Thursday, April 24, 2014
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Major League Soccer knocks down latest winter schedule rumor

If you needed an extra jolt to get your week started, here it is.

Major League Soccer knocks down latest winter schedule rumor

If Major League Soccer switches to a winter-centric schedule, you´ll see a lot more scenes like the blizzard that postponed a playoff game at Red Bull Arena last year. (Jonathan Tannenwald/Philly.com)
If Major League Soccer switches to a winter-centric schedule, you'll see a lot more scenes like the blizzard that postponed a playoff game at Red Bull Arena last year. (Jonathan Tannenwald/Philly.com)

If you needed an extra jolt to get your week started, here it is.

Frank Isola of the New York Daily News reported Monday morning that Major League Soccer is looking once again at changing its schedule to a winter-centric model.

Major League Soccer is inching closer to adopting a European-like schedule that could be implemented by the start of the 2014 season.

The plan, which has the full support of FIFA, the sport's governing body, would have the MLS season begin play in either late July or early August and include a six- to eight-week winter break. The championship would either be played in late May or early June. The MLS season currently begins in March and runs until the championship match in the first week of December.

Not surprisingly, the MLS fan community erupted when the story started circulating. Here are just a few responses I got on Twitter.

Off the top of my head, a winter-centric schedule starting in 2014 could run from August 2 (a few weeks after the World Cup ends) to December 20, the weekend before Christmas, then take a winter break. Play would resume on either February 28 or March 7, and the playoffs would probably start in mid-May.

It's not the first time MLS has considered such a move. And let's be clear about this: there's a big difference between thinking about it and actually doing it.

Dan Courtemanche, the head of Major League Soccer's communications department, took to Twitter late Monday morning to swiftly knock down the rumors.

From everything I've been told, there will be no schedule change next year. But it's always going to be a big topic of discussion, whether you like it or not. 

But there remain many more reasons why it won't happen than why it will. Here are the angles to consider, and my view of them.

1. MLS headquarters is well aware that a winter-centric schedule would cause huge problems in the league's many cold-weather markets.

Although the league is looking seriously at expanding to multiple cities in the Southeast (and for good reason), 14 of MLS' 18 markets are in cold-weather climates: Boston, Chicago, Columbus, D.C., Denver, Kansas City, Montréal, New York (with two teams starting in 2015), Philadelphia, Salt Lake City, Portland, Seattle, Toronto and Vancouver.

Three of those markets are in the top five population statistical areas in the United States. Five are in the top 10. Eight are in the top 20. You get the idea.

There are a lot of people in those markets who don't even go out for early-season baseball games, much less any other sport. I doubt they'd go out to watch soccer teams that are, in many cases, on the fringes of their local sports cultures.

And yes, that includes Philadelphia. Deal with it.

(You know what I'm talking about. I haven't written on it and don't want to, because it's a waste of air. But you know what I'm talking about.)

The three Canadian teams – which, by the way, are in that country's three largest population centers - have options to play indoors. But they'd still have to convince fans to leave their homes in bad weather.

Also, the artificial turf surfaces at Toronto's Rogers Centre and Montréal's Olympic Stadium are far from satisfactory – never mind the optics of less-than-full houses in big venues.

MLS has emphasized the construction of soccer-specific stadiums for the purpose of using them. They make for better action on the field and a better presentation on TV.

Whether in the United States or Canada, if the stadiums aren't full, the product looks bad. It's enough of a problem during times of the year when people want to be outside. It would be an even bigger problem when they don't.

2. The single biggest issue Major League Soccer is dealing with right now is its negotiations for its next round of television rights packages. Those talks have already begun, for deals would start with the 2015 season.

Last week, the Sports Business Journal's John Ourand reported (behind his website's paywall, sadly) that MLS has opened exclusive negotiating windows with its two English-language TV rights-holders, ESPN and NBC. Those networks' current deals, along with Univision's Spanish-language package, expire after the 2014 season.

So there's still one full season left on the current deals. And that's the biggest hole I find in the plans to switch to a winter schedule quickly. In theory, unless MLS simply re-ups with all of its current partners and starts new packages a year early, the schedule would push the scheduled start of rights deals to a 2015-16 season.

That would also affect the U.S. Soccer Federation, because their TV rights are bundled into the MLS deals.

For the record: ESPN's current deal is eight years and $64 million; NBC's is three years and $30 million; Univision's is eight years and $79.4 million.

(Note that Univision's is for the most money. That's of quite some consequence.)

It's likely that Fox will try to muscle its way in on NBC's rights deal, which is MLS' secondary package. Fox has the rights to all FIFA tournaments from the 2015 Women's World Cup through the 2022 Men's World Cup, as well as a substantial rights deal with CONCACAF. So getting more U.S. national team games – especially World Cup qualifiers, which have proven to be rating winners - would be a big boost.

