MLSPA: ‘No need to rush’ talks with league

MLSPA executive director Bob Foose spoke to media about the league’s force majeure and attempts to re-open CBA talks.

A day after Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber impressed upon reporters the need for a “sense of urgency” regarding negotiations with the players association on a new collective bargaining agreement, MLSPA executive director Bob Foose addressed media to clarify “there is no need to rush.”

Because of the ongoing pandemic and uncertainty about fans’ ability to attend games in 2021, MLS invoked a force majeure clause on Dec. 29, which allowed the league to reopen negotiations on a new CBA.

MLS delivered a proposal to the MLSPA on Jan. 4, agreeing to keep salaries at present levels but freezing the salary budget increase between the 2021 and 2022 seasons. The CBA, which was negotiated last February and then re-negotiated in June, also would be extended for two years. Garber indicated in a Zoom call with media Tuesday that there is a 30-day negotiating window before the league can take action.

Foose’s main concern is accounting for the potential losses the league could incur in 2021, noting that 2020 losses already were accounted for in the last negotiations. He said Wednesday the league should delay as long as possible to see how conditions improve with the COVID-19 vaccine and corrected Garber’s notion there is a Jan. 28 deadline to reach an agreement, clarifying that no action can be taken within 30 days of invoking the force majeure.

Here is the transcript from most of the conference call, including all the most pertinent information relative to what the FC Cincinnati fan base would be interested in knowing. Only a couple questions (one pertaining more to a Canadian audience) were omitted for ease of reading (this is already very long). Don’t want to read through this whole thing? Send me your questions and I will address in a mailbag!

From Foose’s introduction:

“Players made significant concessions in the renegotiated CBA in June. Those concessions covered a substantial portion of MLS’s 2020 pandemic-induce losses. They were incurred by players last year. They’re going to be incurred by players this year, and they’re going to continue to be incurred by players every year through the 2025 season. So, while the league has taken to saying that there are no salary reductions in 2021, the reality is that concessions have already been made in each year of the renegotiated CBA to account for the financial impact of the virus. And while the league may continue to talk about 2020 losses, the reality is that the negotiation over those losses is finished. We had that negotiation last summer, the players have taken and will continue to take a significant financial hit that is equal to a significant portion of those losses.

“So what is the negotiation about? It’s simple. It’s about 2021 and 2021 only, and it’s about the losses that will be caused by the pandemic this year. And the fact is right now, that neither we nor the league have any idea what impact the pandemic is going to have on finances in the 2021 season. Despite that, what the league has proposed is the following. First, they want players to continue to do everything that they do, they want them to play a full season, accept being exposed to all the dangers that remain from the virus, continue to take all the risk from COVID that’s out there, in order to provide them with a full season. And second, they want the players to give them additional concessions that exceeds the value of the concessions given last year. So, that’s the proposal that’s currently on the table from MLS.

“So, our analysis at this point is really about three things. The first is: Is it reasonable to project that the pandemic will cause more losses in ’21 than in ’20? Assuming the answer to that is no, which we certainly think is the case and don’t see any reason why conceivably, why that wouldn’t be the case. The question becomes what is a reasonable estimate of what those losses in 2021 that are caused by the pandemic will be? The second question is: Do the League and the teams have the flexibility in the current CBA to cut player costs when necessary in response to whatever those losses may be? And the answer to that question is an unequivocal yes, absolutely. Over 40% of the budgeted amounts in the CBA are discretionary, which means that they do not have to be spent and clubs can make individual decisions on them. Now, they probably or they have committed certain of those monies already, and therefore they can’t cut them all, but they certainly have the ability and had the ability and will continue to have the ability moving forward to cut significant amounts — a million, two million dollars per team per year, from their player spend if they determine that’s what’s necessary based on the economic climate and the losses caused by the pandemic. That leads to the third question, which is: Given all of that, are there any additional concessions that we think are reasonable and fair? So we haven’t answered, obviously, all those questions yet. Once we have our analysis completed, and the input that we need from player leadership, we’ll figure out how we’re going to respond to the offer. And we’ve been talking to our player leadership through the weekend and every day this week.

