The warning from Adrian Hanauer was stark. According to the Seattle Sounders majority owner, the shutdown caused by the Covid-19 pandemic could result in “astronomical” losses for Major League Soccer teams. “Hundreds of millions, billions, really big numbers,” he told the Sounder At Heart podcast earlier this month.
Hanauer’s remarks were in line with much of what is being said around the soccer world. The sport has never experienced anything like this with entire seasons on hold, soon to be abandoned in some cases, and competitions such as Euro 2020 and Women’s Euro 2021 pushed back a whole year. For all the meetings that have been held and contingency plans drawn up, nobody can guarantee when play will resume.
In some ways, MLS is in a better position than many other leagues to handle the pandemic. Unlike most European divisions, MLS’s calendar year schedule meant that it was only two rounds into its season when it shut down. If the call has to be made to end the 2020 campaign there won’t be the political turmoil that will come in the Premier League, for instance, where Liverpool are just a few points from clinching the title.
The league’s centralised structure also provides some protection. While European clubs have mostly been forced to fend for themselves, MLS owners are at least shielded somewhat by an umbrella that covers them all. “The ownership is rock solid,” Hanauer added. “There’s been lots of criticism of single entity structure – no promotion-relegation, salary cap – heard over the years. But some of those principles are what will allow this league to survive and thrive coming out the other end.”
But in other ways the pandemic will likely leave a deeper mark on MLS. While there were 17 MLS clubs ranked in Soccerex’s Football Finance 100 for 2020, what is less clear is whether this is reflected in cash reserves, both at MLS HQ and across its member clubs. According to Soccerex, LAFC, to give one example, have “negligible cash” despite featuring high up in the rankings. While the the financial ceiling has been raised, there are doubts over whether the floor has been lifted with it.
Players will almost certainly be badly hit. MLS has no shortage of big names on big money, but its payroll is grossly unbalanced. While the likes of Javier Hernandez and Carlos Vela collect millions of dollars a year there is a far larger contingent of low-paid players. It’s the latter group that will be most affected by any league-wide pay cut, something that may well be in the pipeline with discussions taking place between MLS and the MLS Players’ Association. A pay cut as severe as 50% has even been raised if games are cancelled.
Those players paid less than $100,000-a-year would be exempt, but nonetheless MLS’s disparity has prevented any welfare drive from its players. Figures for 2019 showed the average wage in MLS was $345,867. This was up 13.3% on the previous year, but it’s still a long way from the average salary in excess of £3m ($3.7m) in the Premier League.
“I think if MLS and most of the players in MLS were making the amount of money the European players were, I think we might have done something on our own or individually to help,” Inter Miami defender Ben Sweat explained on a conference call earlier this month. “It’s pretty easy when you’re making millions of dollars a year to make a decision like that, and I think we want to help and we want to help the community and we want to help the staff members as best as we can.”
There are other problems too. While European leagues have explored the option of playing games in isolated venues, with isolated travel possible between those venues, this will be tricker for MLS, a division that stretches over an area roughly equal to Europe.
MLS commissioner Don Garber has mentioned the possibility of a tournament played on neutral ground. The commissioner has also strongly hinted that MLS teams may have no choice but to play into the winter. “That’s even hard to imagine because we had a zero celsius MLS Cup in Toronto in mid-December in 2017,” he said, “but we’re going to have to push this season as far as we can so that we can crown a champion in 2020.”
For many within the league, merely getting to the winter will be an achievement. MLS is far from immune to the forces afflicting so many in soccer right now and like most other leagues has yet to come up with all the answers. Clubs and players should prepare for a rough time. It may be that for MLS anything less than the “astronomical” losses predicted by Hanauer would be a victory.