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Volume 23 No. 24
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Closing Shot: Nearing the goal

As the MLS is Back tournament wraps up this week outside Orlando, the league can look back on its bubble approach to resuming play and how it can now move the competition to home markets.
The Portland Timbers kicked their way to the final in an event that showed the possibilities of playing during a pandemic.
Photo: getty images
The Portland Timbers kicked their way to the final in an event that showed the possibilities of playing during a pandemic.
Photo: getty images
The Portland Timbers kicked their way to the final in an event that showed the possibilities of playing during a pandemic.
Photo: getty images

Major League Soccer’s return to matches on July 8 outside Orlando didn’t occur without some initial challenges and overall skepticism that the league could pull off the tournament. Namely, two clubs — Nashville SC and FC Dallas — saw a COVID-19 outbreak spread among players, forcing both teams to withdraw from MLS is Back.

At one point, 20 players were in isolation in Florida, according to Commissioner Don Garber, but since then, the league has stabilized and secured the bubble outside of two additional players testing positive for the coronavirus. At press time, MLS had released 13 consecutive reports of zero positive COVID-19 cases from those staying at the host hotel, a span of three-plus weeks. 

“Once we got through that challenge, it has been smooth sailing in ways that actually have worked out far better than we ever could have expected. … The bubble concept proved to be a good one,” Garber said.

Of the three U.S. men’s pro sports leagues currently operating within an enclosed format, MLS will be the first to conclude its tournament, with its final set for Tuesday, Aug. 11. At its peak, nearly 2,000 people were inside the bubble. Additionally, more than 200 staffers lived inside the environment, some as long as six weeks, for the tournament that saw up to three matches played in a day, Garber said.

Each of the 24 teams were seen on national television three times, when typically on a normal network broadcast schedule, no team would appear more than once. MLS is Back was averaging 196,000 viewers headed into the semifinals (44 games across Fox, ESPN, ESPN2 and FS1). Fox Sports (Fox/FS1) was averaging 188,000 headed into the semis (15 telecasts), down 21% from their 2019 regular-season average. ESPN and ESPN2 were averaging 246,000 headed into the semis (29 telecasts), down 19% from their 2019 regular-season average.

Extensive advertising for team and league sponsors in addition to fan video boards — both virtual in nature — were incorporated into the broadcast experience. Additional new technology integrations and broadcast enhancements included implementing on-field turf microphones, interviewing coaches during hydration breaks, providing drone coverage and offering fans a real-time, live look-in to video assistant referee conversations. 

Garber said the league was still finalizing details for what regular-season matches will look like post-Orlando. Some matches will have limited fans in attendance where they’re approved by health experts and local officials. According to Garber, the league plans to take some of the technologies and fan engagement experiences first used at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex — including virtual Jumbotrons — and incorporate them into local markets for future games. 

“When I look back on where we are today, we really delivered on the promise of managing the health and safety of our players and staff,” said Garber prior to the semifinals last week. “I feel great about that. I believe we really overdelivered on our technology and innovation experiments. … To see them executed flawlessly with minimal interruption throughout 51 games is really a remarkable feat.”