Major League Soccer lost nearly $1 billion in revenues in a pandemic-hit 2020 season, commissioner Don Garber said Tuesday, and it must make key decisions for 2021 without knowing when spectators might fill stadiums again.
Garber said the 26-team league is concerned about next year’s prospects even with a Covid-19 vaccine on the horizon as it would be unable to handle another year like 2020.
“The losses have been dramatic,” said Garber. “Clubs are going to have to manage their economics as diligently as possible. We’ll make adjustments… that’s the reality of managing a pro sports league in the middle of a pandemic.”
MLS concludes its 25th campaign Saturday when the defending champion Seattle Sounders try to capture their third title in five seasons by beating the host Columbus Crew in the MLS Cup final.
The season was shut down after two weeks last March by Covid-19. Teams returned with an “MLS Is Back” tournament won by Portland in a bubble atmosphere in Orlando, then finished the season in empty home stadiums.
“Our revenue for the enterprise, our league and our clubs, is down almost a billion dollars compared to last year,” Garber said.
Teams have announced layoffs, players took a 5 percent pay cut and MLS has laid off 20 percent of its staff.
“We’re at the peak of the pandemic,” Garber said. “This pandemic is raging at far deeper and more critical levels than it was even when we postponed the league in early March.
“Right now our teams have been able to manage through their own equity infusions and ability to put debt on their clubs.”
MLS also had the extra expenses of chartering players to matches and funding the bubble to recover some match telecast money.
“While that was able to allow us to capture some revenue, the expenses of housing so many players and operating those games and creating the virtual stadiums were enormous,” Garber said.
“The impact of all this is probably deeper than what we expected and that is concerning to us… We’re concerned about what this will look like leading into 2021 and are working, as I’m sure everybody could imagine, on figuring out how we could manage through that.
“I’m very hopeful that 2021 will be a way better year than 2020, because I don’t think any business could sustain the kind of impact we sustained in 2020 for two years in a row.”
– MLS back in mid-March? –
While key media rights deals are locked in until the end of 2022, MLS eyes a mid-March start with no sign of fans being allowed back into venues as every area faces different Covid-19 safety restrictions.
“We can’t wait for an understanding of the impact on the vaccine,” Garber said. “We aren’t going to know that and we have to set a schedule prior to that.
“Just the idea that the vaccine is available does not give us an indication fans will be returning to stadiums. It’s not just about fans. It’s about are we going to retain as much of our sponsor and media revenue.
“We’re going to need some flexibility but we are not going to be able to wait to make a decision until somebody decides fans will be able to attend.”
Austin FC is set to join MLS as an expansion club in 2021, when new stadiums in Columbus and Cincinnati are also set to open. The league is set to welcome Charlotte in 2022 and new clubs in Sacramento and St. Louis in 2023 to lift MLS to 30 teams.
“For all that we achieved together, I can proudly say that this year will be a season we’ll remember forever,” Garber said.
“And from these challenging times, Major League Soccer will continue to persevere, we will continue to grow, we will continue to emerge even stronger than ever.”