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Commissioner Don Garber charts course through 2021 MLS season

League projects another year of losing about $1 billion in revenue.

2019 MLS Cup - Toronto FC v Seattle Sounders Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images

MLS Commissioner Don Garber has seen the league through yet another potential work stoppage — at least for now — when the players and the owners revised the Collective Bargaining Agreement, yet again. Now all he has to do is get the league through 2021.

No small task considering the choppy seas he’ll have to sail through this year. With the coronavirus pandemic still ravaging the country and a labor fight to begin the year, Garber has already seen several changes to the 2021 calendar, chief among them pushing back the start of the season twice — from an initial target of early March to April 3 to the current scheduled opening on April 17. The opening for training camp has yet to be announced, though that is expected in the coming weeks.

Once the season eventually gets under way, well, that’s when the “fun” begins. MLS has set the end of the regular season for Nov. 7 and MLS Cup for Dec. 11, meaning there are now two fewer weeks in which to schedule games. The league is apparently intent on resuming the Leagues Cup and Campeones Cup, which will further congest the schedule. The US Open Cup is also set to return — though in a reduced format — which will take up additional resources.

Further complicating matters is that many of these games will be played in near-empty stadiums for most, if not all, of the season. That means that there will be a significant revenue shortfall for the league, forecast by Garber to again be in the $1 billion range. “It became clear to all of us earlier this year that the pandemic would place restrictions on fan attendance again this year,” Garber said. “When you don’t have fans for the majority of your season, it’s just pure math. So that being said, our owners have been very, very focused over a long period of time to build a league. But their resources are not unlimited.”

As to when MLS expect to have significant fans in attendance, Garber said that while they are encouraged by the vaccine rollout by the new administration, it is very unlikely the vaccination ramp-up will allow anything approaching pre-covid attendance at games. “I can assure that I don’t have any sense that fans are going to be in our stadiums in large numbers for probably most if not all of the season,” Garber said.

So with fans watching games from home, MLS will announce the 2021 schedule in the coming weeks, but it remains unclear where a handful of teams will play. The fates of the league’s three Canadian teams are still up in the air, given the tighter restrictions there and the extreme limitations on crossing the border. There are reports that the Vancouver Whitecaps, for instance ,will be based out of Salt Lake, though Garber declined to confirm anything beyond acknowledging the difficulty involved.

“What is going on in Canada is very challenging,” Garber said. “We continue to work with our teams to engage with Canadian authorities. All three of our teams are working on alternative plans as to where they’re going to be in the short term. I feel for our Canadian clubs and I feel for our players.”

To help manage those issues, Garber confirmed that MLS will continue to use charter flights to transport players and staff to games. MLS initiated that change once the pandemic made commercial travel impractical, though he noted that once the pandemic has passed, the league will revert back to the charter limitations as outlined in the CBA.

“As long as we’re managing the pandemic, we expect to travel our teams and players via charter flights,” Garber said. “The new CBA continues the progression of charter flights that we had agreed to in the past. I can’t tell you when it’s going to go back to the progression we had in the CBA.”

Other notes

  • Garber said they’ve had no discussions about renewing their TV deal early to deal with the effects of the pandemic. The current deal expires at the end of the 2022 season. “I am pleased we have two more seasons,” Garber said. “I don’t necessarily want to begin those discussions now while we’re still managing through the pandemic. and media companies are still trying to figure out what their new normal is going to look like.”
  • The progress in finding a potential buyer for Real Salt Lake, whose owner Dell Loy Hansen was ousted in the wake of workplace harassment allegations, is slow going. MLS took over the sale process in January, and while Garber said they are “very engaged” and there are active talks, there is nothing imminent in terms of finding a buyer.
  • Garber noted multiple times he was proud that by the end of the CBA agreement in 2027, MLS would have had 32 years of continuous operation without a work stoppage. However, there is a force majeure clause that can be invoked in December. That said, Garber is optimistic the league won’t utilize it. “I certainly hope for all of our sake that it doesn’t ever have to be invoked again,” Garber said. “It’s not something that we have discussed. I think not just for our sake, but for humanity’s sake, all of us want to get past this pandemic and figure out what this next normal is going to look like.”
  • There is no plan in place to mandate players receive the coronavirus vaccine according to Garber. He also noted that the league was sensitive to any perception of players or staff jumping the line, so to speak. “We have not made any decision on whether we’re going to require vaccination. I can’t imagine a world where we would. I hope that our league can be a leader in this space, particularly when we have lots of Latino players and fans and Black players and fans and which seem less likely to want to be vaccinated.

“I hope we can live in world where everybody is vaccinated so that we can all be healthy and get on with some normalcy in our lives.”

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