NEW YORK – MLS commissioner Don Garber hears the repeated calls for his league to move its schedule in line with the rest of the world. He just isn’t ready to heed them yet.
The prospect of moving to a so-called winter schedule remains a topic for debate in executive circles around the league. It is a complex transition poised to alter how the league functions and where it generates the revenue required to bolster its bottom line. The corresponding financial considerations play a large role in the process as MLS plots its future and wonders whether it can increase its standing by altering its calendar.
“As a league, we have in the past looked – and we will continue to look – at a potential calendar shift,” Garber said during his State of the League speech on Tuesday. “We went through a fairly comprehensive process this year to see whether we could manage a schedule change.”
Garber subsequently sketched out the working concept as it stands now. The season would start in mid-to-late February and run through the end of May before taking a break in June in accordance with the end of the European season. The second portion of the schedule would start in mid-to-late July and run through mid-December.
The proposal – even in this experimental stage – aligns MLS with other major leagues without solving its specific financial issues. The potential impact on attendance in some cities looms as perhaps the most formidable obstacle, particularly with 30 percent of those sales contributed to the single-entity structure. Garber ruled out the prospect of playing in markets like Toronto (and several others) in January and early February for weather-related reasons. Exchanging a handful of home matches in June or July for additional dates in February or December might work in the league’s increasing number of warm-weather markets, but it could impact gate receipts substantially in less temperate locales.
“That’s where the rub is,” Garber said. “We have not been able to figure out a way solve the break and also figure out a way to justify moving those games out of the very valuable May and June time period into February and the end of December.”
The current landscape requires a careful assessment of the benefits and costs to making those sorts of changes. Unlike the other major sports in the United States and the major European leagues (and especially clubs participating in the Champions League), MLS does not derive the majority of its revenues from television contracts. The relatively modest sums generated under the terms of the current U.S. television deal (approximately $30 million over English- and Spanish-language pacts) do not provide enough revenue to offset expenditures made by the single-entity structure elsewhere.
Garber and the investor/operators expect to increase their take substantially when new television agreements start in 2015, but the boost offered may not satisfy all of those concerns. Any additional capital must come from a variety of avenues – including increased exportation of players, another tricky path for a league attempting to lift the standard of play – to generate the backing required to truly consider the switch.
At its core, MLS functions first and foremost as a business entity. The bottom line matters a great deal. Until the books reveal the capacity to mitigate the short-term fallout created by a calendar change, then the current landscape – or something close to it – is likely to stay in place.