MLS Allowing More Charter Flights Seems Overdue, but Would Teams Actually Use Them?

Photo used with permission from Max Aquino Photography

Eagle-eyed readers who read my story on the tentative changes to the MLS schedule, noticed a little tidbit related to the implications from additional midweek games. The long and short of it was: Additional mid-week games will put additional stresses on players, which may require MLS loosening the purse-strings and providing more charter flights. However, it’s questionable whether you’ll see that happen.

MLS may be a long way from the days of Kentucky Fried Chicken and Motel 6’s for team meals and hotels, but one place where they lag behind the “Big 4” sports leagues (and some well-to-do colleges) is when it comes to transporting its players. Much metaphorical ink has been spilled over the issue of flights, with the first stories emerging back in the Beckham Experiment

That book dealt with the issues the Galaxy specifically had with the first global superstar moving to MLS, but the stories regarding travel began to see some light. 

Speaking with retired Columbus Crew goalkeeper William Hesmer, he outlined a number of problems he experienced with travel. As a player who straddled the so-called “MLS 1.0 and 2.0 eras,” he was in a unique position to speak to how things were, and how things changed before he finished playing in MLS in 2012.

“We only had a few charters, but I would hardly call them charters.” Hesmer said. “It was a small prop plane to Toronto each time. Even when we went to MLS Cup in LA in 2008 the Hunts refused to charter us.  They did however pay for one ticket for a family member to travel out.  The Red Bulls did charter out there that year, however.”

The lack of charter flights should hardly be a surprise in the years after MLS barely survived shutting down completely. That said, many of the travel conditions players had to endure did not speak well of a professional league, even after a brush with oblivion. 

“The same travel issues persisted throughout the vast majority of my career-and still exist today-but now you actually have more staff to pack/lug around all the gear.” Hesmer said.  “In the early days all of us, including Tony Meola, Preki, and Chris Klein, had to carry their own luggage/gear plus a few other bags and check them in under “their” name across the airports. Now there is adequate staff that players don’t have to mess with loading/unloading, packing/unpacking all the travel gear. It was a mess and highly unprofessional.”

Since those days, the complaints and stories about airline travel are almost too numerous to count, but not much has been done to find a solution. There are a couple of reasons for this, and they are essentially intertwined.

Collective Bargaining Agreement:

The first issue is that the CBA governs what MLS is required to do to get its players to games, which is outlined below.

Screen Shot 2018-09-18 at 7.16.15 AM

So, we’ve got a few things going on here. First, to the extent a team wishes to provide charter flights, they are only allowed to use four legs per year, which basically means two round-trips.  Second, there is no requirement whatsoever that any team provide any chartered flights for any games. At all. Third, MLS can authorize additional legs, but that is at their whim. Fourth, use of charter flights at all is basically outside of the CBA generally.

To bring chartered flights under the CBA umbrella and mandate them for everyone, Paul Tenorio in 2017 estimated that it would increase costs by over $20 million per year for the league. Rounding up (and accounting for new teams), that’s about $1 million per team, per year.

Ever mindful of maintaining tight control over those costs, commissioner Don Garber had some comments over the last couple of weeks on the issue:

“I worry more about thinking we’ve cracked the code for this sport than the day-to-day challenges. In time, I think you’ll see more charters, but I don’t think we’ll ever be in a situation where a guy is going to be buying big planes and travelling the way the other leagues do. At least not in my tenure,” Garber said.

As always, it’s important to note that Garber works for the owners, and as such is by and large reflecting their sentiment on a particular issue. But it’s heartening to note that he’s at least displayed some willingness to be flexible and advocate or for changes…

…or is it?

The Owners:

As Paul Tenorio noted in his story, any expansion of charter flights is going to come at a pretty significant cost to teams, and while certain teams would likely take advantage of an expanded charter allowance, it’s an open question whether you’d get equal buy-in from all teams. As a matter of fact, I think we know the answer, thanks to a conversation with James Riley retired player and former MLS front-office executive.

Riley discussed the charter issue more in the context of sports science and recovery, and said that while at the MLS front office, they presented information on the benefits of charter flights to ownership groups. Based on information he’d seen, upwards of 75% of MLS teams were not even using the allotted four charter legs they are currently authorized.

