MLS are steaming ahead with plans regarding a tournament-style competition in Orlando. With every further detail, the idea reeks of money, money, money.
I get it. I really do. Major League Soccer has lost significant amounts of cash. Almost all franchises are haemorrhaging money with no matches and no fans at matches if and when they do return. And the league, to survive, must be able to spin some kind of revenue out of somewhere. Sport is a business, after all.
However, the league’s looming plans of a World Cup-style tournament, with group-stage matches and a knockout round, all played behind-closed-doors at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports in Orlando, with players and staff self-quarantining at the resort’s hotels for the best part of two months, all to get what could be entirely meaningless matches on TV to rescue some form of broadcast revenue are desperate, to say the least.
The plans involve teams living in hotels for more than two months. They train from early-June and then partake in a tournament from early-July that will last roughly five weeks. There will be no fans at the matches, players and coaches will be separated from their families throughout, and there is no update on how this will impact the normal regular season, which is apparently still planned to return in the autumn.
The biggest issue is the safety and asset-like-utility of the players, as Philadelphia Union midfielder Alejandro Bedoya explained earlier this week.
“I would start off by saying that I think every one of us agree that we want to get back to playing,” Bedoya told ESPN’s Taylor Twellman. “I want to get back out there, being competitive, (playing) games. The staff wants to be out there, fans want to be watching games, but I will say that this all feels a little bit rushed. I think that we all need to be partners in this, you know, ESPN and Disney, which owns ESPN, is just partnering with MLS to help the owners out and to show games. I think the players are taking all the risks by going down [to Orlando], being isolated, it’s a strong term to say, but it’s like being in a luxurious prison.”
According to The Athletic, in an excellent report that provides many of the nitty-gritty details of the league’s proposals, the MLS Players’ Association submitted around 100 questions to MLS surrounding the plans, including in relation to their own personal safety, the roles of hotel and hospitality staff, and what would happen if one player is tested positive for COVID-19. MLS is yet to respond.
Another major issue is how this tournament fits into the larger season. The report claims that the group-stage games will somehow count towards the regular season. It also states that Nashville SC will temporarily switch from the Western Conference to the Eastern Conference and would seemingly hang in limbo in the East for the remainder of the 2020 season, even when games return to their home markets in the autumn, which is the current plan.
What, then, does that mean for the knockout stages? How do you make those games worthwhile? Moreover, the schedule is already imbalanced as it is. How do you ensure that teams are given at least a similarly fair shake in the regular season when they have only played half the conference in particular group-stage matches.
It all seems farcical. You already have a watered-down regular season due to the playoffs. Then you throw in a random World Cup-style tournament, all in one place, with teams moving conferences, and players sent to ‘luxurious prisons’. And at this stage, MLS has very few answers.
A looming spectre over all of this is the location. ESPN is owned by Disney. There is your resort sorted. It is also a key broadcaster of MLS matches and has been for several years. Like all sports broadcasters around the world, it is desperate for live content. It accelerated the release date of the recent Michael Jordan documentary, ‘The Last Dance’, as it desperately searched for content that maintained their subscriptions. As long as live sport is not possible, ESPN is losing money hand over fist.
MLS is, too. The league depends heavily on matchday revenue, broadcast deals, and other streams that all stem from matches being played. You are not going to sell many Javier Hernandez shirts if he is never playing in one. There is, then, a natural marriage for ESPN, Disney, and MLS to make this work. It is a marriage entirely routed on and engulfed by money.
Of course, MLS is not a charity. It, like all sports leagues, is desperately finding a way to build revenue in these uncharted times. And there is a case to be made that the players will have to shoulder some of the responsibility here. They are, after all, paid to play. And at present, they most certainly are not playing.
But while desperation runs riot, safety concerns, moral concerns, and football concerns remain. MLS cannot sufficiently answer the questions being asked of the Orlando plan. Why? Because the answer is money, money, money.