So much for goodwill in Major League Soccer. In July and August, the North American league officially set a Guinness World Record for the sport’s largest single-location professional tournament when “MLS is Back!” packed 51 matches into 34 days of competition in the bubble at Bay Lake, Florida.
The event served notice to the NHL, MLB, NBA and NFL that topflight team sports could continue during the pandemic, and afterward MLS owners and players congratulated themselves on the spirit of cooperation. It hasn’t taken long for that mutual admiration to fade.
MLS and the union representing its players could be on a collision course toward a work stoppage after the league announced last week it has invoked a “force majeure” clause in the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) that the league and players negotiated in June.
A force majeure is commonly added to contracts, and frees both parties from liability or obligation in the event of extraordinary circumstances. MLS said it invoked the clause because of the ongoing impact of COVID-19, which commissioner Don Garber said cost the league $1 billion in revenue in 2020.
“MLS needs to address the ongoing challenges caused by the pandemic and will engage in good-faith discussions with our players about ways to manage the significant economic issues we are facing,” Garber said in a statement.
Added deputy commissioner Mark Abbott: “Unfortunately, based on the assessment of public health officials, it is clear that the impact of COVID-19 and the restrictions on attendance at sporting events will continue into the 2021 season. Like other leagues in the United States and Canada, MLS needs to address the ongoing challenges caused by the pandemic and will engage with our players about ways to manage the significant economic issues we are facing.”
The players union responded by calling the league’s decision “tone deaf” and saying it “discredits the sacrifices made by players and the enormous challenges they overcame in 2020”.
Last February, the two sides negotiated a five-year CBA, but it was never ratified. When the pandemic forced MLS to shut down in the spring, the league forced the union back to the bargaining table to negotiate another deal, which included the force majeure.
Invoking the clause means the two sides have 30 days to hammer out yet another CBA, the third in 12 months. Both sides are required to bargain in good faith and if no agreement is reached, a labor stoppage could result.
The 2021 MLS season is scheduled to start in early March.
The largest source of revenue for MLS is game-day sales and sponsorships, which took a major hit when the league was forced to shorten last season from 34 to 23 games－most of which were played without fans.
The union’s stand is that the players have already been compromised enough after agreeing to a 5 percent pay cut, a reduction in bonuses and a one-year freeze on salary increases.
Bob Foose, executive director of the union, said that invoking the force majeure is a mistake and imposing another CBA negotiation “is very, very risky”.
“After a 2020 season of extreme sacrifice, immeasurable risk to personal health and a remarkable league-wide effort to successfully return to play, this tone-deaf action by the league discredits the previous sacrifices made by players and the enormous challenges they overcame in 2020,” the MLSPA boss added in a statement.