There are also plenty of people on camera and off camera at Fox who want the network to get back in with MLS. That interest is genuine, regardless of the financial implications.

But we know that Fox has pushed the league to adopt a winter schedule in the past, and has promised to throw a lot of money at the league in return for doing so.

Would they do so again now? There are no answers at the moment, but it's something to consider.

3. In addition to the TV deals, MLS' collective bargaining agreement with its players' union expires after the 2014 season. Starting a winter schedule in August of 2014 would extend the CBA into the middle of 2015. Or, even worse, the CBA could expire in the middle of a 2014-15 season. That would be a very big problem.

Furthermore – and even more importantly, especially in the context of the U.S. national team – a winter schedule starting in 2014 could mean no competitive club action for some MLS-based national team players from December of this year all the way through next summer's World Cup.

Sure, some players would get half-season loans to Europe, but securing such deals on short notice would still be a logistical problem. And with no guarantee that players would actually play while abroad, the quality of their performances in Brazil could suffer.

4. Having said all this, there are two big forces that are pushing MLS to a winter-centric schedule, and they aren't necessarily bad forces.

One is U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann. He wants his players to be in rhythm with the rest of the world. A winter-centric schedule would also make it easier for top Americans to move to Europe on those clubs' terms.

The other big force is FIFA, and here's where things get fun. You all know about the public relations disaster that the Qatar 2022 World Cup bid has become for FIFA, and the organization's attempts to do something to save face.

FIFA president Sepp Blatter is trying to move the tournament to winter. Among the forces lining up to stop such a move are a group of television networks led by Fox. They signed their big-money deals on the premise of broadcasting a summer tournament, and it wouldn't surprise anyone if they sue FIFA over a move to winter.

While half of the soccer world fumes over Qatar's weather, the other half fumes over allegations that Qatar's World Cup chieftains bribed members of FIFA's executive committee to vote for the Gulf state's 2022 bid.

That vote, as we know too well, came at the expense of the United States.

U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati is a member of the executive committee, having been elected to CONCACAF's main chair a few months ago. He was quiet at first, preferring (quite understandably) to work behind the scenes for a while.

But in recent weeks, Gulati has slowly built a more public profile. He has pressed FIFA to slow down its decision on the Qatar winter move, and last week he fired some more arrows at FIFA's bidding procedures.

Gulati knows what we all know: the allegations about Qatar's corruption aren't going away. It's why FIFA has hired an independent prosecutor, Michael J. Garcia, to investigate and report on what happened in all those closed rooms.

Now, it's fair to wonder whether FIFA will actually do anything with what Garcia produces. Indeed, it's fair to wonder whether FIFA is just using Garcia as a show pony, given how much FIFA (and many national federations) have benefitted from Qatar's largesse in recent times.

Oh, and by the way: Blatter and Hassan Abdullah Al-Thawadi, the head of Qatar's World Cup organizing committee, will be in Trinidad – home of disgraced former CONCACAF boss Jack Warner next week.

Though new CONCACAF head Jeffrey Webb has done quite a bit to clean up the organization since taking charge last year, it's worth noting the reason why Blatter and Al-Thawadi are coming across the Atlantic. As reported by CayCompass.com, a news agency in Webb's native Cayman Islands:

The theme of the summit is Transformation through Partnership. It outlines social and economic development as well as sports tourism opportunities. 

"CONCACAF will assemble all stakeholders to better understand and maximize the potential for strong partnership and cooperation between government authorities and federations," said CONCACAF president Jeffrey Webb, a Caymanian businessman and also a FIFA vice-president.

The story further notes that "ministers of sport and presidents of all 41 member associations from the CONCACAF region" will be in attendance.

Think the 2022 World Cup will come up as a talking point? Maybe just a little bit?

Yeah.

So here's my conspiracy theory. I'm not saying there's anything to it, but I can't help wondering.

Say Garcia's report proves that the corruption allegations in Qatar that we've all heard about are true.

Say FIFA then decides, somehow, that the right way to punish Qatar is by taking the World Cup away from it.

We know what the reaction from the American soccer community would be.

Could it sweeten the pot for FIFA if MLS and U.S. Soccer offer to line up America's domestic soccer calendar with the rest of the world?

That's the only way I can see it making any sense for MLS to switch to winter. It would be an enormous gamble for the league to give up games in mid-summer, its most profitable time of year. I don't think it's a gamble worth taking, and I know a lot of you feel the same way.

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The Goalkeeper is your home for the latest news about the Philadelphia Union, Major League Soccer, U.S. national teams and the rest of the world's most popular sport. It's also a place for fans to gather and celebrate the culture of soccer and its unique place on the sports landscape.

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