Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

What Exactly Is MLS’ Endgame?

Randall Leal and Nashville SC’s game against the Chicago Fire has been postponed due to positive COVID tests.
Randall Leal and Nashville SC’s game against the Chicago Fire has been postponed due to positive COVID tests.
Image: Brett Carlsen (Getty Images)

The lie that every league in the U.S. has sold, and not very well, is that it can return to action safely, even if in spaces where COVID-19 is raging. Even the leagues that are returning only in Florida, where they set records daily on new cases and the state government’s response is like trying to locate enough eye of newt, these leagues can create a “bubble” and if they follow their own guidelines, it’ll be fine.

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MLS has proven just how utterly bullshit this all was.

Yesterday, Dallas FC was removed from whatever this “MLS Is Back” tournament is. And according to some, it wasn’t voluntary. Other teams wanted them out, given that the whole team is turning into an incubus, and they might not be alone. So how safe does everyone feel?

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Today, it came to light that before the end of the tournament, the general public can book rooms next door to where MLS teams will be “bubbled.” That seems odd for a league that said it was trying to create a controlled atmosphere. As the more and more informative @MLSCovidCup suggests, by that point the owners will have made their money, so who cares if we let the masses in then?

Nashville has also multiple positive tests, and it’s game with Chicago on Wednesday has been postponed. It is rumored that Colorado was forced to leave for Orlando earlier than they wanted to keep up appearances and players being kept isolated from each other apparently isn’t happening.

Of course, the league’s TV partner doesn’t seem to see a problem here at all. The first paragraph of this is just delicious. Enough has been done, has it? Was that bar over ankle-level to clear?

And the question is why?

Well, we know the why. It’s the same why as every other league. At a time when no team will get money from tickets and on-site purchases (concessions, merchandise, etc.) for the foreseeable future, they’re trying to save as much TV cash as they can. Playing no games means no TV money, and though there isn’t a team in the four major pro leagues that would go under without TV money for a year, MLS would claim differently.

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But … is it? MLS’ TV contracts with ESPN, FOX, and Univision is only worth $90 million a year. With 26 teams, that’s not even $4 million a year per team. Seeing as how the league is a single entity, they’re essentially sharing all that money equally. Even local TV revenue is mostly poured into the league-wide coffers.

Certainly, none of ESPN, FOX or Univision are paying full freight for an abbreviated tournament. What exactly are they getting out of this? The rest of that money will depend on if MLS can finish the rest of its season in the fall, which is currently the plan.

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But is just over $3 million per season, or whatever percentage MLS gets of that for this tournament, really the difference between them going under or not? It’s hard to believe that it is, and it’s hard to believe that just over $3 million makes that much difference to any owner in the league. They’re the same group of billionaires as any other league, they’re just paying a lot less in expenses to be in this league. At least with other leagues, as detestable as it may be, we’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars.

While it’s still naked greed at its most destructive, on some level you can see why there’d be a fight to hold onto hundreds of millions of dollars. MLS is clawing desperately at what amounts to scraps.

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The joke with MLS has always been that it’s a Ponzi scheme, depending on expansion fees from adding teams every year to stay alive. It’s not quite that simple, but as teams pay $150M-$200 million now to join the fray, and the league is only getting $90 million per year through TV, you can see the argument.

But those fees aren’t going anywhere, as St. Louis, Austin, Charlotte and Sacramento are still slated to join the league in the coming years. Each of them is paying $200 million. You’d have to think $800 million is going to settle whatever accounts the league has.

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The league is going to lose out through its marketing partner, Soccer United Marketing, a relationship/two-headed monster that has drawn a lot of curious eyes and suspicion through the years. With the FIFA calendar in tatters, there won’t be any Mexican or U.S. National Team games to sanction and market for TV for a while. A possible tour of USWNT games after the Olympics isn’t going to happen either, given no Olympics. These certainly hurt.

But again, does all that make it so these teams need a couple of million dollars this badly?

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Shortly after the league came to an agreement with the players on a CBA and this tournament, commissioner Dan Garber estimated that the league would take a $1 billion hit due to the shutdown and coronavirus. Is the less than 10 percent of that hit, which the TV deal would be for this year, really putting MLS over the edge? To put this many people in danger? With an $800 million hot expansion fee injection either in the process or in the future?

Guess we know exactly where and for how much MLS values its players’ health.

Have you ever looked at a dollar bill, man?

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