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MLS returns to play, but empty stadiums will hurt revenue

As Major League Soccer is attempting a comeback amid the coronavirus pandemic with the MLS is Back Tournament. Journalist Grant Wahl and Yahoo Finance’s Dan Roberts join The Final Round panel to break down how having no fans in the stadiums is changing MLS.

Video Transcript

MYLES UDLAND: Professional soccer here in the US has begun their season, going with the bubble concept down in Orlando. For more on how things are going or not going down in Florida, we're joined by soccer insider Grant Wahl. Grant, thanks for joining the program.

So let's just start there with how the bubble, I guess, has worked out for soccer so far. The NBA has now joined them down in the same area. And it seems like the bubble's OK. But there are certainly a few openings for positive tests and things like that.

GRANT WAHL: Well, major league soccer has 26 teams. But two of those teams, Dallas and Nashville, had to be removed from this MLS bubble tournament. And it's not because they got tests inside the bubble. It's because they arrived in Orlando and had positive tests as they entered the bubble. So they had gotten the positives back in their home market.

And so you could say that the bubble for MLS actually is working so far. The testing has gone the way it's supposed to have gone. The remaining 24 teams have been able to play. And the tournament is proceeding with as many as three games a day.

Down in Orlando, it's really hot and humid for those games. And that's tough for soccer. But we've actually had some pretty good games so far. And fingers crossed, the bubble seems to be holding.

DAN ROBERTS: Grant, Dan Roberts here. As you mentioned, it looks like it's working. And, in fact, I saw the latest data was no new COVID tests. So it sort of looks like the bubble format worked, even though for a while there it looked touch and go.

And some people were saying uh-oh. But now it looks like the bubble has kind of succeeded and worked. And I think it's encouraging for the other leagues.

Now what's interesting is some of the other leagues that are doing a bubble format are finishing their season that way, or they're doing just one self-contained tournament. MLS, I was surprised to see the announcement that after this tournament at Disney World, it plans to continue the regular season with teams back in their home markets. Do you think that's still on the table? And how can that work when it looks like the only kind of safe, sure way to do things right now is to get all the players in one bubble?

GRANT WAHL: Yeah, I mean, right now, you have a situation with MLS where it's very early in their regular season. They'd only had two match days before they had to shut things down for the virus back in March. And so they want to have this tournament and take care of it. The three group-stage games for each team count toward the regular season standings.

And then as of now, and there's a lot that can happen, obviously, in different parts of the country with the virus, MLS wants to go after this tournament and play games in home markets, regular season games in empty stadiums, and try to get this regular season done. But there's so much that's unknown right now, including when-- what parts of the country are going to be difficult. I think one thing MLS would like to do is play-- not have a ton of travel be involved, have regional match ups between teams and hope that that would potentially help things.

We've seen the USL, the second division of American men's soccer, already do their restart. And they actually are playing games in home markets, and not even with totally empty venues. And so that seems like they're really pushing the boundaries with that. But that's what USL is doing.

DAN ROBERTS: Yeah, we'll see how it goes for MLS post-bubble, post-Disney. Now let's just talk about the business of the sport. We had MLS Commissioner Don Garber on the program I guess over a month or so ago. I'm losing track of time here.

But he was acknowledging, and I thought candidly, how much MLS relies on gate receipts for its revenue. And how obviously it wants to play games rather than no games, but games with no fans is financially very damaging for the sport. And so playing off that, we had two new franchises just open up-- tough season to have that be your inaugural season. And then I know we have a couple more new franchises coming that are supposed to set up shop either next year or the next year.

How do you think that might be affected? When we asked him that, he kind of gave a vague sense that actually maybe we won't be able to get those new franchises up and running as soon as we thought because of the pandemic.

GRANT WAHL: Everyone I've talked to seems to think that expansion will continue over the next couple of years in MLS. They have 26 teams this year. They're going to have 28 next year. They're planning for 30 the year before.

And all those announcements have been made. We'll see if they go beyond 30. But we're also seeing construction continue on soccer stadiums, even during the pandemic-- new soccer stadiums in Cincinnati, new stadium in Austin, Texas. And there's really a building boom going on in addition to just an expansion in MLS.

And they are having a situation where their bottom line is really struggling because they rely more on gate receipts in relation to television revenue than other sports leagues and other soccer leagues in Europe. Then again, the owners in MLS are almost all billionaires. And so I think one way they're looking at the market just in general terms is that they feel like maybe they can deal with the issues that come from that and the money lost better than even some soccer leagues that are supposedly more established in Europe.

MYLES UDLAND: And then Grant, I just want to ask about European soccer. And we've seen the return over there for most of the leagues. And just about I guess the international soccer schedule, this would normally be-- I guess the Euro would be going on right now. But it kind of screws up all the timing with that three-month sort of break.

And we're supposed to have a Euro next year, a World Cup the year after that. Has there been conversations from folks you've talked to about what the schedule looks like for the next couple of years yet? Or is everyone just trying to stay healthy and safe week by week here?

GRANT WAHL: Well, it's been stabilized a little bit, just because we weren't sure if the big European leagues were going to be able to finish the season. And we're seeing now that they have not only restarted, but had very few COVID cases. And things have gone well, finishing the seasons already in Germany.

England finishes soon. Spain finishes this week. Italy will finish very soon. And those are the biggest leagues in Europe.

Then in August, the Champions League Final Eight is going to be a single-elimination, one-location tournament in Lisbon, Portugal. That's going to be a really interesting, fun event, I think, and is a good solution to their issues. And then there's a very short turnaround time before the European leagues will start again in either late August, early September.

So the scheduling, they put a lot of time into all of that. So far, it seems to be looking pretty good. The European championship, which was supposed to take place this summer, has been rescheduled for next summer. Obviously the Olympics, which do have a soccer tournament for men and women, have been rescheduled for next summer.

And then you've got a weird scheduling situation because the '22 World Cup in Qatar got moved to November, December from the typical June, July due to the heat there. And so the whole European soccer calendar is going to be off for quite a while. But it was already going to be that way due to that World Cup change.