**I’m an 11 year MLS veteran, with 6 years of player representation experience. I was/am currently in the middle of my free agency year when the pandemic hit. There has been a lot of moving parts in the last few days, and this piece is the result of many players reaching out to me for assistance in processing all the new information that has recently been dropped on them. I’ve invested my entire time as a professional player into the MLS and I care a lot about the league and the player pool doing well. I hope this is of help and am happy to be of service.
The greatest opportunity in the history of professional sports is currently staring us all right in the face, and we will not allow it to pass us by.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the entire world, and more specifically the entire sports industry to a complete shut down.
Something that most industries and individuals never imagined ever possible.
Yet here we are.
Many, if not all, professional sports leagues have recently completed, or are currently in the midst of negotiating conditions suitable for a return to play.
But most are doing so in a state of fear of the unknown of the future.
I believe that this is a mistake in leadership.
This is a scenario that MLS is uniquely positioned to take maximum advantage of.
Every sports franchise across the country, and world, has seen this situation as an opportunity to reduce their overall financial commitments, and exposure to their player pool.
Demanding drastic pay cuts, which makes a lot of sense in most sports franchises and industries.
These industries are doing what they see as necessary to weather the storm.
But in the case of MLS, not only are they demanding pay cuts, but are reneging on their previously agreed upon CBA terms.
The NFL, NBA and MLB for instance are all mature markets with massive TV rights deals in place, and a long history and track record of high valuations.
Though these valuations may have taken a hit in the short term as a result of the shut down, we all know that they will recover, and ultimately increase in value once sports return and time goes on.
But this may not be the case with MLS.
Picture this from the leagues perspective...
You’re Don Garber (MLS Commissioner). A two-time cancer survivor who's dedicated over 20 years of your life to overcoming the odds that this league would be an afterthought on the world soccer stage; and developed the MLS into one of the most loved/hated business models in soccer world history.
This is your baby, and you’re watching, suffering as you may lose everything you’ve dedicated a large portion of your life to. All due to circumstances outside of your control.
For all the negativity and opposition to this model and system, and the many players who have been taken advantage of along the way, I can see how this system has been beneficial and necessary for the growth of the league until now.
Unlike any other professional soccer league in the world, MLS is a single entity league structure.
The league stays afloat as best it can through its current sponsorship and tv deals. And has thrived up to this point via its expansion into new markets at increasingly higher valuations. (Raising the overall value of the entire league with each new team coming online)
There has been great value in the single entity structure, but during a global pandemic there is potentially a fatal flaw.
Now, this is my personal opinion, but I would guess that those sponsorship and tv deals may have a force majeure clause. (Which means that the major sponsors wouldn’t be obligated to have to pay the league if there are no games being played.)
Without that sponsorship and tv income, the league’s survival is dependent solely upon the willingness of each owner to cover all associated club expenses.
If any club owners are not willing or able to cover all expenses, that remaining balance (which is potentially unlimited) would then fall on the remaining owners. The single entity means if one club falls, the whole league has potential to fall. (Too big to fail?)
This is why Garber is under immense pressure to get the players back on the field. Without games being played the league is not guaranteed to collect payment from its sponsors.
Not only that, ESPN and Disney have given Garber a limited amount of time to commit to the Orlando tournament offer, which could be a large reason why the player pool was only provided 48 hour to digest all of the information and vote on it.
Now, picture this from the players perspective...
Within a single locker room you can have 15 and 16 year old rookies, who haven’t finished High School and whose mothers drop them off at training because they don’t have their driver's license yet. You can also have 35+ years olds who don’t speak English, have no college education, and 4 children.
Each team has such a wide variety of players with different backgrounds, ages, education levels, support systems, life experience, sexual orientations, motives and physical locations across the US and Canada.
In regards to the current league proposal, the league provided the player pool with only 48 hours to digest the information of a complex tournament, new CBA terms, and vote on it.
