With just three weeks until the start of the 25th Major League Soccer season, MLS and the MLS Players Association agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement. In a five-year deal, this CBA will go past the current TV deal and onto a new one set to begin in the 2023 season.
For a negotiation that has so much money on the line, this was a rather calm round of negotiations. While the 2015 CBA negotiation got close to resulting in a work stoppage, this round of negotiations seemed pretty painless. Both sides played nice, the owners weren’t crying poor, no one came close to even threatening a hint of a work stoppage, and communication between both sides was almost completely positive for the duration.
In the end, the players got many improvements to their pay and comfort. In addition to salary increases and raising the minimal salary to over $100k per year, players will have more power in terms of free agency eligibility (24 years or older and five seasons MLS experience), and receive an increase in charter flights.
Currently, teams are allocated four charter flights per season. With this new CBA, that number jumps to eight with that growing to 16 by 2024 and a requirement to have charter flights for playoff and Concacaf Champions League games. This may not sound like much but it was an important point for players who had remarked about commercial flights being delayed and waiting at the airport to board a plane with seats that’s probably way too small for them. It’s a very “first world problem” to have but at the same time, it’s not a good look if a league has world class aspirations and their players are constantly encountering delays like the rest of us.
It is this mindset that MLS itself made real progress. The players will be credited as “winning” this round of negotiations, but MLS as a league can also say they won because this CBA is a major step to being the “world class” league Don Garber wants it to be. These things come at a cost but this is a time where MLS has realized they must invest for the betterment of the league both short-term and long-term.
Let’s face it, MLS may be the strongest it has ever been as a league, but they are expectedly behind the “big five” European leagues (England, Spain, Germany, Italy, and France) and are behind Mexico’s Liga MX. MLS can sign big name stars to big contracts like the best of them but Liga MX has overall squad depth and when MLS and Liga MX teams square off, Liga MX wipes the floor with them. A Liga MX team has won the Concacaf Champions League every year since 2006 and during that span, an MLS team has only been in the final three times. The semis and final is usually dominated by Liga MX teams and if one of the five MLS teams can make it to the semis, that’s seen as an achievement. When you take into consideration that way more people in the United States watch Liga MX games over MLS, it’s a tough reality check for the domestic league.
This CBA won’t magically fix every issue but it is noticeable progress. MLS is embracing a strategy where teams are more open to developing and selling young talent to Europe in order to reinvest in new young talent. The increase in player spending will give teams more power to sign non-DP starters to develop squads that can compete in Mexico. And the increase in charter flights should give players the kinds of comforts they can get in other top leagues around the world. This doesn’t mean MLS can compete with the big five European leagues, that may never happen even if MLS does everything right. However, there’s no reason to believe that MLS can someday be a league that’s on par with Portugal and the Netherlands and be the top soccer league outside of Europe.
With the new CBA set, MLS can now look forward to the next domestic TV rights deal. ESPN, Fox Sports, and Univision has been a part of an eight-year deal worth $800 million that’s set to end in 2022. While ratings might not be where MLS wants them to be, they should be set to still cash in on the next deal, especially with CBS’ newfound interest in soccer. And with player spending now tied in with TV revenue, this CBA will bring extra motivation for the players to team up with MLS and get the best deal possible. It’s all continuing the process of making MLS a world class league and this new CBA is a step in the right direction.
[MLS/Photo: Getty Images]