Be more like the National Women’s Soccer League

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From Fox Sports pumping in crowd noise during telecasts of Bundesliga soccer matches played in empty stadiums to ESPN broadcasting Madden 20 esports tournaments like clockwork, it’s no secret that the sports world at large is seeking any semblance of normalcy amid a pandemic and civil unrest.

It’s evident that sports, for better or for worse, give us a proper escape from the perils of life in modern America. These organizations employ thousands of people and support their surrounding communities in immeasurable ways, as well as provide opportunities for journalists like myself. Because of this, it’s imperative that sports return as soon as it is safe to do so.

As the United States starts to reopen after months of lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the gatekeepers are devising ways to bring their sports back while prioritizing safety. With substantial planning, these leagues have come up with innovative ways to attain the highest levels of safety if play were to resume.

The unintended consequence of securing safety for players and employees was that those fighting to get back to work had to be confronted once again with the unrelenting notion that sports leagues are for-profit businesses.

Major League Soccer is headed for a lockout just months after negotiating a new multiyear collective bargaining agreement, or CBA, as the league is now leveraging a global pandemic to push its players association to renegotiate terms in the CBA, including wage cuts and incentives for players and their families.

Major League Baseball is headed down the same path, as its teams have been furloughing employees and cutting minor league players for months, while proposing massive wage cuts.

In contrast to the NBA and NHL, which are seemingly returning to play in the coming months without substantial pushback, MLB and MLS are creating avoidable complications that will far outlast the response to COVID-19. Regardless of restrictions or league makeup, there are better, less detrimental ways to go about getting back out on the field.

This is evident in what the National Women’s Soccer League, or NWSL, has been able to accomplish, as it will be the first team sport league to return to play in the United States. On June 27, the NWSL Challenge Cup, a monthlong tournament that will be played in the Salt Lake City area, will replace the league’s eighth regular season, which was slated to start April 18.

The tournament will begin with preliminary rounds featuring all nine teams. The top eight clubs from that round will enter the quarterfinals and play until there is a champion crowned at Rio Tinto Stadium on July 26 on CBS.

The league plans to set up a self-contained environment in various hotels in the Salt Lake area, with regular COVID-19 testing procedures, and accommodations for athletes’ family members who decide to make the trip.

Remarkably, the NWSL Players Association was able to negotiate full pay for all players whether or not they decide to play in the tournament, an unprecedented feature that no other league has yet been able to replicate.

With other travel benefits for international players and rule changes to accommodate teams missing players for whatever reason, the NWSL hit a home run with its plans to reopen.

Which begs the question, why can’t leagues such as MLB and MLS replicate what has been done in the NWSL, but on a larger scale?

These leagues seem to be perpetuating the notion that the value of their players and employees doesn’t concern them. If lockouts or these proposed restrictions were to come to fruition, it’d be at the expense of everyone involved. It seems as though ensuring safety from COVID-19 was just the tipping point, as league officials and owners are now forced to choose between what’s more important, profit or people?

Reports state that the MLS Players Association has submitted counteroffers to negotiate a fair return, but the league has said if players don’t accept the current terms, they will be locked out. Many MLB stars, from Mike Trout to Max Scherzer, have publicly condemned the league for unfair negotiations.

Out of desperation, MLB players — amid their own negotiations — are beginning to form coalitions to fund the $400 stipends allocated to players in their organization’s minor league system.

According to the league, the MLB stands to lose $4 billion if it was to not play in 2020. The MLB Players Association has argued vigorously against that figure, and I share that same sentiment.

The income generated from tickets and concessions pales in comparison to that of media licensing and sponsorship deals, and that’s been proven time and time again. Even if the MLB adapts its live games like the NWSL has, media licensing and sponsorship deals can still remain a major stream of revenue.

Does the MLB wholeheartedly care about its players? Does it understand the repercussions of alienating its most valuable assets?

Unlike the MLB, the NWSL has shown it has a better understanding of its athletes’ value as humans. The NWSL knows that it’s much more than a sports league. It’s responsible for the well-being of its players, its employees and their families.

To the MLB, MLS and any other sports league that plans to follow in their footsteps: Be more like the NWSL.

Spencer Golanka writes for Bear Bytes. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @sgolanka.