How MLS and MLSPA found the breakthrough to ensure 2021 season is played

After a month of crazy negotiations, Major League Soccer (MLS) and the MLS Players Association (MLSPA) have officially come to an agreement on an extension to the collective bargaining agreement (CBA). The MLS and MLSPA found the breakthrough, which means the avoidance of a lockout, and that the 2021 season will begin as scheduled! This was a long process that needs documenting to understand its full impact.

2021 season dates
Mandatory Credit: Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire

MLS and MLSPA found the breakthrough

Over a month of back-and-forth negotiations led to a deal that has been agreed upon for a CBA that will span the next seven years. These negotiations came about less than a year after a most recent CBA was agreed upon. The now old CBA was set to expire before the 2026 Men’s World Cup. The Pandemic threw a wrench into what was seen as a cutting-edge CBA that gave power to the players which caused this recent timeline of events. Let’s take a look back at the past month.

Timeline of events

Due to the Pandemic, the League was able to enact a force majeure clause that allowed for the CBA to be thrown out on Jan. 28, 2021. Therefore, negotiations had to be held to create a new one. It was a shock to the MLSPA, who worked hard to get what was a current CBA together. This period was one that was bleak but was also made very public. It all started back on Jan. 5.

Jan. 5, 2021

When this news was breaking, The Athletic, ESPN and Yahoo Sports were all over the story. MLS had already enacted force majeure and made the statement about what the league wanted as its main sticking point in CBA negotiations. As shown in Doug McIntyre wrote about below.

As these negotiations started the League made sure to note that there would be no pay cut for the players, but wanted to extend the CBA to help cover the losses from two seasons afflicted with COVID-19. This seems harmless to any common fan, but if we look deeper, it actually makes things very one-sided.

This extension would shift the balance of power the League and the Players Association had. Effectively, this gives more bargaining power toward the MLS owners, and away from the players for future negotiations. Since this was the League’s sticking point, the negotiations became very quiet and less public. That is, until the last week of negotiations.

Jan. 21 – Jan. 28, 2021

As the force majeure clause deadline was coming to a close, negotiations went public. Press releases from MLS and MLSPA made their thoughts public early in the week. This started with the League’s commissioner Don Graber putting out a press release about the owner’s proposal calling it fair, and essentially position communication to call out the players association for delaying a deal getting done. As is to be expected, MLSPA didn’t take that message well, and quote tweeted the press release saying “@ us next time.”

As the week progressed, the League put out multiple press releases about their ongoing negotiations with the players association. The first was the leagues sticking point proposal on Jan. 22, 2021. Three days later came a second press release from MLS that stated there was a counteroffer from MLSPA. Of course, the League didn’t specify what that offer was from the Players Association and pushed another counteroffer to the players. Three days after that was the deadline to avoid a lockout, and this time the MLSPA was first to release a statement.

In this statement, they decompressed the information from the CBA that was agreed upon in 2020, talked about the effects of the pandemic, and stated that they appreciate the concessions that needed to be made by the Players, Fans, and all aspects of the League’s offices/owners respectively. They ended by stating that they were going to the League with a proposal to get things done so a 2021 season can occur, ending their statement with a clear message; “Players are ready to play.” Here is a look at all of these statements.

As the clock ticked away into the late hours of deadline day, there was no statement from MLS or the MLSPA on an agreement. It was clear as the date changed to Jan. 29, 2021, that there would be no communication. That is, until late in the morning.

Jan. 29, 2021

After no word from either camp after the deadline had “expired,” fans had the feeling that the 2021 season would most definitely be postponed. Then there was a bit of hope.

It seemed like both sides were still apart, and at the time, the details on that separation were not yet fully clear. The deadline being pushed an extra week would allow for the two sides to come closer together to strike a deal.

After that bit of news, things went very quiet. This lasted all the way to the new deadline date.

Feb. 4, 2021

Early in the morning of Feb. 4, 2021, information came out on how this situation was progressing. Paul Tenorio and Sam Stejskal of the Athletic shed some light on the situation. Consequently, more details were being released which gave fans some optimism. Seeing details on what both sides would get from renegotiation was an indication that things were moving in a good direction.

As the day progressed, there were few updates on if the sides would agree on a deal. However, early in the evening, an update came out from ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle that was another encouraging sign. This time, MLS stated that they were pushing negotiations out one day. Most importantly, the update provided a key statement that the sides made progress on a new CBA.

Knowing that the two sides were drawing closer and that the top reporters were on the case, it was clear that Feb. 5, 2021, could be the date where there was officially a breakthrough.

Feb. 5 – 6, 2021

As the third deadline day came, there was the feeling plenty of news would break during each hour of the day. In addition to that, fans were hoping for a definitive answer to the question of “would there be a lockout?” Unfortunately, the news did not break in every hour of the day, but once evening hit the news came fast and steady. Here’s a look at that news.

This news escalated quickly. Firstly, it just seemed like things were getting closer. Secondly, and in the same hour, it looked as though players would vote to approve the CBA, but there was no word on how that would take place. Thirdly, the player’s bargaining committee was voting to approve the CBA. Finally, news broke that the vote passed the bargaining committee and executive board and that there was a tentative agreement on the adjusted CBA. Consequently, both the MLSPA and MLS put out statements saying just that!

Now that there is a tentative agreement in place, it may seem like this is a done deal; however, this is not the case. The whole player pool in MLS needed to cast their votes on this tentative agreement. This was going to take some time, so that led to more news on when the votes would be tallied.

Over this past weekend, the players had the option to vote on the tentatively approved CBA. The vote concluded on Monday, Feb. 8 at noon ET. How would players vote? Most importantly, a majority of players needed to vote to ratify this new CBA to avoid a lockout.

Feb. 8, 2021

As the date turned to Monday, more news came out regarding when we’d hear the official word on the player vote, and in turn, if the 2021 season would be on or off. About an hour before the player’s votes were to be in Sam Stejskal of the Athletic provided more details. While the voting was set to end at noon, there was no exact timing as to when the votes would be tallied. Consequently, there was even more of a waiting game to be played here, until about two hours after the vote was due to end.

At 2:00 pm ET on Monday, Feb. 8, 2021, the MLSPA put out a statement that showed they will ratify the new CBA! The players association statement speaks to the sacrifices they have made to make sure to get this done. They thank the players, the different player’s associations throughout American Sports who came to their defense, and the MLS supporters. This saga finally comes to an end! The 2021 season will be played as scheduled.

There will be no lockout!

There will be no lockout, and players will still get paid and be able to prepare for the upcoming 2021 season. Preseason is set to begin at the end of this month as teams eye an April 3, 2021 start to the season. This is a huge relief for the players and fans of a rapidly growing league.

If you had to take one thing away from these negotiations, it should be this. After an overall successful 2020 season through a pandemic, MLS decided to invoke, what for all intents and purposes, an act of God clause. Which, would lock out its players in order to restructure an already agreed upon CBA. This was all because of the bottom lines that were set to take another hit as the 2021 season would still be amid a pandemic.

MLS used the force majeure clause to threaten a lockout while renegotiating a CBA that gave them better standing for the next negotiations. All the while tearing down an agreement that was seen as beneficial to the players that are continuing the league’s growth in the view of world soccer.

This situation reminds us all that sports leagues are a business controlled by the few with power. Money is the name of that game at the end of the day. Luckily for us all, this didn’t end up in a lockout to save cheap owners a little bit of money.

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Mandatory Credit: Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire