Don Garber has been the MLS commissioner since 1999, and one lesson he says he's learned is to not look back.
"You can't be in the soccer business and spend your time worrying about the past," he said during Tuesday's State of the League address in response to a question from Soccer America. "You've got to get focus on the future and the future for MLS is very bright. And we are going to be here bigger and better and stronger in the years to come."
Well, anything will be better than 2020.
"I am very, very hopeful that 2021 will be a way better year than 2020," Garber said, "because I don't think any business could sustain the kind of impact that we sustained in 2020 for two years in a row."
Revenues for the league and its clubs are down $1 billion compared to 2019.
"Not only have we lost a significant amount of revenue, as have so many other businesses, certainly, in our industry," Garber said, "but we've also incurred expenses that we were not intending to incur. We chartered players to every game; that's not currently part of our CBA. We had the expense of managing the MLS is Back Tournament and while that was able to allow us to capture some revenue, the expenses of housing so many players and operating those games and creating the virtual stadiums were enormous."
And there has been the cost of almost daily testing for COVID-19 that has gone on at the club level for more than five months.
MLS clubs have survived thanks to the deep pockets of their owners, who have made equity infusions into their organizations and taken on new debt. They have met with investors in the private equity market about an infusion of outside capital, but that has not prevented the league and clubs from taking the painful steps of cutting expenses, including layoffs. Nearly 20 percent of the league's front-office and digital staff lost their jobs.
"Our need to manage the losses through adjustments that we are making to our operating expenses is something we can control far greater and better than we are able to control our ability to seek funding on the outside market," Garber said.
The cuts also included concessions from the MLS Players Association in the form of a 5 percent salary adjustment in 2020 and a delay in the implementation of each year of the new collective bargaining agreement. MLS also obtained a force majeure clause, which has not existed in previous agreements with the players.
Garber would not say if and when the clause would be triggered except to say the timing for the invoking of the clause is "going to be way earlier than an understanding of when fans are going to be allowed in stadiums."
Which gets to MLS's short-term dilemma. It must move ahead with plans for 2021 without knowing what 2021 will look like. Garber reiterated that MLS still plans -- as of today -- to start the 2021 regular season in March even if no one knows what the state of pandemic will be like in the spring.
"The challenge is nobody has that magic date," he said, "and it will vary state by state and province by province. So we need to make a schedule for all the reasons that you would expect."
Knowing when the vaccine will be readily available still doesn't answer the ultimate question.
"We also aren't going to know what reaction fans are going to have to return to stadiums," Garber said. "So just the idea that the vaccine is available does not give us an indication fans will be returning to stadiums."
In the meantime, MLS will have to continue to address all the other issues it faces as a growing league.
Expansion. Austin FC will begin play in 2021, but launch dates for teams in Charlotte, St. Louis and Sacramento were pushed back a year. When St. Louis and Sacramento start in 2023, MLS will have 30 teams. Shortly after Garber arrived, the league shrunk to 10 teams.
New stadiums. Austin FC will launch in a new stadium in 2021, while both Ohio teams, the Columbus Crew and FC Cincinnati, will open next year in new stadiums, part of the league's $5 billion investment in stadiums. The start of work on the Nashville SC stadium at the Nashville Fairgrounds was delayed because of political issues. It's now scheduled to be completed by mid-May 2022. The search for land on which to build a stadium for NYCFC has gone on so long that it's almost forgotten. No one asked Garber about the New York stadium situation.
Ownership. MLS has had a relatively stable group of owners, but that will inevitably change as the league grows in size. Brazilian Flavio Augusta da Silva, Orlando City's majority owner, would like to sell, but Garber said he is confident Flavio will remain committed to the team if he doesn't sell in the short- or mid-term. Garber said there are interested parties in discussion with MLS about buying Dell Loy Hansen's interest in Real Salt Lake and the USL Real Monarchs. (He also said the investigation by the Sullivan & Cromwell law firm into alleged racist and sexual behavior at Hansen's clubs has been completed and will be issued after MLS Cup.)
Television. MLS must renegotiate a new national media deal to take effect in 2023. The pandemic has distracted the league from focusing on long-term plans, but Garber said he didn't think it will have an effect on the media negotiations that will take place in 2021. While most sports television ratings have suffered following the resumption of play, MLS's playoff viewing numbers are up. “We have time to be able to rebuild all of the excitement and momentum on that front," Garber said.