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Don Garber delivers State of MLS: Shaken and stirred

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MLS commissioner’s address is a bit more foreboding than normal.

MLS: MLS Media Day Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

The annual Major League Soccer ‘State of the League’ address, delivered by MLS Commissioner Don Garber, is usually a more cheery affair. The presentation gives the Commissioner the opportunity to tout the league’s accomplishments over the previous year, whether it’s on-field performance, financial benchmarks, media metrics or the like.

There’s a saying about lipsticks and pigs, though, and the commissioner didn’t really try to dress up the porker of a year that has been 2020.

Re-asserting that MLS has suffered revenue shortfalls of nearly $1 billion, Garber held virtual court on a number of pressing issues the league is trying to sort through as they prepare for an uncertain 2021 season.

When is the season going to start?

It’s tough to plan your fiscal year when you don’t know when it’s going to start. Previous reports had MLS beginning the 2021 season in March, and Garber seemed to hold out hope that would be the case. But if it is, there won’t be many fans in the stadium. While the first coronavirus vaccines are being administered now, they certainly won’t be in sufficient numbers in the United States by the spring such that it will be safe for fans to congregate in large numbers. That is a major problem for a league overwhelmingly reliant on attendance for revenues.

“[W]e need to make a schedule for all the reasons that you would expect,” Garber said. “We can’t wait for an understanding of the impact on the vaccine, not only on the vaccination of hopefully the entire country, both United States and Canada, we aren’t going to know that and we have to set a schedule prior to that.”

So that leaves MLS with the choice of starting the season without fans in the stands, or delaying the season until the late spring or even summer. Given international requirements that would take players away from the club teams, and compress calendar such that playing 34 games would be unlikely, it’s a complicated issue.

“We have established that March timeframe because what we do know is that FIFA through Concacaf has laid out their dates,” Garber said. “Concacaf has laid out the 2021 Champions League dates. We haven’t found out what’s happening with the U.S. Open Cup and we have to address the fact that the Open Cup wasn’t played in 2020, and we want to play as many games as possible.”

Canadian chess

Assuming the season does start some time in the spring, it’s an open question if — and where — the three Canadian sides will be playing. Toronto FC, the (still named) Montreal Impact and the Vancouver Whitecaps lived a nomadic existence in 2020, starting off in the MLS Bubble in Orlando, then playing each other in Canada, then setting up shop in the US for the remainder of the regular season and playoffs. With the onerous travel restrictions set up by the Canadian government (which has left the country in far better — or, at least, less worse — shape than the US), it’s unclear whether those restrictions will be loosened, let alone lifted, such that MLS teams can travel across the border unimpeded.

“Let’s hope that they are able to get through it quickly and we can play our games in our home markets and teams can then travel back and forth no different than the other MLS clubs south of the border,” Garber said.

Fiscal outlook? Ask again later

Usually when Garber undersells the leagues financial fortunes, it’s because MLS is in CBA negotiations with the players’ union. That’s true here in a way; the league renegotiated their newly agreed upon deal with the union in the way of the pandemic, holding off on salary increases and instituting a 5% pay cut. It may not be the end. The league inserted a Force Majeure clause, which could allow the owners to rip up the CBA and attempt to institute further cuts, should the impact of the pandemic persist. It appears that to some degree, the prospect of fans attending games in sufficient numbers will play a role in whether the owners attempt to extract more concessions from the players.

“The timing for the invoking of the Force Majeure is going to be way earlier than an understanding of when fans are going to be allowed in stadiums,” Garber said.

Of more concern generally is whether the league is prepared to sustain losses on the scale that 2020 has presented. While MLS receives revenue from its television deals, it’s a relative pittance — $90 million, which it shares in part with US Soccer and then doles out to each of the clubs — compared to other professional league around the country, and certainly not enough to run a league on. The next TV deal won’t be finalized until the 2023 season, and it’s unclear whether there will be a substantial increase given the ratings challenges the league faces.

Without fans in the stands, it would be a significant burden, even with billionaire owners.

“We are concerned about what this will look like leading into 2021 and are working, as I’m sure everybody could imagine, on figuring out how we could manage through that,” Garber said. “I am very, very hopeful that 2021 will be a way better year than 2020, because I don’t think any business could sustain the kind of impact that we sustained in 2020 for two years in a row.”

Other notes

  • The situation involving the sale of Real Salt Lake and the associated holdings from current owner Dell Loy Hansen doesn’t appear to be going particularly smoothly. In fact, Garber mentioned that it was likely that the league would invoke its option to take over the sale. Hansen has been under investigation for racist behavior toward his employees and Garber said that investigation is done and the results will be announced after MLS Cup.
  • Garber said he continues to be frustrated by a lack of respect the league receives from mainstream media and internationally. “ I think we’ve made great strides in that area but not as much as I would hope,” Garber said. “When I see us being left out of the narrative of the things that are going on in the professional sports landscape, it insults me, doesn’t just frustrate me.”
  • While the pandemic has slowed the leagues expansion plans, Garber said the league is generally happy with the state of its stadium developments around the country. Columbus and Austin have stadiums set to come online next year, while St. Louis and Nashville — after some initial fits and starts — are progressing as well. “We began with no soccer stadiums. It wasn’t part of our original plan in ‘96, and soon we will have 27 world class soccer stadiums, or stadiums that have been purposefully built for our league,” Garber said.
  • Two stadium projects appear to be in a bit of flux: Inter Miami and the New England Revolution. Inter Miami is currently playing in Ft. Lauderdale, and Garber implied that the pandemic has essentially ground the plans to play in Miami proper to a halt. “They spent north of $100 million on a temporary facility,” Garber said. “They were in very positive discussions on a downtown stadium. They were in the midst of what I think would have been an unbelievably optimistic and energized level of passion at all levels. And it all kind of was shut down for them.” For the Revolution’s part, Garber said he is still holding out hope that a deal will get done — some day. “They remain committed to building a stadium in downtown Boston,” Garber said.
  • Garber also touted the league’s involvement in social justice issues, lauding the work of the Black Players for Change, who received the league’s Humanitarians of the Year Award. “It’s a really well-deserved recognition for the collective effort to bring awareness to racial and social justice issues both in our league, our sport and our society,” Garber said.