The MLSPA was ready to play, and MLS owners said we need to talk more. The MLS extended their hard deadline from January 28 to February 4 to find common ground and ensure that the owners do not lock out the league heading into the 2021 season. In the 3rd round of different CBA negotiations in 13 months between the two sides, the common ground seems harder and harder to find. With the new deadline approaching, February 4, the two sides agreed to a 24-hour extension showing that there had been some movement towards an agreement. Slightly less than 24 hours later, on the 5th, a tentative deal was struck between the two parties.
What seemed to be the sticking point between the two sides was the duration of this new CBA, with the players wanting it to run through the 2026 season and the owners wanting to have an extra year. As an outsider looking inside this process, it feels like the owners were looking to take what should be massive momentum from the 2026 World Cup and not worry about coming back to the table to negotiate for the 2027 season.
From the outside, both sides understand the importance of the 2026 World Cup is for MLS. The 1994 USA World Cup birthed the league, and the 2026 one could help MLS reach new heights. Currently, 2/3 of the Canadian proposed cities and 16/17 United States proposed cities have an MLS franchise. The one outlier is Baltimore, and some could argue that if they hosted a World Cup successfully, it could improve the draw for DC United.
One example of this is the 2016 season, when MLS saw a new record in overall attendance, with 11 of the team increasing their overall attendance and average attendance per game. This coincided with the last major tournament held within US specific stadium, the Copa America Centenario. If you look at the average attendance for clubs in 2017 versus 2016, the majority saw an increase. In 2016 FC Dallas had the lowest average attendance, and while that continued in 2017, they grew from 14,094 to 15,122, and they were a non-host city.
Both the owners and players will expect an increase in attendance as fallout from the World Cup, making the league’s 2027 season crucial.
It seems the owners gave in concessions a more financial commitment to the league over the CBA time. Looking at the numbers provided by mlssoccer.com, the owners get their way with no monetary increase until 2023. In their original statement, the owner’s side stated that due to Covid, the change in travel and lack of fans had cost the league 1 billion in 2020 and would cost them another 1 billion in 2021, which is why they wanted the two-year extension.
Over the final four seasons of the CBA, the overall salary cap for teams goes up 4 million to end at $13,013,000; yes, it raises 100k in 2022 but semantics. You also see that the most a team can be charged for an individual player’s salary raise $260,000 throughout the same time frame. Coupled with the minimum wages for reserve and senior roster spots do bode well for the players. The overall total is roughly half of the average amount raised per season starting in 2023 and higher base salaries.
Finally, probably the one non-negotiable point is that the players will receive their full 2021 salaries, as they should. Both sides went into these talks knowing that they needed to make sure this happened, which gives some peace of mind to the fans.
Free Agency seems to be the most comfortable place for the sides to come together. Both sides made concessions on the terms of free agency starting in 2026. While the players had been pushing for an age of 23 and 4 years of service, they conceded to 24 while still receiving four years of service, down from 5. Here the owners get their age of wanting to have control over players for longer, but the players have reduced the service years needed to reach that moment. In a sense, both sides get to profit from the new terms of free agency.
One final, possibly more personal note, it felt very distasteful during the original extension week for MLS and teams to put out announcements geared towards the 2021 season. When you threaten to lock out your players, it makes no sense to have clubs putting out information on players they have recently acquired. It almost feels like a slap in the face to fans and players alike and leaves a sour taste in my mouth.
With the CBA’s ratification by both the owners and players on February 8, we hope the 2021 season is exciting and entertaining.