By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (May 15, 2020) US Soccer Players - Multiple reports this week outlined the near future for MLS. The proposal is to resume match play next month with all 26 teams in a quarantined setting in Orlando, Florida. So we now know more or less how Major League Soccer is hoping to get its 2020 season back underway after its coronavirus suspension.
The plan to gather over 1,000 players, coaches, and staff in or around Disney's Wide World of Sports complex for some two months of match play is unprecedented. It's ambitious, potentially thrusting MLS into the North American mainstream consciousness when the hunger for televised live sports is at an all-time high. As a bridge of sorts to an eventual resumption of normal activities, it's innovative.
It's also fraught with peril, considering the degree of complexity and attention to detail it requires to ensure the safety of all involved. That might well prove impossible, given the number of moving parts and the degree to which it depends on factors outside the league's control. Particularly, the availability of testing materials and the broader management of the pandemic. It may put MLS and its executives in a fairly unfamiliar position, on the short end of the leverage equation with players.
Here's what the league is asking of its players. Leave their families for an extended period. Play a heavy schedule of games at what amounts to training fields adjacent to an amusement park. Deal with the Florida heat for far longer than even the most intense preseason camp. Do all of this in the middle of a deadly viral outbreak. Then there's what the league plans to pay. There are also reports of MLS asking the union to sign off on a pay cut due to the economic fallout from the COVID-19 crisis, reportedly to the tune of 20% or more.
Crucially, the collective bargaining agreement does not contain a "force majeure" (act of God) provision. That would allow ownership to trim or suspend pay due to unusual events beyond either party's control. That's also the case with the National Football League, significantly complicating its situation later this year. The NBA's CBA, on the other hand, does with that league recently negotiating a 25% payroll cut starting this month.
Conversely, MLS and the MLSPA have yet to ratify the new CBA they brokered over the offseason. That gives Don Garber & Co. something of a "nuclear option" in that they could lock out the players and stop paying them altogether. All involved are keenly aware of the overarching reality that the longer this crisis unfolds with no games and thus little to no revenue, the stronger the odds of truly painful financial upheaval across the board.
These factors represent a push-pull on the behind-the-scenes talks currently underway in hopes of an agreement between the two sides on the Orlando plan. Given how much control its single-entity structure gives its wealthy investor/operators, MLS normally holds the high ground in the labor equation. Now, given the unique circumstances, and how much it's asking from its labor force, it may need to compromise to an extent it hasn't had to up to this point.
"While franchise values may – or may not – be taking a hit right now, we know that their values will continue to rise once this pandemic is in the rearview mirror," wrote former sports agent and executive Andrew Brandt for Sports Illustrated in the NFL context this week, and it's also relevant from an MLS viewpoint. "When owners ask (demand) the players share in their short-term losses, the players should, in turn, ask the owners to share in their long-term gains. That should stop the conversation pretty quickly."
There's a particular sort of clock ticking loudly overhead. Like many other businesses, MLS badly wants to get back to normal soon, or at least get on a path in that direction. The sooner the league can put a television product up for consumption, the more of a head start it will have other other sports leagues. However, it's far from certain that the pandemic has abated enough to make that safe. Negative scenarios like a COVID outbreak onsite or a regression to shutdown status could be disastrous.
The timing of the gambit is particularly finicky. There's no avoiding the physiological limitations of fitness periodization. Players' bodies must get sufficient time to gear up for a return to match action with proper management through a busy schedule, even with expanded substitution rules. The expense of airlifting in 26 teams to Orlando and maintaining their presence for weeks at a time is undoubtedly enormous. Basically, once the league flips that switch, a pricey meter begins running. It could be ruinously expensive to have to suspend or pause the process due to a flurry of positive tests or a shift in the wider coronavirus battle.
MLS faces a limited window in which to get everything decided, organized, and executed. If things take too long, it risks other leagues reaching the audience first. If they rush too quickly, we all know the health risk. It's a daunting scenario to get the games going again.
Charles Boehm is a Washington, DC-based writer and the editor of The Soccer Wire. Contact him at:email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at:http://twitter.com/cboehm.
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