MLS avoids a lockout with tentative labor agreement

MLS logo
(Major League Soccer)

Major League Soccer reached a tentative deal on a collective bargaining agreement with its players’ union, averting a threatened lockout and clearing the way for teams to open preseason training camp Feb. 22.

The union released a statement Friday confirming the deal, which will cover the next seven seasons. It will be submitted to a vote of the players this weekend and is expected to receive approval.

ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle said the union’s executive board and bargaining committee voted 24-11 in favor of the deal.

The MLS Board of Governors must also sign off on the contract — something it too is expected to do.


The final sticking point was the league’s insistence that the CBA, which normally covers five seasons, extend through 2027; the union wanted it to end in 2026. The date is significant given that North America will play host to the 2026 World Cup, an event certain to provide a spike in both interest and spending on soccer in the U.S. and Canada.

Here’s what soccer to watch on TV this weekend: Manchester City vs. Liverpool, Everton vs. Manchester United and Barcelona vs. Real Betis.

In addition, an extension to 2027 could delay annual jumps in compensation by holding down agreed-upon increases in the league’s salary cap. Carlisle reported Friday the union was won over by more liberal free agency rules, an overall 10% salary increase in the final year of the deal and improved salaries for other classes of players.

Steven A. Bank, the Paul Hastings professor of business law at UCLA and a close observer of soccer finances, said neither the league nor the union is likely to be happy with the CBA by the time it expires.

“The irony of this is that both sides could claim a win on these negotiations and yet 2027 and future TV money are both so uncertain right now that the present value of either is probably pretty low,” he said — although the free agency benefits, he added, are a tangible benefit for the players.

The new CBA is actually the third the two sides have agreed to in the last 12 months. The first, negotiated last February, was never ratified and after COVID-19 forced the league to halt play in March, MLS forced the players back to the bargaining table in May, threatening a lockout to win more than
$150 million in concessions.

The soccer teams at UCLA and USC haven’t played competitively in more than a year because of the pandemic. Now their season openers have been delayed.

The league also insisted on the inclusion of a force majeure clause, common language that allows either side to seek renegotiation of an agreement in the case of a catastrophic event. MLS invoked the clause in late December, citing the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. That gave the sides 30 days to work out a new deal, after which either side could terminate the existing contract.

The union began by offering an additional $50 million in concessions; MLS responded with a unanimous vote by its labor committee to end the CBA and authorize a lockout. The league later agreed to twice extend the deadline for the talks, paving the way for Friday’s agreement.

MLS relies heavily on game-day sales for its revenue and with most of its teams unable to allow fans to attend games after March 8, commissioner Don Garber said the league lost nearly $1 billion in 2020. MLS is likely to continue bleeding red ink this season since public health authorities have predicted it is unlikely teams will be able to welcome a substantial number of their fans back until late summer, if then.