Major League Soccer officially suspended its season Thursday afternoon due to the coronavirus (COVID-19). The ramifications for not only the league but the sport as a whole in the United States could be devastating, particularly when it comes to the bottom line.
While many fans and media members have focused on the four major pro leagues and the cancellation of March Madness, few have considered the financial implications for pro soccer in America. Unfortunately for both players and coaches associated with the world’s most popular sport, the financial effects of the coronavirus could be life-changing.
MLS suspends season due to coronavirus concerns
Like its big brothers, MLS officially postponed its season for 30 days due to the coronavirus pandemic. That step became a formality especially after the NBA, NHL and MLB made similar announcements this week.
According to The Athletic, MLS plans on adding lost games to the end of the season. The report also stated that team owners want to play every game on the schedule.
Other U.S. soccer leagues followed suit, including the United Soccer League. The USL, in particular, is unique in that its teams are supposed to compete in the U.S. Open Cup. The longest-running soccer tournament in the U.S. was slated to begin on March 24. However, the coronavirus pandemic and corresponding league suspension has altered those plans and the league plans on pulling its teams from the tournament.
U.S. Soccer also announced that both the men’s and women’s national teams will not play scheduled matches in March or April. This included a men’s team trip to Europe to take on Netherlands and Wales. The women’s national team will no longer play Australia or Brazil in mid-April.
How US soccer leagues draw revenue
Unlike the other major American sports leagues, the MLS relies on a different revenue model. According to the soccer staff from The Athletic, the league’s current media rights deal brings in about $90 million annually. That may seem like a decent figure, but it pales in comparison to the big boys of the American sports market.
In contrast, the NHL brings in more than double ($200 million) in media rights. The NBA makes that look like chump change with its $2.8 billion annual revenues. Of course, the NFL is in the midst of CBA negotiations, but we know in 2019 that each NFL team received $255 million in TV revenue rights.
Because MLS does not bring in nearly as much money via media rights, the league depends heavily on game-day revenues. From tickets to food to merchandise to parking, every bit of those game-day expenses that loyal fans pay helps tremendously.
Potential financial fallout of no pro soccer
With league play suspended for at least 30 days, MLS teams will certainly suffer. No games means no revenue, although MLS owners probably can afford to get by in the meantime.
However, other U.S. soccer leagues, such as the USL, rely even more on actual games for generating revenue. Though it just signed a three-year deal with ESPN that will pay just north of $1 million per season, USL teams still relies primarily on match-day income.
The financial fallout from suspending play is scary when you hear some of the numbers from The Athletic:
One USL source estimated that mid-to-lower-level clubs make between $30,000-$50,000 per game, while the top independent Championship clubs could see over $200,000 per game. Across 17 home matches, that represents the largest pool of income these clubs see during the season.
American pro soccer leagues don’t have the benefit of mega TV deals. And they certainly don’t have as many recognizable stars. But as smaller fish in a bigger pond, they face a critical financial juncture ahead as the sports world attempts to survive through the coronavirus pandemic.