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Volume 25 No. 177

Leagues and Governing Bodies

The MLS Cup final will now take place in mid-November, weeks earlier than the traditional December date
Photo: getty images

MLS has altered its playoff format by "eliminating two-legged series from the postseason and further incentivizing the higher seeds in each conference in an effort to add more meaning to the regular season," according to Avi Creditor of SI.com. These changes will mean that "instead of having MLS Cup staged in December, the season will end considerably earlier, with mid-November the new timing for the final, ahead of the FIFA international window that has disrupted the momentum of the playoffs in years past." Under the new plan, seven teams -- up from six -- in each of the two conferences (which will each have 12 teams in '19) will "make the playoffs, with the respective No. 1 seeds earning first-round byes." The remaining teams in each conference will "play one-game elimination matches, with the higher seed hosting." In order to fit the playoffs into the "new, shorter, time window," MLS will "add more midweek matches throughout the regular season, which remains at 34 games." The league "made a point to show that the new timing will be compatible" with the November/December schedule for the '22 World Cup in Qatar (SI.com, 12/17). SOCCER AMERICA's Paul Kennedy wrote these are the "most sweeping changes" to the playoffs since after the '02 season when MLS "abandoned a best-of-three series." MLS will "likely start the regular season earlier," beginning in '20. The league will "have to consider some sort of postseason competition for the fall of a fall competition for young players, like MLB teams do" with the Arizona Fall League (SOCCERAMERICA.com, 12/17).

IT'S ABOUT TIME: ESPN.com's Jeff Carlisle wrote the changes "address several criticisms of the format that has been used for the last several seasons." The most recent format was "comprised of an initial, single-elimination knockout round followed by conference semifinals and finals that were contested over two legs." The MLS Cup was then "held at the home field of whichever team had the better regular season record." However, there had "been complaints that the format didn't do enough to reward teams for regular season excellence" (ESPN.com, 12/17).  In Philadelphia, Jonathan Tannenwald notes this style of postseason has been "championed for years by those who back the drama that one-game rounds can bring." Critics of the one-game format "feared low-scoring, play-to-lose soccer." Lower-seeded owners also "feared losing the money and exposure they got from home games in the old format." There have also "been gripes for some time that MLS changes its playoff format too often." This will be the "ninth variation in the league's 23-year history." However, in "terms of talent and finances, MLS is at a point where this setup should be a success" (PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER, 12/18).

KEEP THE FANS IN IT: In Dallas, Dan Crooke noted the international break "falling in the middle of the playoffs often saw the momentum lost between fears of injury or fatigue," and other players going two weeks without a game." Additionally, the "length of the playoffs often saw fan interest wane, or at least dip prior to the conference finals round" (DALLASNEWS.com, 12/17).

WSL events held in the ocean are not seen as broadcast-friendly compared to those with artificial waves
Photo: getty images

The World Surf League has a "grand plan ... to expand the fan base, from 'the core' -- surfers -- to sports fans in general," but its introduction of artificial waves at select events was "not met with universal acclaim," according to William Finnegan of the NEW YORKER. WSL in '16 '"bought a controlling interest" in the Kelly Slater Wave Co., and also "bought Surf Ranch and began to step up its branding efforts." The Surf Ranch is "said to have cost" $30M to develop. The California-based wave pool venue, which hosted its first WSL event this year, "churns out virtually flawless [waves] on command" and creates a "more broadcast-friendly contest." The next iterations of the pool "might be different." Surf Ranch Florida, "already approved for construction in Palm Beach, will reportedly offer youth programs and lessons." Public access, however, has "not been promised." One of Slater's partners said that future pools "will have many more features, possibly including movable reefs." But many surfers "felt that the future suddenly had a dystopian cast -- mechanized, privatized, soulless." Finnegan also notes the WSL ownership group "bought pro surfing for nothing except a promise to invest in it." The acquisition was "fronted" by Slater’s manager, Terry Hardy, and former WSL CEO Paul Speaker. Now, the "new majority owner is Dirk Ziff," an "heir to the Ziff-Davis publishing empire" (NEW YORKER, 12/17 issue).

CSM Sport & Entertainment was appointed to support MLB for next year's Red Sox-Yankees London Series. CSM won a competitive pitch and is responsible for the strategic planning and production of venue operations, ticketing services, full event presentation, hospitality services, marketing and communications, as well as all fan-related activity (CSM).

REMAINS TO BE SEEN: In N.Y., David Waldstein noted the ATP BOD has voted "not to remove Justin Gimelstob" at this time. The vote was "called a day after Gimelstob pleaded not guilty to a charge of felony battery with serious bodily injury after an altercation" in L.A. on Halloween night. The "breakdown of the vote is not known." Gimelstob is a "frequent contributor to Tennis Channel." The net said that it had "granted Gimelstob time off during the court proceedings but it has given no other public indications" about his future (N.Y. TIMES, 12/15).

BREAK POINTS: The WTA has approved rule changes that are "meant to ensure players are not penalized after they return from pregnancy or an injury that causes a long absence." The changes were "prompted, in part, by the experiences" of Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka. Players returning from maternity leave "may use a special ranking for up to three years after the birth of a child, and the exemption can be used for seedings at big events" (AP, 12/17).