This week’s news that Major League Soccer intends to resume its 2020 regular season outside of coronavirus-free bubble and with fans in the stands where allowed by local authorities was expected. MLS commissioner Don Garber briefly outlined the plan two days earlier, during his appearance as a halftime guest on Fox Sports’ broadcast of the MLS is Back Tournament semifinal between the Portland Timbers and Philadelphia Union.
That doesn’t make it seem any less irresponsible.
For while MLS and the NWSL deserve tremendous credit for showing other leagues that staging games inside a tightly controlled environment works, the problems that Major League Baseball, college football and minor league soccer teams have faced trying to compete outside of a bubble, with a slew of games (and in the case of college football, some schools’ entire seasons) cancelled because of outbreaks, makes you wonder why the league is considering squandering that success by letting paying customers attend those contests. Or by playing them at all.
MLS and the NWSL may have been at the forefront of restarting sports amid the pandemic in North America, but they were weeks behind the rest of the world. The much higher-profile top soccer leagues in Germany and England came back weeks earlier, neither with supporters in the stands. The German Bundesliga has told its teams not to bank on butts in seats until early 2021. Even baseball, which has faced increasingly loud calls to scrap its abbreviated 2020 campaign as the positive tests came in over the past couple of weeks, isn’t allowing fans into its stadiums.
“We learned a lot in the bubble,” Garber told FS1’s Alexi Lalas on Wednesday. “We learned about testing, we learned about the incredible commitment of our players wearing masks and socially distancing and taking real responsibility for keeping themselves safe. And that really will give us a sense of what we need to do to finish the season, have playoffs, and have an MLS Cup before the end of the year.”
They also learned that keeping athletes healthy outside of a bubble doesn’t really work. Two entire teams, FC Dallas and expansion Nashville SC, were forced to withdraw from the event before they’d played a match because of outbreaks within their ranks. Same for the NWSL’s Orlando Pride. Sporting Kansas City also showed up at the MLS bubble in Central Florida with at least one confirmed positive test. Only dumb luck prevented that player from infecting teammates or SKC staff. (According to The Athletic, FCD and Nashville will restart the regular season with fans in attendance next Wednesday, a day after the tournament ends.)
There is no evidence the league can point to that suggests that players, even if they follow all the protocols, won’t get infected during the course of their daily lives. They go to groceries, and if they don’t their partners do. They and their families are out in public, where testing is rare. By the time their team finds out that they are infected, they could’ve already spread the virus to others, including those most vulnerable to a pathogen that is already responsible for more than 160,000 deaths in the United States, and counting. And that’s with all the other major American-based sports circuits playing behind closed doors so far.
MLS has always had to think outside the box to capture its share of the U.S. and Canada’s mature, long established sports market. After those early hiccups, its MLS is Back event, which concludes with Tuesday’s final between Portland and Orlando City, has been a success and an example for other more popular leagues to follow. You can understand why MLS, which relies on gameday revenue far more than MLB, the NBA, the NFL or the NHL, would also want to be the first of the five big leagues to welcome fans back into its buildings, too.
“We were focused on the health and safety of our players and everybody involved,” Garber said. “We were able to achieve that.”
Now is not the time to abandon what helped them get there for something we’ve already seen doesn’t offer nearly as much certainty. This time, MLS ought to resist the urge to trend-set if the safety of its employees and the general public remains the top priority. Until the virus is under control in the country, the cold hard reality is sports leagues probably shouldn’t be playing outside of a bubble at all.
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