not unexpected, was nonetheless disappointing in what it says about how the league views their relationship with players."

The current round of negotiations is the third to take place since the start of 2020. The two sides thought they had reached an agreement in February of last year, but neither side ratified the agreement. When the pandemic hit, the league was forced to shut down on March 12, and MLS used the lack of ratification as a means to reopen negotiations.

After contentious talks that included a threat by MLS to lock the players out, the two sides reached agreement on a revised CBA in June. In that agreement, the players agreed to accept a five percent wage cut and a 70% cut in bonuses. An extra year was tacked on as well, with a freeze in salary budget growth between 2020 and 2021. A revenue sharing agreement based on a new media rights deal set to kick in following the 2022 season was also delayed by a year.

Critically, MLS was successful in getting the players to agree to the inclusion of a force majeure clause. The clause allows either side, in the event of an economic catastrophe such as that brought on by a pandemic, to negotiate modifications to the existing CBA in good faith for 30 days. If the sides are unable to reach an agreement, the CBA negotiated in June could be terminated.

The current economic environment, as well as the uncertainty surrounding the CBA negotiations, has led to fears that the start of the 2021 season could be delayed beyond the proposed target of mid-March and that the players might be locked out.

One source stressed that the league is still holding fast to the March start date and also called the concerns about a lockout "wildly speculative."