MLS Players’ Association approves return to play

The Major League Soccer Players’ Association has voted to approve MLS’ return to play plan – the ‘Orlando Plan’ as it’s been dubbed – as well as ratifying changes to the collective bargaining agreement that will last until 2025.

MLS has been attempted to put together its Orlando plan, a made-for-TV tournament that can supplement its regular season and elevate it as the only live American televised team sport for a short time.

The tournament at ESPN Wide World of Sports will see teams divided into groups within their own conference. Most teams will play three group games which will count towards the regular season. A 16-team knockout stage will not reflect on the MLS standings, however there will be a $1,000,000 prize.

Initially the plan saw teams in Orlando on June 1, training in stages before playing the tournament. That proposal saw players separated from their families for eight weeks, while the revision would see that reduced to six weeks starting on June 24.

The larger stumbling block came as MLS owners sought to renegotiate parts of the collective bargaining agreement under the threat of locking players out both financially and in terms of their health benefits during a pandemic. The CBA for 2020-2024 had been agreed in principle over the winter but not ratified by either MLS or the MLSPA. On a conference call today, MLS Commissioner Don Garber confirmed that the threat of a lockout was used under his direction.

Team owners sought to add a force majeure clause. The clause would serve as a way for either MLS or the MLSPA to renegotiate the CBA when certain criteria are met. MLS had initially proposed that five teams’ average attendances dropping by 25% would be that criteria, which is something that is certain to happen in 2020 and one of the most frequently manipulated numbers in any sport.

FC Dallas announced an average attendance of 14,842 in 2019. This number is based on tickets distributed via sales, or given away to fans, sponsors, players, community groups, etc. Traditionally in soccer the attendance should reflect the number of people in the stadium. For FC Dallas that number likely falls around 10-12,000. The 25% drop for FC Dallas would be an average of 11,131 – an attainable figure if the reported number were to switch from tickets distributed to people through the gate.

The players and league have since agreed to follow the NBA’s force majeure clause. Under the NBA’s agreement, the clause can be triggered in the event that a war, government action, natural disaster, or epidemic forces games to be cancelled rather than postponed. If it were to be activated, it would need to occur in the first 60 days of the event, and ensures good faith negotiations for 60 days while playing under the terms of the existing CBA.

Just before that was agreed to, Peter Welpton spoke with ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle on the negotiations and return to play. You can listen to that here.

Media sharing was also modified to halve the amount of money that would come from MLS’s forthcoming media deals and go back into team budgets. The salary cap rises will be delayed a year so that 2021 will be played with the same cap as 2020. The CBA will also extend to 2025 which Commissioner Garber stated was a measure of security for players from a league that expects to lose $1bn due to the pandemic.

Players have agreed to a pay cut for 2020. This has been reported as 7.5% while Garber gave the figure as 5%.

MLS President Mark Abbott also gave some information on MLS’ return to play plan. Currently teams are in phase two, small groups training with social distancing in place. Phase three will be full group training, requiring COVID-19 testing for the first time. MLS has contracted an organization for testing players and staff in Orlando, and is coordinating with teams in markets with limited testing. Abbott did confirm that teams will be financially responsible for testing in their own markets but that MLS will foot the bill for testing at the tournament.

This gets us one step closer to the tournament in Orlando, and an eventual return to playing in home stadiums – albeit with no fans in attendance.

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