“In making the decision, ultimately, in terms of how we respond, one of the fundamental questions we keep coming back to is, is the question of what this negotiation is really about. Is it about financial necessity? Or is it about financial opportunism? And there’s a larger point that I think is worth making there. The evidence that I’ve seen as it relates to the overall cultural impact, economic impact of COVID isn’t that there’s been some major redistribution of wealth or that financial impact has been distributed evenly across society, across all of us. What we’ve seen instead is that the people at the top of the economic ladder and that group includes all of our owners. But I’m not just talking about billionaires here, I’m talking about the wealthiest people in the country have generally seen their wealth remain relatively unaffected, and in many cases have seen that wealth increase over the course of this year. It’s the people who aren’t at the top of the economic spectrum, which is a group that includes many of our supporters, club employees, matchday workers, I’m sure a lot of reporters and other people across the soccer industry and frankly, many of our players and their families. It’s that group that’s going to absorb much of the economic impact of this pandemic. So well we can’t as a group set out to address or correct all the financial inequities in our society, we can and we should and we have to raise the issue of fairness. We need to make sure that an unfair portion of the financial impact of this pandemic isn’t being passed along to the current and future player pool. To drill down a little further on that idea, the brunt of the league’s current proposal would be borne by the bottom half- to two-thirds of the player pool in terms of salary or overall pay. To the extent that any more concessions from players are fair, that type of distribution and spread amongst the player pool, certainly isn’t fair.

Reporter: I’m sure you heard Don Garber say the end of the 30-day window was a hard deadline. When do you think you might be able to submit a counteroffer and how much urgency are you feeling from this 30-day deadline that was forced upon you by the force majeure?

Foose: Yeah, it’s an interesting question. To start off, I’ll say that Don’s comments about the deadline yesterday were news to us and contradicted what we’ve heard from the league in our calls. The force majeure clause doesn’t do anything to establish a deadline. What it does establish is a limit on how quickly the league is allowed to take action, so they can’t act for 30 days, but they’re not required to act within 30 days. That’s just not part of it. Don isn’t a lawyer and he hasn’t been involved in any of the conversations that we’ve had with the league on this so far, so I don’t know if this is a case in which he misunderstood the provision and misspoke or whether it was his intention to announce a change in position in the press prior to informing us, so either way, there’s no legal deadline here at all, nor is there any logic in setting one, certainly in January. If anything as time goes by, we’re all gonna have a better understanding of what the 2021 season is going to look like. So, that was all news to us and we’ll have to see what we hear from them when we get back and have another conversation.

Reporter: And when do you think you’ll be able to submit a counteroffer?

Foose: As soon as we are through our process of really talking this through at a high level with our bargaining committee we will put together a counter and have a conversation with our board and then back through the committee again and you know we’re moving as quickly as we can. We’ve only had this for a week so we’ll do our best to get back to the league as soon as we’ve had the conversations that we need to have. That said, we’re not rushing just because somehow suddenly the League has decided that there’s this magical deadline that no one’s ever mentioned before, so this is a big deal and these are big decisions and important. The way we operate is our decisions are always made by our player leadership and that’s going to continue to be the case.

Reporter: Typically training camps open in mid- to late-January, six weeks ahead of the openers. We’re getting close to that point. What are you looking at, what are you telling players, what are teams, telling the players about when they can start formally working out?

Foose: That’s been an incredible source of frustration in an otherwise frustrating time. We’ve been asking the league, not only for a start date — because you can’t set a report date without knowing the opening date of the season, so there is no report date right now for anyone. So, our players are being forced to sit at home without the understanding of when it is they might be required to report. We’ve been asking for that date since well before MLS Cup and have also asked just for a statement that, ‘We’re not going to report prior to X,’ so we could at least give the players something to rely on to plan their offseason, at a time when that offseason is probably the most important one we’ve ever had in terms of recovery and recuperation. We’ve gotten nothing from the league. We’ve just gotten the same thing that they’ve said publicly, coupled with all kinds of rumors, which I’m sure many of you have heard about the fact that they know very well they’re not starting in early March, so the fear on our side is — and it’s kind of hard not to conclude this but this is all just part of a game that they’re playing because somehow they think trying to rush a force majeure conversation will be advantageous to them now while things are worse than later when they clearly won’t be as bad. So, you’re guess is as good as mine as to when they are going to start. I certainly see a lot of logic in taking whatever time we can take to delay the season as long as we can still get the full season in because I don’t think there’s any question at all that once we get into March and April where we’re gonna start seeing things get better. So, it’s been a huge source of frustration and we don’t know anything more than what you know.

