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Darren Eales provides Atlanta United update, but questions abound

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Darren Eales is hopeful that the 2020 season will eventually begin and be played in full. When and how remain to be seen.

MLS: Sporting Kansas City at Atlanta United FC Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Literally everybody wants sports back. Leagues, players, fans, media, advertisers — you name it.

Speaking with reporters on a video conference call Monday morning, Atlanta United President Darren Eales painted a rosy picture looking ahead to the completion of the 2020 MLS season.

“We’re fortunate in the respect that we’ve just started our season and so at the moment we have the whole calendar year to be able to reschedule those games that have been missed,” said Eales video streaming live from his home office. “So I do think the emphasis absolutely is to play those 34 regular season games plus a playoff.”

That would be so, so nice.

Then you look around and your heart sinks. New York City is using refrigerated trucks as temporary morgues to place the bodies of those who’ve fallen victim to the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the globe. Even in places like Atlanta where the scenes are not nearly as brutal, there’s a sense of dystopia as citizens adorn masks and protective gear just to go to the neighborhood grocery store. Government officials are warning that the death toll wont hit its peak for weeks, and further warn that different cities around the country could see the virus hit hard at various times over upcoming months.

In this climate, it’s hard to imagine sports being played at all, but even more so with over 40,000 fans packing Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

To be clear, Eales was adamant that the league and the club is putting the health and well-being of its fans, players and staff ahead of all other considerations. He even seemed sheepish to answer soccer-related questions amid the crisis facing the country. On more than one occasion during the call, Atlanta United’s president couched his answers about on-field topics with “not to be flippant,” an acknowledgement of the severity of the situation.

“The reality is when we get the green light, we’re all desperate to get back as quick as we can to play those games,” said Eales. “So we’ll talk with the players union and discuss it. Obviously we want to do it safely and that’s the most important thing.”

Unfortunately, there was no indication about what that “green light” might look like. Is it declining new case numbers? Is it transmission rates below a certain threshold? Is it no new cases? Is it simply when Atlanta’s local officials deem it appropriate to gather in large numbers? Do any of these things feel even remotely on the horizon? No one appears to be able to answer.

Eales did admit that playing behind closed doors could be an option, but at this stage, everyone seems to be hoping that the best-case scenario still awaits.

“We look at things and these things will evolve,” said Eales. “If it were to be a case where we’re starting later, perhaps the possibility of behind-closed-doors becomes an option to consider.”

In the public sphere, the debate rages on about whether it’s better to resume the season earlier behind closed doors or to wait longer and allow fans into stadia. But it’s a false choice. First, it presumes that the effects of the virus will happen linearly and uniformly across the continent. But it also begs the question: Can MLS teams afford to play without fans?

As a whole, MLS teams need fans in the stadium. The bottom lines of other major sports leagues in America are buffered by TV rights deals. The NFL’s various network deals earn them roughly $5 billion per season, the NBA’s national contracts are worth over $2.6 billion per season, and MLB’s national deals net them around $1.5 billion. MLS’s national TV rights? A measly $90 million per season — split among MLS clubs and both the United States’ women’s and men’s teams. For each MLS team, it equates to roughly [cringes] $3 million per season. Last year, Atlanta United had a wage bill of over $11 million.

It’s completely understandable for the club to want to welcome fans into the building beyond the financial incentive as well. After all, the desire for fans to pack the stadium and eat and drink and be merry is very much mutual. But the reality of the situation is that such a scenario looks increasingly unlikely anytime soon.

So since I don’t have any answers for this muddled mess we’re in either, I want to hear from you, the fans who come to games. At what point would you be willing to come to a game? Would you want to watch games on TV with no fans? What do you make of it all?