MLS: Will Orlando tournament help or harm league growth?

MLS are pressing forwards to hold a World Cup-style tournament in Orlando this summer. Will the plans help league growth or could they actually be a hindrance?

Major League Soccer is attempting to make hay while the rain is pouring. With sports fans the world over desperate for some form of live competitive action, MLS wants to fill the void and accelerate the development and popularity of an already rapidly growing league as a result.

Per a Washington Post report last week, Commissioner Don Garber has proposed plans to host a World Cup-style tournament in Orlando across June and July. It will be hosted at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex and all games will be played behind-closed-doors as players and staff are quarantined in nearby hotels and resorts.

You can read more details of the plan in The Athletic’s reporting here.

It is ambitious, to say the least. And there are plenty of problems to solve, from the happiness of the players to what happens if one member contacts COVID-19. At present, MLS do not have all the answers.

However, putting the logistical problems to one side, it is also important to consider the motivations of the plans. MLS wants to fill the sporting void to attract more fans, hoping that they then stick around when sports return in a more normal capacity later in the year and beyond. For a league still hoping to break into the football and basketball-dominated landscape of professional American sport, it is not necessarily a bad plan.

There is also the network angle to this. ESPN needs games. They have no live sport to show and they will be desperate to provide some as they lose customers hand over fist. Another report from The Athletic considered this, including the link between Disney, ESPN and MLS:

“Several sources also pointed out that ESPN, which has its name on the Wide World of Sports Complex and is owned by Disney, is likely playing a germane role in these discussions. With most of the sports world halted amid the pandemic, the network could certainly use some more live sports to broadcast on their various channels. Sources pointed out that this tournament would no doubt give the network a significant amount of inventory to do just that, and it could serve as a very positive gesture on the part of MLS toward its longtime broadcast partner.”

Quite how the matches would be divvied up between the television companies remains to be seen, but ESPN will be a driving force here, without question. That, however, while morally shady as they chase a quickly reducing pot of cash, could be a positive for the growth of the league. They might be the only live American sport on the network. Non-MLS fans will watch. The virtual NFL Draft in late-April was the most televised draft in history. People are desperate for sport.

Paul Tenorio, however, writing on Twitter, expressed his scepticism regarding whether this would actually be good for the league:

“After being reminded of the aesthetics of empty-stadium games, having a hard time believing it will be a good thing for MLS to have empty-stadium games at an amateur field at the Wide World of Sports presented on national TV. MLS is a fast-improving product, but there is still a perception gap between their actual quality and what the larger audience thinks of MLS. It will be tough to sell the quality with no atmosphere and on an amateur field, and it could do the opposite.”

His point is quite clear: due to the stadium, the lack of fans, the lack of fitness of the players, that it is played on an amateur field, and many other detrimental factors, the product will be so poor that it would be problematic for the league to have more people watching it. In essence, it would drive fans away, not bring them to the league.

This is compounded by the preconceptions regarding MLS. It is seen as a second-rate league, in comparison to both other American sports and European leagues like the Bundesliga, which returned this week, and the Premier League, which plans to return in June also. A poor-quality product to more eyes than before only provides more ammunition to the thought that MLS is unworthy of attention.

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There remains this friction, then, between the potential to get more people watching and the actual impact it might have. MLS is looking to grow, and it sees an opportunity to do that. In theory, it makes sense. But in practice, it could all backfire.

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