Reporter: I’m curious how critical you guys consider having a CBA as the league has proposed to extend beyond the 2026 World Cup. And, you know, probably after, not just this coming media deal, but maybe even after the next media deal would be finalized. How important are those things to you?

Foose: Incredibly important. The term of the CBA has been a top tier issue in every one of our CBAs. So, we’re a growing league, an evolving league, and we want to be back at the table as frequently as we can be back at the table. Last year was obviously a sort of massive body blow for all of us. It created a lot of unknown, and I think the solution that we came up with in sliding the CBA back a year was sort of the best one out of a group of alternatives that we didn’t like. This year is very different because this isn’t catching us by surprise now. We know, everyone has that time to plan and teams have the ability, as I said, to make adjustments that need to be made based on their own financial circumstances. So, extending the CBA is an enormous, enormous ask from the league of the player pool and a very very expensive one as well.

Reporter: Do you feel like the league had the proper ground to enact this force majeure clause in the first place from a legal and also just ethical standpoint? I’m also curious how seriously you take Commissioner Garber’s sort of assertion that negotiations won’t extend beyond that 30 day window that ends on January 28?

Foose: I’m going to probably not answer the first question, other than to say we certainly have a legal opinion as to what constitutes a force majeure under the agreement that we struck, and that’s something that we have been talking about and continue to talk about but I want to leave it at that for now. With regard to this deadline, I don’t know. I don’t know. Again, this is all we’ve heard. The only place we’ve heard that is from Don yesterday so it’s really hard to know what to read into it. I can’t understand why January 27th or 28th or whatever the day is would bear any significance, particularly given that it’s not looking all that likely we’re even going to be in preseason yet, so where that sense of urgency comes from, the only explanation I can come up with is a belief that they have to have this negotiation done and dusted before things start to get better.

Reporter: I’m trying to reconcile this idea that they’re saying that there will be no cuts to player pay the next two years, and you’re saying that it will substantially hurt fair play. Can you just help explain that to me?

Foose: Sure, so the renegotiation that we undertook last year, the deal that was signed in June, pushed the terms of the CBA back a year so all of the terms under the CBA we negotiated in February, for 2020, remain in effect for 2021, instead of the 2021 terms we were supposed to have under the February agreement. So, across the board, the financial terms of the CBA for this year are lower than what they were supposed to be. So in addition to salary cuts last year and cuts in bonuses, there also is a lower budget amount for each team, lower allocations, lower minimum salary, lower bonuses. All of those things are lower in 2021, so it’s completely disingenuous for them to suggest that there’s no player salary impact. That’s just false. The only thing that there isn’t that there was last year is a direct reduction in player salary. But there’s plenty of financial impacts to players both currently and each year moving forward. And what they proposed now would exacerbate that. They would do in the first year, the exact same thing over again, so there would be another year, so next year’s terms would be two years behind where they were supposed to be, which means the player pay reductions would be even more significant than they are this year, relative to where they should have been. That’s the basic concept, and that’s why the concessions that have been made have been made by last year’s players, this year’s players and every year’s players through 2025.

Reporter: Just to be clear, it sounds like the union’s expectation is that the season is not going to start in that usual early- to mid-March timeframe: Is that your expectation at this point?

Foose: That ought to be a very easy question I realized. I don’t know what to expect to be honest. It seems like that would be hard to do. Anecdotally, what we are hearing is that teams have not begun to plan their preseason, which makes me think that it’s not going to happen in the near future. But the league is continuing to maintain that that’s what they are shooting for is early to mid-March start. So we’ve heard lots of rumors from various folks about different timelines, but we’re not able, honestly, to have an expectation at this point, which is very frustrating.

