Baseball's interminable bickering puts MLS in position to pounce this summer

Major League Baseball’s loss could be Major League Soccer’s gain.

With the Bundesliga season in full swing, La Liga back in action too and the mother of all domestic sports competitions — England’s wildly popular Premier League — set to return this week, it would’ve been easy for soccer fans to miss Monday’s huge baseball news.

Basically, the 2020 MLB season is in real jeopardy because of the ongoing and off-putting labor strife that has prevented the league and its players from reaching an agreement to restart amid the coronavirus. That puts baseball at odds with not just those European circuits, but also the NBA, NFL and NHL, who are well into their preparations to resume.

All of those entities stand to benefit if the MLB season doesn’t happen. Soccer, and MLS in particular, seems uniquely well-positioned to fill the void in live sports programming in July and August, traditionally the least congested months of the sports calendar. The National Women’s Soccer League will become the first North American sports league to come back when it kicks off a month-long tournament in Utah on June 27. The opening game will be carried nationally by CBS — the first professional women’s soccer league game ever to be aired on network television — as will the July 26 finale.

MLS will be the next league to come back. When it does, with a six-week-long tourney beginning July 8, it could enjoy more mainstream exposure than at any point in its 25-year history. The NBA and NHL aren’t looking to return until August. The NFL expects its 2020 campaign to begin in September, as usual.

As Major League Soccer tries to become more popular in the United States, Major League Baseball's seeming dedication to torpedoing itself can't hurt. (Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images)
As Major League Soccer tries to become more popular in the United States, Major League Baseball's seeming dedication to torpedoing itself can't hurt. (Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images)

There’s no reason baseball couldn’t have beaten most of those leagues to the punch. The governors of California and New York — states that implemented some of the most stringent stay-at-home requirements during the heath crisis — both said almost a month ago now that teams could stage games without fans.

Instead, soccer will have the stage to itself. The NWSL will play 25 games. MLS will have more than double that amount. For the first 16 days of its event, there will be two matches in prime time every night, as well as one each morning. All games will be shown nationally by the league’s broadcast partners, And since the MLS Is Back Tournament was devised in conjunction with ESPN and is being hosted at ESPN parent Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex, highlights from the games will surely receive additional play on its flagship “SportsCenter” show as well as other programming.

A sizable portion of sports-starved Los Angeles should tune in when LAFC and the Galaxy resume their “El Trafico” rivalry in the Sunshine State. Another group stage match, Toronto FC against Montreal Impact, will attract viewers across Canada. And MLS will have even less competition in the sweet spot of late July and early August, after the Prem, Bundesliga, La Liga and NWSL end and before their North American counterparts return.

It won’t be the same without supporters in attendance. The games won’t even be played in empty stadiums like in the European leagues, but rather fields usually reserved for training sessions. That’s no small thing for a league whose biggest sell during normal times is its fan-friendly game day experience. Still, MLS insists that it will go to great lengths to ensure that its video-only product is as compelling as possible.

If it is, MLS will have a rare and intriguing opportunity to permanently enhance its profile in the U.S. and beyond. That doesn’t mean thousands of baseball diehards will suddenly become soccer nuts. But if MLS can introduce (or reintroduce) itself to casual sports fans who have been waiting months for a local team to root for, it will have to put its best foot forward during this coronavirus-cursed summer, something MLB has so far been unable to do.

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