Atlanta United defender Fernando Meza dribbles the ball during voluntary individual workouts at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground on Friday. (Photo by Jacob Gonzalez/Atlanta United)

MLS players ratify CBA, allowing for season to resume soon

Major League Soccer is scheduled to resume later this month because the Major League Soccer Players Association on Wednesday ratified the collective bargaining agreement between the players and the league.

“Collectively, we will work to get back to play and deliver to our fans and our players the sport they love and work hard to build back some of the value, if you will, in the relationships we worked hard to create collectively in December and January of last year,” Commissioner Don Garber said in a zoom call Wednesday.

The league suspended its season March 12 because of concerns about COVID-19. Atlanta United was 2-0-0, with victories at Nashville and at home against Cincinnati. 

Though the league has cut hundreds of millions of dollars in expenses in terms of salary reductions and from other areas, Garber said the league still projects to lose $1 billion, much of it from the loss of game-day revenues.

That was one of the points of momentum that led to the Orlando tournament -- the need to recapture some revenue. Though Garber said more details will be coming, teams should begin reporting to Orlando later this month. Garber did say there will be more cameras at the game than during a normal broadcast and that access will be greater than ever before.

“Unlike other leagues whose fan bases are deeply mature and have been around for generations, our absence created a void in their lives and their love and care for our players and our clubs, but clearly our absence from the sports scene, it was crucial for us to get back,” he said.

According to previous reports, the teams will compete in a tournament starting in July in which the games count in the league standings. The tournament will start with a three-game group stage before a 16-team knockout stage, according to Stu Holden, a former U.S. men’s national team player who now works as a media commentator. The players will be housed at resorts in the Disney World area and train and play at the nearby ESPN complex. The teams are expected to be in central Florida for a maximum of 35 days.

The league threatened to lock out the players Wednesday if they didn’t come to an agreement on issues that included the insertion of a force majeure clause in the CBA, which also needed to be ratified, a pay decrease for the players this season, a split of TV revenues when a new deal is reached and the health and safety of the players while training and competing in Orlando.

Garber said it was his decision, on behalf of the owners, to create the lockout deadline.

“I believed it was necessary to get to the point today where we have reached an agreement,” he said.

The two sides are arrived at solutions that the players discussed in a conference call Tuesday and that were voted on Wednesday.

The CBA’s duration was extended by a year through Jan. 31, 2026, which is what Garber said the owners wanted in exchange for a lower salary reduction.

Among the points of contention in the negotiations:

• The players wanted pay cuts of 7.5 percent. The owners wanted 8.75 percent. The pay cut will be 7.5 percent and go into effect for the May 31 pay period. Performance and individual bonuses will capped at a total of $5 million. Garber said the owners had originally committed to paying the players 50 percent of their salaries this year even if no games were played.

• The owners dropped their demand for a force majeure clause tied to next season’s attendance levels. The new clause more resembles that of the NBA’s. According to ESPN, either side can back out of the CBA with a 30-day notice if the agreement is “economically unfeasible.”

• A reduced share for the players in the media-rights deal that, when negotiated, will go into effect in 2023. The CBA had the players receiving 25 percent of revenues that were $100 million more than those in 2022. The league wanted that reduced to 10 percent. MLSPA wanted 17 percent. The percentage will be 12.5 percent in 2023 followed by increases to 25 percent in 2024 and 2025.

Garber said even in normal times the negotiations would have been difficult. Amid COVID-19 and social unrest, he said the discussions  were “unimaginably difficult.”

“Players showed great leadership and I applaud what they have done to organize themselves, to be smart, to be thoughtful, to understand the details of this agreement and to fight and advocate  and to do it in a respectful way, and to do it in a professional way,” Garber said.

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