As a lockout looms in MLS with the February 4th deadline approaching, the hard line that the owners are taking in the labor dispute seems evermore draconian. In the few days since the deadline for players to essentially accept whatever the owners offered, at the very least the PR battle has turned against the league. The Independent Supporters Council announced their support for the MLSPA, the league has turned off comments on MLSsoccer.com, and the “players are ready to play” campaign launched by players is certainly more appealing to fans than anything the owners have come up with.
Obviously, this is not a fight that will be won or lost by hashtags or posting. To their credit, the players have recognized the owners’ position that they are taking a financial risk and offered the only compromise solution, at least that has been released publicly. By invoking force majeure, the owners are backing out of an agreement they made last year when the pandemic was in full swing and didn’t seem to be set to improve until a vaccine was widely disbursed. This has made MLS look greedy by comparison, but worse it seems like the league hasn’t fully thought through what a lockout may truly mean in terms of a worse case scenario for the league.
Don Garber has often opined that MLS gets no respect. He’s noted that there’s too much soccer on in the US and says he is insulted by the lack of coverage MLS gets in the worldwide soccer narrative. The hope is that MLS can turn this around by negotiating a league-wide broadcast deal in 2023 and potentially another one going into 2026. This is also part of the crux of the dispute between players and the league. The original CBA guaranteed players 25% of that deal with the CBA ending in 2025. Owners have offered to reduce that to 0% while extending the CBA to 2027, and players countered with 12.5% ending in 2026. In the event of a lockout, the players still get 0% of the broadcast deal, but they also get 0% of their MLS salaries.
If it’s not clear, it seems like what MLS will try to do going into hosting the World Cup in 2026 is what they’ve done in the past but with the entire league to get a better broadcast deal. The MLS strategy when it comes to getting a broadcast deal is that Soccer United Marketing buys the right to sell broadcast rights to the World Cup and when it does, includes a requirement that broadcasters carry MLS games too. With the 2026 World Cup, MLS would be smart to package the World Cup and MLS rights and require the deal to include a league-wide broadcast deal. By pushing the CBA to 2027, the players are cut out of that revenue and cannot leverage a new CBA ahead of those broadcast negotiations.
Here’s where the owners’ refusal to meet the players half-way raises the likelihood of a lockout while at the same time lowering some of the stakes for the players. In a lockout, the obvious downside is that the players won’t get paid. However, the owners will also be taking the product they sell out of the market, a market that is already overly saturated with soccer. Given the low viewership number that MLS already has, will anyone really notice if MLS isn’t playing?
Potential broadcast partners may point to the lack of soccer in 2021 as a reason to doubt the marketability of MLS against other soccer and sports programming, not to mention the potential alienation that fans may feel having the league cancel at least part of the season. Players would also have no horse in that race since they would see 0% of that deal, they might also have a greater incentive to not accept the owners’ offer now since they wouldn’t be able to negotiate for a piece of the potential 2026 broadcast deal. The league may once again be stuck with a deal that hurts its popularity and the 12.5% sticking point and extra year tacked onto the CBA might not be worth that loss.
In addition to hoping to land a broadcast deal, another revenue stream for the league is the sudden ability to sell players abroad. Reggie Cannon, Brendan Aaronson, Mark McKenzie, Bryan Reynolds, Alphonso Davies, and Miguel Almiron have all brought in big transfer fees for MLS teams. The players in the league are getting better and paying dividends for MLS clubs. The idea may very well be that these funds are re-invested into the teams, but that money and potential profit center for owners also disappears or is diminished while MLS locks out its players. This is also an area the players could point to as a place where they perhaps are bringing more value than owners recognize through the CBA and add leverage to the value they bring to the league.
The longer that the dispute drags out, the worse it is for the league and the more it looks like owners are leveraging the short-term losses they are experiencing due to Covid into a cynical play to completely deny players a chance to share revenue across two broadcast deals. They hold all the cards and have the players backed into a corner, with the specter of not getting a chance to get what they deserve, and agreed to previously, the players may as well go all in and let the chips fall where they may.