Reporter: You mentioned extending the CBA is an enormous ask for the players. Do you get the sense that it’s a non-starter with the players at this point?

Foose: I don’t want to comment on that until the decision is made. You know, our players are extraordinarily well-versed in particular our leadership, well-versed on the CBA and the implications of changes to the CBA. They’re very bright, and they are able to analyze this at an extremely high level and those are the conversations that are going on right now, and I give our players enormous amount of credit for being professional and taking the time to analyze the data that’s put in front of them, prior to making decisions, so I wouldn’t characterize us as having made any decisions before the fact. We’re going to have to see where guys come out.

Reporter: While you’re not targeting January 28 as a hard deadline, do you and the players actually have your own kind of timetable that you want to have these discussions? Are there any obstacles as far as communicating with each other?

Foose: Talking about the second part first, and that is yes. It is obviously — and the league well knows this or should — much harder for players to do their jobs and then it interrupts, as I said, what is an extraordinarily important offseason for them, who are n desperate need of healing and recuperation and rejuvenation and instead they’ve got dragged back into these conversations on a time schedule that has been set by the league and hasn’t been justified in any way so it’s very very difficult. But, our guys step up, and to a man our player leaders have jumped back in and been involved in those conversations despite the fact that it’s taking them away from what is already very very scant vacation. In terms of our timetable, we want to get it done as quickly as it can be gotten done. And while reaching the fairest result, the result that it should reach, so we certainly have no intention of wanting this to go on forever. I think everybody on all sides has tremendous fatigue over these negotiations, which now this is the second time the league, or would be if they do terminate, would have reneged on the CBA agreements that we reached so we’re certainly not looking to continue these talks indefinitely. At the same point, same time, it’s critical that we have as much understanding as possible as to what 2021 is going to look like in terms of our ability to have fans in stadiums and you know there’s still a ways to go to get that knowledge, to get that information. I will say that there there continues to be some real positive news. I saw the New York Times today, one expert suggests that that half of the United States would be vaccinated by June 1 and that’s obviously a substantial positive and would change dramatically the outlook for our season and that’s really kind of 80% of our season probably that happens after that. So, a long-winded answer to say, you know, we don’t want to try to drag this out but we’re also not going to jump into a decision before we have answers to the questions that we need answered.

Reporter: Would issuing a counterproposal negate your right to challenge the invocation of the force majeure clause? And the second question I have is by pushing back the terms by one year by freezing next year, that would take everything to 2026. What does MLS propose in terms of the numbers in 2027 of any increases for that year, which would be the second year of the addition to the term of the agreement?

Foose: Sure yeah the answer your first question is no. It does not preclude, and we would reserve, have reserved and would continue to reserve our rights on that issue. In terms of 2027, what they proposed was a 5% increase in dollar amounts across the board in the CBA that year, which is substantially less than what we typically have seen in the first year of a new deal so there’s significant costs there to players for that year as well.

Reporter: You’ve mentioned this idea that the timeline we’re hearing from the league with the Jan. 28 deadline and the mid-March start date can only be explained by the idea that they want to get the CBA redone before things kind of get better. Can you expand on that? And then a separate question, are there any plans to challenge the invocation of force majeure?

Foose: I’m not going to comment on the second one. I’ll leave that aside and any questions there would be better answered by our general counsel so, as for the first question, I don’t know. I have not heard from the league a reason why they believe this deadline is important. So, it is my speculation that you referenced. And I would just say that’s the only reason I’ve been able to come up with, as to why there would be such a rush, particularly a rush to try finish this in January, which may be before preseason even starts. So, it’s contrary to the way all of our negotiations have gone in the past, and, frankly, you know, contrary to any kind of real consideration for the magnitude of the issues that we’re being asked to discuss in a very short period of time, so we didn’t receive a proposal until I want to say January 5. So, 10 days after they exercise the force majeure so to say in 20 days time, we’re going to be done and dusted on this is pretty unreasonable without any reason being given from the league.

