Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:
Amid the COVID-19 outbreak, a major professional sports league — in this case MLS — has proposed a genius plan to move all players, coaches, and various personnel to a warm-weather American city, lock them there with no access to the outside world, broadcast all the games via cable and streaming services, test everybody regularly, and
realign the conferences into grapefruit and
Sorry, deja vu. Please forgive me, but we just went through this same exact rigmarole with Major League Baseball. Ironically, the day MLB owners unveiled their plan to continue the season mostly in teams’ home ballparks (and some spring training sites for certain teams), The Washington Post’s Steven Goff reported MLS’s grand scheme.
So we’ll run through the same questions: Is this safe? Would players agree to this? Why Orlando? Would it work? Is it likely to actually happen? I thought Disney was closed?
On the surface, it’s very straightforward why MLS would target Orlando as its host city to house more than 1,000 players, coaches, team personnel and facility staff. Despite its notoriously hot and muggy summer conditions that would certainly affect performance on the field, it does have fields. Lots of em. And
cells hotel rooms too. (Forgive me again if I nearly just compared a barren prison cell to a lavish Disney hotel room, where there’s a wall separating the toilet from the bed.)
But outside the myriad of 120x70-yard grass rectangles that can be dressed up into a legitimate pitch for MLS use, there are more commercial reasons why Orlando and Disney’s Wide World of Sports fits the bill. After all, Disney and MLS are already joined at the hip. ESPN, a Disney property, is a major broadcasting partner for the league and would have the capacity both on its cable platform and digital service, ESPN+, to air all the games MLS needs (and reports indicate MLS doesn’t even know how many games it would play at Disney). And ESPN would likely pay a pretty penny too, particularly considering quality live sports programming is seeing a surge of viewership and social engagement during the coronavirus pandemic. How they would pull it off legally, considering MLS’ other TV obligations, is beyond my paygrade. But considering that MLS earns a measly $90 million in TV revenue per year from ESPN, FOX Sports and Univision combined, it might be possible to just buy out some of those contracts and replace it with something more equitable for this short-term solution. Regardless, you can be sure that if this plan were to happen, ESPN would be bringing it to you.
Would it work?
Theoretically, you can picture the games being played and it “working.” But when you start to peel back the layers a bit, things get dicey. Like, VAR, for example, may need to be abandoned. It’s unknown if there would be the technological capacity to carry it out on any or all fields that are used. If you can’t use it onn any field, is it fair to use it at all? There’s the issue of where injured players would rehab. Professional medical facilities may need to be brought on line, and players and staff from multiple teams would likely need to share those facilities.
Is it safe?
It’s presumably safe — you’re keeping everyone locked down after all — but it’s questionable whether going to all this trouble would keep players and personnel any safer than going with a more sane plan where teams mostly play in their regular home venues. As we all know by now, COVID-19 is perhaps best known for it’s mysterious asymptomatic and presymptomatic spread, meaning that if the virus were to somehow penetrate the invisible walls of the Biodome and infect any person, it could spread very quickly. Prisons are seeing some of the worst outbreaks in the United States. However, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has said he thinks a similar plan that MLB had proposed would be okay.
“You could either have a situation where you get the group of players, you put them in a few cities and make sure they’re not infected, you test them so they don’t infect each other, and you have baseball in – as much as it’s tough to say – in a spectator-less environment,” Dr. Fauci explained. ”[Then] you have people playing in an environment in which people can watch on television.”
But maybe complete prevention is neither realistic nor needed. MLS athletes — given their general health characteristics as a group — are probably among the least susceptible to suffer severe risk from the disease, and they wouldn’t be around any family to which they could transmit. Speaking of no family,
Would players agree to this?
My guess? No way. Players love soccer, but they probably love their partners and kids more. Think about foreign players, maybe some who are new to the league, that really rely on their family as their emotional rock. Would video conferencing suffice? (I assume Disney would hook them up with free WiFi after they access through the guest portal using password Garber123).
And there are a host of other reasons why player may reject something like this. Maybe they don’t believe they’d receive adequate medical treatment. Maybe they think the playing conditions and condensed schedule would negatively impact their performances and even hamper their prospects of a future transfer. Maybe they just don’t like Orlando, I don’t know.
However, the individual financial situations of players in MLS present a more severe dynamic than exists in MLB. In both leagues, players might earn orders of magnitude more than some of their teammates, but the minimum salary for a major leaguer is $563k. Last year in MLS, the minimum base salary was almost exactly 10-times less at $56,250. What this means is that a good portion of MLS players are probably facing uneasy financial times right now, and any decrease in games played this season could mean wages get slashed for players making more than $100k.
Is it likely to happen?
You can probably sense how I personally feel about this, and for some of the reasons mentioned, I don’t think it’s likely. But I do think it’s more likely than the MLB concept due to the commercial incentives for the league and financial pressures on the players. I cannot wait to hear what the MLS Players Association has to say about it, and I do not envy its leadership in organizing its membership at such a rapid pace. (Atlanta United’s Jeff Larentowicz is one of seven members on the MLSPA’s executive board.)
If it does happen, it might be the best thing that could happen for our Five Stripes.
With Atlantas history of success playing in Orlando, I am OK with this.— ryañ lochry (@ryanlochry) May 12, 2020
Josef, where you at?