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MLS players take off: charter flights, sharing media rights

(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

By RONALD BLUM

AP Sports

Major League Soccer players expect to take off in their new collective bargaining agreement.

After years of complaints from players about commercial flights that involved middle seats, connections and delays, the league and its players' union greatly expanded the use of charter flights as part of a five-year labor contract announced Thursday.

"Our primary reason for going for charters was to just improve the game, to be able to get players home at the end of a night after a game so that you don't lose a day, you can have a recovery day," Minnesota winger Ethan Finlay said.

The agreement includes a provision in which players will share in increased media revenue in 2023 and 2024, after the expiration of the eight-year contracts that average $75 million annually for U.S. English-language rights with ESPN and Fox and $15 million for U.S. Spanish-language rights with Univision. Player spending will go up by an amount equal to 25% above the 2022 broadcast rights figure plus $100 million.

"It was a big change from the previous agreements that we've had with our unions," deputy commissioner Mark Abbott said, "but we recognized that it was a good way for us to align the players' interests with the interests of the league in working together to grow the popularity of the league in the value of our media rights."

MLS reached its first labor contract ahead of the 2005 season, following a failed antitrust suit by players. Deals were reached as the season was about to start in 2010 and 2015, both with the the help of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, but this agreement was struck well ahead of the Feb. 29 openers and without a mediator.

Spending power per team will go up from $8.49 million last year to $11,643,000 in the final season and free agent eligibility will increase under the agreement, which is subject to ratification by both sides.

The minimum salary for senior players will rise from $70,250 last year to $109,200 in 2024 - nearly four times its $24,000 level in 2004.

Travel has long been a complaint.

Under the expired contract, each team had the right to use a charter flight on up to four legs per season. Under the new deal, teams must go by charter for eight legs this year, and the figure will expand to 16 by 2024. Teams also must use charters for all postseason games and all CONCACAF Champions League matches involving international flights.

"When you get on a plane and you take these long, long flights that you have, long travel days after a game, you're not able to recover effectively and efficiently," Finlay said. "And that results in muscle tissue injuries. It results in less opportunities for guys to get on the field, whether it be training or games."

Preparing for its 25th season, MLS has flown commercial nearly all the time.

"We don't think it is necessary or even helpful for all of the games, but for certain games it is," Abbott said.

Each team has 18-20 players on its senior roster, and their minimum rises to $81,375 this year. Each team has up to eight players on its reserve roster, and their minimum goes up from $56,250 last year to $63,547 this season and $85,502 in 2024.

Union head Bob Foose said the deal will put MLS among the top 10 leagues in the world by average salary.

"Our goal is to be in the top five," he said. "We've got a ways to go to get there."

Players who are at least 24 and have five years of MLS service will be eligible for free agency, down from 28 and eight years of service. The deal caps the increases in contracts for free agents.

Designated players also will have some free-agent rights.

Starting next year, MLS has the right to allow each club to sign as many as three players 22 or younger with a reduced budget charge.

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Updated February 6, 2020

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