Garber: MLS season will begin April 17, but likely without fans

Now that a collective bargaining agreement has been secured, MLS commissioner Don Garber told reporters in a videoconference call on Wednesday that the 2021 season will begin on April 17, likely without fans.

Photo Credit: Alex Vehr

The 2021 MLS regular season is scheduled to begin on April 17, two weeks later than previously thought. What we don’t know is how many fans, if any, will be in attendance in their respective stadiums. So, supporters could miss out on seeing the first matches played at brand new stadiums set to open in Austin and Columbus — and of course here in Cincinnati in the West End.

As has been the case during the global COVID-19 pandemic, not much is certain. And during his video press conference with reporters on Wednesday, MLS commissioner Don Garber chose to err on the side of skepticism.

“I wish I had a better answer, but we just don’t know,” Garber said. “We are encouraged by the rollout of the vaccine by the new (Biden) administration. We have no exposure to what those numbers are going to look like. I don’t have any sense that fans are going to be in our stadiums in large numbers for most if not all of the season.”

On the positive side, there is a new seven-year collective bargaining agreement that will ensure labor peace through at least 2027, and while Garber expects there to be a full 34-game regular season, the preseason which was set to begin on Feb. 22 will be delayed.

Garber said a firm start date for preseason was still in the works, which could impact clubs who are participating in the Concacaf Champions League. Those clubs typically would begin camp early.

“We’ll be focused on ensuring that the teams involved in Champions League have the best opportunity to succeed,” Garber said. “The timetable hasn’t been set as of today, but it’s something we could finalize and announce shortly.”

The new CBA ensures a 32nd year without a work stoppage for MLS, unprecedented in major professional sports, as Garber pointed out. Amid losses of close to $1 billion last season, the deficit for this year is expected to approach that amount.

“The good news is we have worked on a new long-term agreement to recoup those losses,” Garber said. “When you don’t have fans for the majority of your season, it’s just math. We have to drive revenue.”

Garber said he was pleased with the concessions made on both sides and disputed the assertion that the relationship between MLS owners and the MLSPA was “transactional” in nature.

“During the best of times, CBA negotiations are difficult,” Garber said. “When we’re not going through CBAs, we have a good relationship. That’s a credit to the professionalism of our union. We haven’t had a work stoppage, and I think that’s important for us. Both players and ownership achieved their respective goals.”

Garber addressed a number of other topics on Wednesday, including that charter flights will continue throughout the pandemic. An increase in chartered team flights is expected to continue as a provision of the new CBA.

He also addressed the situation in Canada, where travel restrictions could force the Montreal Impact, Toronto FC and the Vancouver Whitecaps to find new home cities again this season. Alternative plans are in the works, Garber said.

“It’s a big challenge,” he said. “I feel for our Canadian players and teams.”

MLS has taken over the process of finding a new owner for Real Salt Lake, and Garber said he’s optimistic that an owner will be found for the 16-year-old franchise.

“We’re encouraged by the interest,” Garber said. “It’s a very unique club that has a very deep connection to the community. I’m optimistic that new ownership will be found for the club. But I can’t put a timeline on it.”

Garber also was asked about the league’s stance on playing the National Anthem before games, and his answer was pretty straight forward: The Anthem will be played when there are fans in the stands and will not be played when they are not.

In regard to vaccinating MLS players or staff, Garber said there are no plans to do so, but he hopes the league can leverage its diversity to help better educate the public on the importance of being vaccinated, although he did not provide specifics as to those plans.

“We will not put our players or staff in front of anybody who needs a vaccine,” added Garber. “I hope that our league, like other leagues, can be a leader in this space.”

Garber said with two years remaining on the current television deals, there will be no early renewal with present partners, as options are being considered. He also talked about the league continuing to strengthening its player development initiatives.

“We continue to lead the growth of our sport in America as we approach the World Cup,” Garber said. “It’s a transformational time for our league. We will welcome our newest team in Austin. We have two other world-class stadiums to open in the state of Ohio, in Columbus and Cincinnati. It’s about getting our players back on the field, our fans back and continuing Major League Soccer’s 26th season.”

To Top