Rumored MLS schedule change could have significant impact

Posted by Jeff Carlisle

For years, Major League Soccer has pondered altering its calendar so the league would operate more in accordance with Europe and FIFA. Now that idea appears to be gaining momentum.

The New York Daily News is reporting that MLS intends to make the switch in time for the 2014 season with a league calendar that begins in late July or early August, takes a winter break during December and January, and then concludes with MLS Cup the following May or early June.

MLS spokesperson Dan Courtemanche appeared to have refuted at least the timing of the change Monday morning, stating via email, “We will announce plans for the 2014 season before MLS Cup. The timing of the 2014 schedule will be very similar to the current season.”

That makes sense, especially as it relates to the upcoming World Cup. The offseason rhythm during this World Cup cycle has already been established, and United States manager Jurgen Klinsmann would likely be loath to make any changes.

Yet it leaves open the possibility that the change could be made after the World Cup, something that would no doubt please FIFA president Sepp Blatter, who has long encouraged the move. A more likely scenario is that MLS would make the switch in 2015, and either implement a shortened season during the first half of the year, or an extended championship that would last upwards of 16 months. The former seems the more palatable solution given that it would make for a quicker transition to the new schedule.

Television appears to be one of the drivers for the switch. The league's ratings remain low, with data from Nielsen indicating that the household rating for MLS matches on ESPN networks has remained at 0.2 for the last three seasons, including 2013.

The league's television deals are also all set to expire at the end of 2014, and the belief in some quarters is that because the MLS playoffs run smack up against the NFL and the conference championship games for college football, the monetary value of the MLS postseason -- and by extension the overall television contract -- isn't what it could be. The timing of the playoffs makes it difficult to obtain time slots, and the overall competition from other sports diverts attention. It is the belief of one team executive that moving to a fall/spring season would make the playoff portion of any television rights deal much more valuable, even if that would mean going up against the NBA and NHL during the respective postseasons of those leagues.

The change has other advantages as well. The summer months are typically a time of increased national team activity, and finishing by May or June would help the league avoid the problem of scheduling games during international tournaments like the World Cup. This would add more competitive integrity to the regular season, since international players would be missing fewer league games. It would also leave the summer months free to schedule lucrative friendlies with European clubs that come over to North America for the preseason.

Being in alignment with Europe would also aid in acquiring players, since the transfer windows would now be roughly the same. MLS clubs could construct their sides for the start of the season when more players are available on the open market.

The concern of course is what the change might do to attendance, especially with the introduction of a two-month winter break, and the lag in attention that would ensue during that time. The league -- with some justification -- has proudly pointed to its attendance numbers as proof of the league's growth, and MLS commissioner Don Garber has long stated that playing more games during the winter months wasn't going to happen until fans "became agnostic about the weather." That doesn't appear to have changed.

Imagine what would happen to the attendance of teams like Toronto, Chicago and New England if they were forced to play more games in February, March and November, while much of May, June and July were abandoned. Yes, the schedule could be constructed in such a way so that warmer-weather teams had more games during the colder months, but teams with colder climates would have to have at least a few games at home during these times to maintain fan interest, something that will already be tested by the winter break.

All told, the move entails considerable risk, one that MLS will have to gauge carefully before making its final decision.

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