By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Jul 2, 2020) US Soccer Players - Over the decades, MLS has lent itself to a lot of comparisons. A startup company. A legacy software program. Don Quixote tilting at windmills. The proverbial 800-pound gorilla, and so on. As the league plunges ahead with its MLS is Back tournament amid a steady stream of positive COVID-19 tests among the players on-site in Orlando, a new one might end up on the list. MLS as a whale shark: If it stops moving forward, it sinks, and eventually dies.
It's not entirely fair to apply this to just one North American professional sports league, though. As the ripples of unrest about the situation in Orlando grow larger, USL has begun rolling out the details of its return to play. Those games will not only take place in their local markets but will also feature fans in attendance at stadiums where permissible by local ordinances. The mere idea of that looks pretty unflattering when viewed in the light of huge spikes in COVID cases, and haphazard mitigation protocols, in many of those places.
The NBA is still on course for its own Orlando bubble tournament. The NHL is reportedly set to announce Toronto and Edmonton as its two "hub cities" for its restart. Meanwhile, the NFL clings to hopes of a fall season, as do their broadcast partners. It's probably the most profitable sports league in the world, carrying with it a sub-economy of its own. The Washington Post reported this week that the league "accounted for 41 of the top 50 rated telecasts of any kind in 2019" and that the big four TV networks reap from 22 to 45 percent of their ad revenues from pro and college football. Note that ESPN and Fox have already cut staff, with the distinct possibility of more to come.
The NWSL's Challenge Cup is well underway in Utah, despite losing an entire team, the Orlando Pride, to a batch of positive coronavirus tests. That league has already signaled that this event will have to serve as the 2020 NWSL season, with no plans at this time to add games.
It's worth mentioning that the tournament's opener was the highest-rated game in NWSL history. It more than doubled the old record, easy to do since it was on network television. That underlines the attraction of getting back to play. Especially compared to an alternative scenario of treading water and hoping for the wider situation to change. Treading water, of course, only buys time until help, or perhaps a shark, arrives.
Airlifting 26 MLS teams into one place for a month-plus event at an exclusive report and sports complex requires enormous costs, planning, and risk. Even the stringent testing regimen put in place may prove insufficient, based on this week's sudden viral outbreak among FC Dallas players. It's becoming increasingly clear that this undertaking is the logistical equivalent of a high-wire act.
Why go through all this? There's no escaping the answer: money.
It's easy to write that off as yet another display of corporate greed. Instead, for those paying close attention, the MLS reality is slightly more complicated. Yes, this is a single-entity league with many pooled assets, one populated by many billionaire owner-investors who can afford to pause operations in the name of public health and safety.
Not every MLS owner is in a position to underwrite an indefinite holding pattern at the typical burn rate for franchises with little incoming revenue at present. Many of those who do have such means have zero desire to do so. Because they're business people at heart, and they're involved in soccer to make money, not lose it. Commissioner Don Garber has substantial powers to herd that group of 26 in the direction he believes serves the greater good, yet this too has limits.
Need proof? Look north to Minnesota United, who just effectively closed their academy until further notice by dismissing or furloughing its staffers. There do seem to be some non-financial reasons behind this, with chief soccer officer Manny Lagos alluding to the desire for a comprehensive overhaul of the program's structure and practices after four years of a slow build from scratch. The effects of the pandemic are surely also a factor, as well as the lingering uncertainty around the transition from the US Soccer Development Academy to the MLS youth league that will replace it.
Still, there's no escaping the substantial costs that come with running an MLS academy, even one without a full array of age groups like the Loons'. Minnesota faced particularly high travel and facility costs thanks to its relatively isolated location and long, cold winters. Sources told USSoccerPlayers.com that the Loons were spending somewhere around or above $3 million a year on the academy.
Figures like that can be justified if you're growing quality players for your first team or selling them abroad. MNUFC has not consistently done so yet, with just one Homegrown signing to date, 16-year-old goalkeeper Fred Emmings. At some point, Dr Bill McGuire, whose ownership group has already had to bear the costs of a $100 million expansion fee and a $250 million stadium in the form of Allianz Field, will reach a line in the sand that he will decide he and his partners can't afford to cross.
As a collective, MLS can only compel its financiers to spend so much. It and other leagues can only ask for so much time and patience from its corporate sponsors, the broadcasters included. Even the biggest nest egg eventually dwindles when it's one-way outbound traffic. We can rightly vilify the rich people for refusing to take one for the team, but doing so doesn't necessarily wedge open their wallets.
When plans for a return to play started weeks ago amid a wide variety of shutdowns across its 26 markets, MLS seemed to have no other option than to gather in a hub location. USL's gamble aside, other leagues have concurred. The US federal government certainly doesn't appear inclined to, or even capable of, helping out. It's been a struggle just to execute one general stimulus package, wherein billions of dollars of business relief funds reportedly remain unclaimed. It's not hard to see why sports entities felt that they had to save themselves.
The league can't control how state and local authorities manage or fail to manage the pandemic as cases spike across Florida. It could have sought an alternate location somewhere removed from coronavirus hotspots, though few places have infrastructure like the Wide World of Sports complex. ESPN/Disney's ownership of it may have made moving a non-starter. When the negative developments start to pile up as they are now, a reasonable bet can quickly look like a reckless one.
They probably wouldn't concede as much publicly. Still, it's a safe and fair assumption that MLS leadership concluded some time ago that this was a bet they had no choice but to make.
Charles Boehm is a Washington, DC-based writer and the editor of The Soccer Wire. Contact him at:firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at:http://twitter.com/cboehm.
More from Charles Boehm:
- 5 questions for the MLS is Back tournament
- IFAB, FIFA and Pandora’s Box
- "MLSificiation" in Mexico? Liga MX wrestles with problems old and new
- MLS’s new deal with its players union, and what it may truly cost
Photo courtesy of MLS Communications