Reporter: And just as a clarification, that January 28 ‘deadline,’ basically after that, the 30-day negotiation window closes, and in theory, could the league lock players out at that point?

Foose: It’s not quite that simple but Don kept talking about a 30-day negotiating window. There’s no window here. What the provision says is that when it’s exercised, the league can’t move to terminate the CBA for 30 days after that exercise during which time the parties will talk. So that’s it. There’s no window. If they don’t do anything the day after then they don’t do anything. We are continuing to talk. There continues to be whatever dialogue there is so there’s no set negotiating window here. There’s no legal deadline at all. That has just been set apparently yesterday in the press call by Don, not something we’ve heard of and not something that is a part of any agreement that we have with the league.

Reporter: With the way that negotiators have gone so far, what is your level of competence that a work stoppage can be avoided?

Foose: That’s a tough question to answer. I certainly hope that it doesn’t come to that. It shouldn’t come to that. With all that we went through, collectively, last year, and with how bright the future can be, once we get past this, it’s critically important that we have a very positive bounce-back year. We have no intention of refusing to abide by the terms of the agreement that we that we made. So, if there’s going to be a work stoppage then that would be a decision made by the League and the owners to do that. So I don’t think it makes a lot of sense. That said, having seen the way they conducted the negotiation last summer and heard what Don said yesterday, I think, we certainly have to say that it’s a real possibility and it’s something that we have spoken to players about and our players have been preparing for the possibility of a work stoppage for more than two years now, so they understand the implications. And they’re not going to be forced to take a deal that they find unacceptable just because of that threat, so I hope it’s not a real threat because, frankly, it would be a catastrophic mistake on the part of the league and on part of the owners. And I say that, from all of our perspectives, it would be incredibly damaging to MLS and MLS’s future, so I hope they don’t consider this a serious possibility but all indications are that they do.

Reporter: What’s been the players’ reaction that you’ve gotten so far about the league invoking this and moving forward with wanting changes. Are they frustrated, are they angry or did they kind of expect this and think that this was going to happen anyway?

Foose: They’re very frustrated. They’re certainly angry. I think it would be impossible to overstate the damage to the relationship that the league did with the way they conducted things last summer. It was substantial and and will be very long-lasting. Because of that, it’s unfortunate but I don’t think players were surprised that there was yet another attempt to renege and renegotiate from the league. But they’re certainly disappointed, particularly given everything that they gave in 2020 and risked. What they did was truly extraordinary and what the team staff’s did was truly extraordinary, and the reality is there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of consideration being given to either of those groups on any of the big picture issues and that’s disappointing in my mind, and in the minds of our players and that’s just wrong the way the league and the owners have gone about this.

Reporter: In terms of players that are weighing offers from different clubs, what’s your message to the league in case they find themselves not being able to attract certain players or lose players because of the tactics they are adopting?

Foose: That’s a message that has been delivered and continues to be delivered, and it is that they damage themselves, and they damage the league when they refuse to show the respect to the player pool that it deserves. And when they treat them like frankly, assets for them to move around and play with as they see fit. It does not make MLS more appealing as a destination for players. There is a worldwide network, obviously, of players who talk, so, you know, we’ve heard this publicly from players in MLS through this negotiation, that treating them like this is is going to make it harder to attract players from elsewhere. And it’s going to make it more likely that players from here will choose to go elsewhere.

Let me just add on to that, I want to be very very clear on this. We understand and respect that A) the owners have made an enormous investment in this league and B) that the losses caused by this pandemic have been real. So there is no one on our side denying that, there’s no one on our side who has refused to to do their part to try to alleviate that. The reality is, though, that, as I said at the beginning, the 2020 losses have been negotiated and paid for substantially by the players. Whatever losses happen in 2021 related to the pandemic which is impossible to know right now, the League has every opportunity to recoup out of player expenses and they have simply chosen not to. What we’ve seen from team has been business as usual with significant signings of players around the world so once again we’re just seeing unfortunately, opportunism apparently from the league and a lack of consideration for their and a lack of understanding of their players.

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