MLS Really Shouldn’t Be Back

We don’t have to do this.

The MLS is Back tournament is right around the corner! Coming to you live from Orlando, inside a safely sealed bub—

*refreshes Twitter*

Okay, look, the bubble’s really more of a metaphor, but at least you’ll finally get to watch your favorite stars like reigning MVP Carlos Ve—

*refreshes Twitter again*

Let’s try this again:

The MLS is Back tournament is a moral travesty and it should be cancelled immediately.

For the last four months we’ve been trapped in an endless coronavirus-induced clown fiesta. Now, in the middle of the worst public health crisis since the Spanish flu of 1918, President Trump is urging sports leagues into action to show that everything is returning to normal (it isn’t) and that we’ve beaten the virus (we haven’t). MLS Commissioner Don Garber has been working with the White House on a restart plan since the early weeks of quarantine, and other league commissioners even sat on Trump’s committee to reopen the economy.

Why on earth are sports leagues agreeing to come back now?  The simple answer is money.

As an industry whose standard revenue model involves mass gatherings of people breathing loudly on each other, sports leagues saw the writing on the wall at the outset of social distancing and began to devise plans to play inside fan-free “bubbles.” For leagues like the NBA and MLB, I can understand—but still totally disagree with—the economic case for playing these games for a TV-only audience. The NBA earns $2.6 billion a year from broadcast rights; for the NFL, it’s $7 billion.  

MLS, on the other hand, makes an overwhelming share of its money from gameday attendance. The league receives a paltry $90 million a year from its TV deals with Fox, ESPN, and Univision—barely a drop in the bucket of the billion dollars of revenue Garber expects MLS to lose this year. 

It’s unconscionable for MLS owners to rush the league back into action for such a meager sum. Here’s who has to take a trip to the Magic Covid Kingdom for this thing to happen: young players trying to support a family on a league minimum salary. Here’s who can stay home in their mansions: a bunch of billionaires whose franchise values are skyrocketing thanks to expansion fees and SUM equity even as they happily “lose” millions of dollars in a good year.

Owners have already used the virus to wring salary cuts and other concessions from players. Though the league had agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement with players before the pandemic struck, owners saw a Machiavellian opportunity to reopen negotiations and try to jimjam an unfair force majeure clause into the deal by threatening a lockout. Players won the force majeure battle but lost the negotiating war, which is how we got this stupid Orlando tournament.

After the CBA deal was done, Garber held a video conference with reporters. On the topic of safety, Garber said, “What I will tell you is that everything that we do will be within the accordance of local health authorities, and we’re not going to do it unless we can assure the safety of our players and the safety of our team administrative staff and operational staff.”

The key phrase, of course, was “local health authorities.” MLS cherrypicked Florida to host the tournament because they knew Governor Ron DeSantis—who you might call a potato wearing a MAGA hat if only that weren’t so insulting to potatoes—was the brain genius who’d dunked on New York for its coronavirus caution and declared that his state had beaten the virus and was reopening for business. A few weeks later Florida is the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States, yet DeSantis insists that Florida will not be closing back down, or even requiring statewide social distancing and mask wearing. Welcome to your new home, MLS players.

Instead of doing the responsible thing and pulling the plug on the tournament, MLS has doubled down on the bubble fantasy. Although teams will be confined to two Disney World hotels, the reality is that thousands of Disney employees will pass in and out of the bubble daily, and their union has sounded the alarm that park employees will not be tested.

Up until this week, we didn’t even know MLS’s own test results, as league policy didn’t require teams to disclose coronavirus cases before the tournament. Though NYCFC announced that a member of the front office tested positive in March, The Athletic reported that the club has since stayed silent about multiple cases among players and staff. When players complain about being forced to play through the pandemic, they know the risks involved. Fans are kept in the dark.

As MLS cases multiply and teams scramble to postpone their flights to Florida, the Disney bubble looks dangerously close to popping.  Three FC Dallas players who were coronavirus-free upon arrival have since tested positive inside the bubble, bringing the team’s current known cases to ten. Even as the entire squad has been put on isolation orders, the league continues to insist that Dallas will play in a tournament scheduled to start in five days.

These games do not need to happen. Forcibly mingling thousands of MLS and Disney employees is guaranteed to spread the disease even in the safest circumstances—and Orlando right now is anything but safe. Cancel the tournament. Send players home. Let owners take the L and start planning a safe return to play 2021. Playing this tournament just so that MLS can finally beat axe throwing and cornhole in the TV ratings isn’t worth the price. ❧

Image: Mac.Else von Berlin, colourful