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11-Jun-2020, 11:08 pm

No Lebron or Trout! MLS is back – and with unique chance to command attention of American public

Lebron Chicharito Trout

It's not often that Major League Soccer commands attention in the American sports landscape.

Save for the odd Zlatan Ibrahimovic masterclass or the game-changing signing of someone like David Beckham, MLS is largely crowded out by the nation's 'big four' (NBA, NFL, MLB and NHL) or pushed behind the superstars of Europe's elite leagues.

In recent years, MLS' biggest goals have centered on finding a way to establish the crucial cultural relevance enjoyed by its biggest competitors.

However, next month, soccer will have a golden opportunity to capture the public imagination of the American public.

On that day, and for several weeks after, MLS will be the only game in town, the only men's national league up and running in a country that is eagerly awaiting the return of live sports after the suspension of play caused by the coronavirus outbreak.

Presently, the NBA is eyeing a late-July restart. The NHL, just now starting training, has yet to confirm exactly when they will hold their playoffs. MLB, meanwhile, remains embroiledin a bitter feud between players and owners, with each passing day shortening a season that never even started.

As for the NFL, American sports' most beloved league is hoping to take up its usual autumnal slot.

On July 8, though, MLS will return with a World Cup-style tournament in Orlando's Disney World Resort featuring each of the league's 26 teams and games covering three timeslots across major networks, with the winner receiving a cash prize and a spot in next year's CONCACAF Champions League.

It's something different, something unique, that MLS hopes can fill the void left by the absence of basketball, American football, baseball and ice hockey.

Sounders MLS Cup 201

MLS commissioner Don Garber would have liked to have come back even sooner. After all, the NSWL (National Women's Soccer League) is set for an even earlier return.

However, MLS' preparations were hindered by fierce Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations that nearly derailed the league's Orlando plan. Nonetheless, with players and ownership now on the same page, MLS will look to take advantage of a bad situation by becoming the first men's league to emerge into the new normal.

“It's very important. It's why we were in such close and at times challenging discussions with the players related to an agreement for the work rules this year, and we lost some time," Garber said.

"We had hoped to be out way earlier than we were able to finalize with a July 8 start. We had, frankly, hoped to be able to start at the latter part of June, and we are just not able to do that. So, getting out early is important, and it's not necessarily getting out first, because you've got to get it right.

"Getting out there and ensuring that we have the certainty to play games is crucial to the future success of the league. With no certainty as to when we are going to get back into our home markets, we knew that should we be able to manage the medical protocols, reach agreement with Disney, reach agreement with our players, that we would be able to get out and get games started in July.

"Without the concept of a tournament, we'd still be sitting here waiting like other leagues are to determine whether or not we'd be receiving the approvals to be able to have enough stadia open to be able to have a schedule of games, regular-season games, in home markets.”

For MLS, getting back into those home markets will be absolutely vital.

MLS relies heavily on ticket sales and in-stadium purchases fare more than its competitors. It doesn't have the massive broadcast rights of other American sports leagues to fall back on or the weight of 100 years of history behind it.

Don Garber MLS GFX

However, the league had to make a choice. It was either fall back and wait for local governments to decide when and where the season resumes – or take control of the situation and come up with something different.

They chose the latter option, coming up with a tournament that will not only give MLS a chance to win the public relations battle but also give the league a chance to recoup some of the money lost through a lack of ticket sales.

“The first focus is to retain some of the revenue that we have planned for in our agreements with sponsors and broadcasters," Garber explained.

"Being able to have a tournament like this, that has will have as many as three games a day, will allow us to fulfil some of our obligations to our media partners and sponsors, both nationally and locally, and that's important."

By staging the competition at Disney's Wide World of Sports complex, teams can avoid those local government issues and play real, meaningful games that might interest casual viewers.

The average American soccer fan may not necessarily care about MLS. Liga MX and the Premier League remain the most-watched leagues in the U.S., and MLS still has a ways to go to get anywhere near them.

By and large, the MLS regular season only appeals to fans in home markets as the league has struggled to bring in viewing numbers on a national level.

If there's one thing Americans love, though, it's a tournament. There's a reason why the playoff system is still king in this part of the world, and MLS is hoping to capitalize on that fondness for a knockout competition.

Your average American fan understands a World Cup format and your average American fan likes to watch matches with real, tangible stakes. Therefore, the the hope is that your average American fan will be more drawn to this idea than watching standard regular season matches for a campaign that may not ever properly resume.

Garber says that he's "optimistic" that, at some point, the league will return to some sort of normalcy this year. He wouldn't put a date on it, but the MLS commissioner says the aim is still to have matches in home markets with some sort of crowd.

The league will work towards that goal in the months to come and, if all goes well, local fans will get to see their teams return at some point soon. However, thanks to some careful planning, the league will take command of three key time slots until that point.

Javier Hernandez LA Galaxy MLS GFX

The first match of every group stage day will be held at 9 a.m. local time in an effort to combat local temperatures. That will allow MLS to draw attention during a time slot that American fans commonly associate with the Premier League. Morning soccer has become a staple for American sports fans, and that timing gives MLS a chance to build upon that.

Even that isn't a guarantee, though. The Premier League, by that point, will be back in full swing; La Liga and Serie A will be as well. So, that intense competition for viewers still exists, even if it isn't coming from local American sports.

However, the latergames will be broadcast in more traditional primetime slots and with no competition from the NBA or MLB. Primetime slots aren't often reserved for MLS aside from weekend matches, and those slots are never without competition from other major leagues.

MLS won't have to compete against stars like LeBron James, Patrick Mahomes or Mike Trout. Instead, it will be Carlos Vela, Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez and Nani being thrust into the limelight.

Will it change the course of the league? Probably not. Will this tournament suddenly vault MLS past the NFL and NBA? No chance. But, for one brief moment, MLS will be the center of attention in a world where the league is so used to being left on the outside.

“It starts by getting back," Garber explained. "We'll be playing games before many other leagues in this country, albeit not by as much as we had previously hoped. More importantly, though, we wanted to continue the momentum that we have and continue our relationship with our fans, who translate into viewers."

He added: "So, getting back, getting back in a unique format, getting our fans engaged and getting some momentum back into the league are things that I'm sure will help MLS."

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