By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Feb 12, 2021) US Soccer Players – The 2021 MLS season is finally taking shape now that the league and its players union, the MLSPA, have ground through their third round of collective bargaining in 13 months. Instead of early March, this campaign will start on April 17. That’s the latest opening day in the league’s history and a drastic shift from the trend of the past decade. It will still contain 34 games per team and conclude in early December. That means a congested calendar for players and staff and the intensified physiological demands that accompany it during a year of compressed Gold Cup and World Cup qualifying action.
As best we can tell, money is the main reason. The league said that it lost nearly $1 billion during its COVID-19-disrupted 2020 season. It’s projecting to lose about as much again this year, commissioner Don Garber said in a Wednesday media call, citing reduced or zero fan presence at stadiums. It’s not unfair to Garber to point out that MLS has offered very little in the way of detail or accounting to provide depth or context to those loss numbers. Especially considering how central they’ve become to the narratives and reporting around this topic.
MLS returned to play in 2020 after a four-month hiatus due to the pandemic, reportedly paying $10 million in production costs for the MLS is Back bubble tournament in Orlando. The league held that event hand in glove with ESPN, whose executives were public in their eagerness to make it happen. Even that dollar figure for a month-long tournament wouldn’t rise to what FC Cincinnati just spent on the transfer fee alone for 21-year-old Brazilian striker Brenner.
It was surely not cheap to pay for chartered flights for road trips and other coronavirus mitigation procedures when MLS returned to something like normal league play. Those costs will continue this year. The other side of that coin is the imperfect effectiveness it all had. Nearly 20% of the league’s players contracted the virus anyway. If anyone has tried to tabulate the fullness of the costs this inflicted on players, staff, and their loved ones, that’s also not been widely distributed.
Nor has anyone pinned down whether MLS is counting new costs, unrecouped expenditures, expected revenue that did not materialize or some combination thereof, or any other details of their calculations. We also don’t know how to factor in the fortunes of Soccer United Marketing, heretofore a cash cow that has richly rewarded its stakeholders and pulled yet another veil across the league’s financial picture.
We could devote many more words to the basic question of how much money MLS lost or didn’t. What’s probably most significant for now is that the league’s investor/operators, most of whom are billionaires, appear to have been spooked enough to reconsider the growth mindset that has characterized MLS for most of this century.
Ever since the combination of SUM and the expansion boom, which kicked off in 2005, shored up the league’s viability as a going concern, MLS leaders have mostly, with the prominent exception of CBA negotiations, shrugged off year-to-year profit/loss numbers. In the big picture this is a long-range play, so directing resources towards building out infrastructure and other key priorities grows value for the future.
Once most of the league had stadiums and training facilities to call home, improving the on-field product became a focus. Designated Players grew commonplace. Base salaries finally climbed well above the poverty line. Nurturing academy homegrowns grew into an industry unto itself. It finally seemed obvious to all that spending more on players, MLS’s showcase commodity, is spending more on the league itself, not merely a pesky labor cost.
Even modest upticks in that investment have reaped tangible returns in quality. The last six years of expansion fees alone stack up to north of $1.5 billion. No one has ruled out another round of growth to 32 member teams or beyond. The TV deal is up at the end of this season. MLS has long targeted the next television deal as the big breakthrough. The outlook grew rosy enough for the league to add a revenue-sharing component to the CBA agreement reached, but never ratified, before the pandemic a year ago. That new facet of partnership is now drastically reduced and delayed.
Peruse the media coverage of the new CBA and you’ll find the charts and graphs that illustrate how MLS has reeled in its own ambitions with this deal. The per-team salary budget has been effectively frozen in place for the next two seasons and capped to a much more modest year-over-year trajectory than what they agreed to a year ago. Clubs that want to spend above and beyond those restrictions face limited avenues for doing so, constrained by increasingly byzantine acquisition mechanisms.
The “available spend on roster” figure that encompasses all but Designated Player and the new Under-22 play outlays currently stands at $9,225,000. By 2027, in the aftermath of what’s forecast as a game-changing North American World Cup, it will rise to $13,013,000.
Consider that the 2018 World Cup reportedly added nearly $15 billion into the Russian economy. Then contemplate how much value there might be in a 2026 tournament expanded 50% in size and primarily hosted by the richest nation in the world. Factor in the possibilities of continued MLS growth in a post-pandemic environment in the ensuing years, and that looks like strikingly conservative incrementalism for a league that says it desires a place among the world elite.
Perhaps internal expectations are now lower for that landmark TV deal, as ratings decline markedly across all sports. If the expansion era really is ending, the loss of those fees might necessitate throttling back sooner or later. Maybe a dose of crisis has revealed that some investor/operators just aren’t as passionate about soccer, in and of itself, as we thought.
In any event, the players who are already here have paid their toll yet again. The rest of us will try to figure out how to reconcile that in a league once again putting the focus on the business model.
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:
- What is the USMNT’s tactical identity for 2021?
- The unsettling prospect of MLS going dark
- The winding road back to the Olympics
- The LA Galaxy calls on an alum to rescue them from the doldrums
Photo courtesy of MLS