If MLS wants to be 'major' then it must return when the NFL and NBA do

Last week’s revelation that MLS was seeking up to a 50 percent reduction in player salaries should the 2020 season have to be condensed because of the COVID-19 pandemic sure opened up a can of worms. 

The collective bargaining agreement that was reached (but not ratified) weeks before the league’s 25th anniversary campaign kicked off is suddenly is danger of collapsing. There have even been suggestions that if the players aren’t willing to take that severe haircut, MLS owners — who, unlike their counterparts in North America’s other major sports leagues, generate the lion’s share of their revenue via gameday ticket sales — could decide it’s simply not worth resuming the season at all. 

Don’t believe a word of it. 

Although the multi-billion-dollar TV contracts that the NFL, English Premier League and other entities have struck with broadcasters incentivize everyone involved to restart as soon as possible, MLS and other more humble outfits find themselves in a much more vexing predicament. While made-for-TV leagues would stand to lose the bulk of their revenue if they can’t complete their 2019-20 schedules, some smaller competitions around the world have already concluded that resuming would lead to catastrophic financial losses in the absence of paying customers. 

MLS is suspended right now, just like the most popular sports leagues in the world. But the mechanisms of its return aren't quite as simple. (Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports)

On the surface, MLS appears no different. The top soccer competition in the United States and Canada receives just $90 million a season from its media partners, or less than $3.5 million for each of its 26 teams. That figure isn’t enough to cover player salaries, never mind all the other expenses professional sports teams incur in the course of normal operations. MLS has built itself on fiscal responsibility, doubling in size over the last quarter-century largely because of it. It also hasn’t been afraid to take drastic action when necessary, excising money-bleeding clubs on three separate occasions over the first 20 years of its existence. 

MLS, though, is also exceptionally protective of its image. League brass are acutely aware of MLS’ perception within the overall sports ecosystem. They know that not only do they have to contend with traditional North American sports leagues for sponsorship dollars and fans’ disposable income — which figures to be a much tougher sell coming out of the coronavirus crisis — they’re also competing for soccer fans’ attention against cash-flush European circuits that field iconic teams and employ the game’s biggest superstars. 

If MLS wants to live up to the “major” in its name, there is no way it can afford not to return when the rest of its competitors do. Imagine the damage to the league’s reputation if, when the NFL and NBA are back up and running, MLS is instead locking its players out of its stadiums over a pay dispute. An outfit that struggles for mainstream media attention in the best of times would be forgotten entirely. Any publicity it did get would damage the slowly changing notion that it’s not a serious player on the global sports scene.

There are still hurdles to overcome. MLS players have continued to receive their full salaries during the shutdown; by July, which seems like the earliest date play could potentially resume, they will already have been paid more than half of their annual income. That means that if the league gets its way, they’d effectively be playing whatever passes for the 2020 season for free.

That’s probably not going happen. Common sense will probably prevail. The players will probably wind up accepting a smaller pay cut in the end. 

And MLS’ collection of billionaire owners probably won’t like it. It’s going to cost them a ton of money. But compared to the long-lasting (and asset-diminishing) impact that canceling the entire season at the very moment other sports return could cause, it would probably be relatively small price to pay. 

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