“What it comes down to is ownership spend, literally. It’s ownership groups [that] are making that decision,” Riley said. “It’s no one else; it’s not the GM’s, not the players, not the coaches. Each individual team gets four opportunities to charter. Seventy-five percent of teams aren’t even using those four opportunities to charter.

“Our argument as a league to the ownership group…was the sports science data. You’re flying in, then you get to fly out which means you get extra practice days, you get players sleeping in their own bed, you get recovery and all that so that it makes for a better product on the field.”

Riley wasn’t 100% certain on the actual percentage, but the number was significantly high enough that he noted the lack of investment in MLS teams in this area. However, I’ve been able to independently confirm from a MLS source that the number is accurate.

That 75% of teams were not using their allotted number of charters was not surprising to Harry Shipp, the MLSPA Player Representative for the Seattle Sounders. Shipp has played for Chicago, Montreal and Seattle, and said that each has used charters with varying frequency.

“I’ve been on teams that use charters and teams that don’t.” Shipp said. “It depends on the ease of transporting to cities and you’re weighing costs and benefits. But something that going forward that’s definitely a priority for us in terms of starting to make it more mandatory.”

While it’s clear that the players will want to increase the amount of charters in the next CBA, they also acknowledge that it is a significant cost increase. “It’s a cost issue for them [MLS] and the cost difference is significant,” Shipp said. “For us, it’s not gonna happen where you’re going 100% overnight and we know that.” “The Union has it all calculated and it is a pretty significant difference”

However, the benefits as outlined by Riley are real according to Shipp, which is why they’re willing to fight to make it more of a priority. “It’s not just time spent in airports or on planes, it’s the ability to fly back right after the game and get an extra day of training in the week, that’s something maybe MLS doesn’t think about right away,” Shipp said. “You’d get a significant amount of extra practice days and push up a regen day so you can get an extra day of practice throughout the week. As teams start to use it and understand the physical benefits for players I think they’re going to start to be happy with the results.”

That said, the ability to negotiate mandatory charters will come up against weighing other player priorities, but it is an issue which the players appear to be ready to fight for. “You’re always trying to weigh what your top issues are.” Shipp said. “As the league wants the quality of play to be higher, I think it’s something that players are starting to complain more and more about, and I think it’s something that has become more of priority than it was necessarily five years ago.”

The cost issue will loom large; if there are 75% of teams not using their allotted charters now, it may be difficult to convince them to increase that spending by an amount even the MLSPU considers significant. Even teams like Seattle, with healthy revenues, are conscious of those expenses. “Seattle, besides playoffs games, we haven’t chartered, not even for Champions League games which I thought was something that would have made our travels a little bit easier,” Shipp said.

“Montreal, we used pretty much all of our allotted charters for the year. Especially when you’re going on cross-country flights; like you’re flying to Vancouver or Seattle,” Shipp continued. “Those days where we would have had to connect through Toronto, it definitely made the travel experience a little smoother.”

Will Bruin, the Sounders striker who previously played with the Houston Dynamo, echoed Shipp’s thoughts on the matter. “As far as I’ve been in the league with both teams, neither has used them all during the season,” Bruin said. “We chartered every playoff game so that was good, but I would like to see more in the future.”

So what about potential solutions? Short of MLS allowing teams that want to increase this investment to do so, idea have been discussed. One interesting proposal is to allow teams to share charters in regional “pods” of sorts. For example, the Cascadia teams would pool together to use charters and split the costs; same with RSL and Colorado, and so on. Since teams don’t need to charter to every game, it would be one way to expand the charter system without exploding the team budget.

As to whether charters will be mandated: that’s unlikely to happen with this next CBA. At least not without a fight, or concessions elsewhere in negotiations. MLS believes revenues simply aren’t to the point where they’re willing to absorb a large mandatory increase in travel spending. That of course doesn’t mean that an expansion of some sort isn’t coming however. If teams who don’t use charters still aren’t using them in an expanded charter system, they’ll likely start to be shamed more publicly, as players increasingly make their voices heard, and as photos of certain players relaxing on charters emerge while others try to squeeze into middle seats. But in the interests of looking after the players and providing an improved product, perhaps that isn’t a bad thing.

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