Such short time restrictions could be perceived by the player pool as insensitive and dismissive of their individual circumstances.
To put this into context, the original CBA that was agreed upon earlier in the year took 18 months to negotiate and educate the entire player pool.
While the current proposal is not as long as the original CBA negotiations, it should be understandable that the player pool would desire more time to be able to make a more informed vote on something that will greatly affect their future. But the player pool can acknowledge that this is an unprecedented time.
The hope is that the league should now understand the gravity of what they were asking of the player pool. More importantly, they should understand that the player pool stepped up and delivered anyway.
Although the players agreed upon a CBA with the league in good faith earlier in the year, and then the league reneged, the player pool is still willing to work with Don Garber in good faith.
A position of great opportunity.
Strong belief, dedication and commitment to a long term vision is what allowed for the opportunities we now see available to us here today. I am personally grateful and thankful for that, and I will never nor could I ever take that away from anyone.
However we also shouldn’t assume that what was necessary to get us to this point will get us where we want to go next, together.
Which is back to play.
The NFL, NBA and MLB are not fair comparisons, for the league or the players.
MLS can very well fold as a result of this pandemic and shut down.
In my opinion the league doesn’t want this to happen, nor does the player pool, front office staff, supporters, fans and everyone past and present who has dedicated their time, money and lives to the growth of the league up to this point.
But with the tumultuous relationship that is the players, the league and fans, and the unprecedented times we find ourselves in...
How can we bridge the gap?
ESPN is offering to broadcast a 54 game tournament in Orlando to get things back to play.
In theory, this makes a lot of sense and is a great opportunity to get things back on track.
BUT these are not normal or typical circumstances.
And the wide degree in variety of the entire player pool in; age, religion, education, sexual orientation, ethnicity, language, and nationality among others, not only makes our league one of the most diverse and unique leagues in the world, but comes with it the difficulty in getting everyone onboard.
Which is what is necessary for something of this magnitude.
Everyone, onboard, together.
And the only way to do that is to acknowledge, understand and provide a solution to each and every single player's personal apprehensions, fears and concerns, as well as the leagues, before moving forward.
Now this is something that is nearly impossible to do, especially with the extreme limitations and constraints of time that is currently upon us.
But relatively speaking, in my opinion, I believe that the cost in doing so in comparison to the opportunity the lays before the league and players, is too great for the league to not go all in on investing in the players.
Showing good faith in the short term and only solidifying their position on the world stage in the long run.
Allow me to set some context:
Some data from CNBC on last year's Super Bowl.
I believe the league is too focused on the here and now, and isn’t seeing the amount of money they would otherwise have to pay ESPN (or any other large network) under normal circumstances to get this type of exposure and marketing dollars directed towards the league and player pool.
While every other league at least here in the United States won’t be back to play for some time, this is the leagues opportunity to capture the entirety, if not the majority of the US market for pennies on the dollar, without competition.
The money in saving alone by getting the deal done and the tournament would more than cover the cost to guarantee players the compensation necessary to commit to leaving their families during a global pandemic, risking their mental health, and lives for what at the end of the day is entertainment.
Under current circumstances it is all in exchange for a pay reduction and a renegotiation of the already agreed upon yet unratified CBA.
This is where the disconnect lies in my opinion and why it will be difficult if not impossible to move forward without massively damaging player relations in the long term.
Imagine for a moment.
What if the MLS, rather than requesting or demanding a pay cut for the player pool at this time (like every other league in the world) decided to do the complete opposite?
What if they offered an increase in wages as a sign of good faith and a belief and trust in the players.
What if they acknowledged that they haven’t gotten it all right in the past, but are committed to getting it right here now and in the future?
I believe that would be something never seen before in the history of sports.
I believe that would make international headlines and news.
I believe that would be something that players could get behind.
I believe that would create the greatest sports PR campaign of all time, and get people talking about and focused on the MLS for an entire month leading up to the only tournament and sport that would be broadcast nationally here in the US.
I believe that we will win!