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Media Availability Cancelled as Rumors Swirl that MLS Threatens to Lockout Players

Details on pay cuts, lockouts and the apparent cause of it all.

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General Views of Sport Venues After Events Postponed Due To Coronavirus Photo by Chloe Knott - Danehouse/Getty Images

Yesterday, we said The Blue Testament would head to media availability with Peter Vermes today. This morning, that availability was cancelled.

“Today’s media availability with Sporting Kansas City Manager and Sporting Director Peter Vermes has been postponed to a later date. Sporting KC will confirm details of the rescheduled media availability in the near term.”

That news came amid reports that MLS players would not report to voluntary small group training, which was set to begin today.

The reason they aren’t reporting — MLS has threatened to lockout the players if they don’t respond to their latest offer by Noon on Tuesday. That came through a combination of reporting through The Columbus Dispatch and ESPN host Hercules Gomez, who now has stated the deadline has moved back to Wednesday at Noon Eastern time (11:00 AM CT).

One roadblock, according to The Washington Post, is around the players accepting a lower share of TV revenues starting in the 2023 season.

Possibly the largest sticking point in the negotiations is a force majeure clause. Such a clause would allow either party to remove themselves from the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) “in the case of an extraordinary event that disrupts business, such as a pandemic.” ESPN and The Dispatch are both confirming that the MLS agreement includes the clause and the MLSPA proposal does not.

The Athletic is reporting something slightly different. They say that the MLSPA has in fact agreed to a force majeure clause modeled on the agreement the National Basketball Association (NBA) has with it’s players. However, MLS insisted on a very specialized addition to the clause.

The addition from the league is “a clause that triggers force majeure if five MLS teams in a single season experience a 25 percent drop in attendance from the previous season. This level of specificity expands the definition of force majeure in what one source called an ‘unprecedented’ fashion beyond anything used in other professional leagues.”

MLS already has attendance problems in several cities and this clause seems like an easy one to trigger, especially as some fans might continue to stay away from sporting events even if/when things improve around the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Athletic goes on to report that players weren’t initially involved in the ‘Orlando Plan’ at all and only after leaks to the media did they become aware of it. That may not be entirely true as Matt Besler went on 810 WHB and discussed the ‘rumors’ as true. That would imply they knew about it and were involved, though possibly not immediately.

Writers Sam Stejskal and Paul Tenorio then imply MLS is pushing forward with the plan to gain favor with ESPN and Disney ahead of their next broadcast negotiations.

Stejskal and Tenorio go on to describe what they see as a “cynical” tactic from MLS. If the league locks out the players, they would go without pay and health insurance during a global pandemic. They point out that many of the league’s players are “normal” people and not the super rich players of leagues like the NBA and NFL.

While there are many players making ‘normal people’ wages, the league average pay is now north of $400,000 (as of the September 2019 salary release) — though that is pulled upwards by huge Designated Player contracts — which isn’t exactly ‘normal.’ It’s still low for professional athletes, especially compared to MLB, NFL, NBA and NHL pay in North America. But I’d kill to make that wage.

Did the MLSPA Push too Hard?

When the negotiations about returning to play started it was proposed that players take a 50 percent pay cut — though reportedly that did exclude all players under $100,000. The most recent known offer from MLS had the pay cut down to just 8.75 percent. The MLSPA reportedly countered with 7.5 percent cut in pay.

Is it possible the deal was really good and they just tried to get a bit too much? I’d say it’s very possible. The real unknown right now is what other clauses and agreements were in these various offers? There is far too much unknown information about CBA delays, revenue sharing, the above-mentioned force majeure clause.

In a financial sense, locking out the players probably makes sense for the league. They have been paying wages for over three months with no soccer. Even if soccer returns, the likelihood is fans won’t be in stadiums and teams rely heavily in MLS on ticket sales and other game day revenues.

Even if soccer returns, it seems MLS owners are likely to lose lots of money. Locking out the players would stem the bleeding.

That said, it’s the wrong thing to do. It’s hard for the average fan — who is definitely a “normal” person — to feel sympathy when billionaires lose money. The ill-will that would be earned through a lockout could do irreparable harm to MLS, just as the league is in the midst of a steady climb in recognition both domestically and around the world.

I expect things to get sorted out and that the rumored lockout was never intended to be public information. The league did threaten internal leaks after all. Here is to hoping MLS does the right thing and comes to an agreement with the players.

The Blue Testament will bring you more as it continues to develop.

Update: 2:29 AM CT on June 2nd, 2020

The MLSPA released a statement to all MLS Supporter Groups with additional details. Here it is in it’s entirety.

MLS Supporters Groups,

We hope this note finds you all well in these sad, troubling times around North America and the world.

As you may have seen reported, last night MLS and its owners delivered an ultimatum to players that they accept a final proposal on pay reductions, bonus reductions, and other hard fought gains that were negotiated in the CBA announced in February.

This news came as a surprise to players, as they had been making progress on good faith negotiations with the league for the past two months and believed that an agreement was near.

With this ultimatum came the threat of a lockout - no paychecks, no benefits, no ability to step on the field - and the stress and uncertainty this creates. It also means players wouldn’t have the ability to do what they love: to compete for and represent their supporters.

Over the last 25 years, your support of the players has enabled us to jointly move MLS forward and create a better league; a league we are all proud of and care about deeply. While we don’t know what the next 24 hours will bring, we do know that we are stronger if we all stand together. There is no game on the field without the players - and, as importantly, players know there is no league without the supporters.

Please feel free to share this news with your members. Our players see and appreciate all of your displays of solidarity and support — gestures they need now more than ever.

Be well. Be safe. And thank you again for all that you do.

In Solidarity,

The MLS Players Association