Sports

MLS’s ‘New Normal’ Is a Bleak, Barren Field With Ads Plastered Everywhere


Nani of Orlando City SC celebrates the second goal of his team during a match between Orlando City and Inter Miami as part of MLS is back Tournament

Nani of Orlando City SC celebrates the second goal of his team during a match between Orlando City and Inter Miami as part of MLS is back Tournament
Image: (Getty Images)

As the first American men’s league and the first league to actually bring to life the dog-in-a-burning-room meme, MLS hit the field last night. We didn’t know what it was before, other than a vague, bad idea, and it doesn’t feel like we have much more of an idea now.

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Last night kicked off with Taylor Twellman treating his airtime as if it were a combination of the Jerry Lewis Telethon and Live Aid, even making sure to thank ESPN and Disney at the end. Protect that check, T2. The shilling from Twellman was uncomfortable at best, distasteful at worst, and, disappointingly, came from a guy who usually gets it. He was essentially thanking these companies for being so desperate for cash that they put hosts of players and staff in proximity to a virus that has killed nearly 150,000 people so far in this country alone. And the clamor for sports to return, above all else, is not something we want to prioritize right now, or even listen to. Nothing about this feels like a healing moment, nor should it really be treated as such. But as an ESPN/Disney employee, Twellman has little option.

I should go no further without mentioning that MLS players have used this platform to not just continue the protests, but forward the causes of Black Lives Matter. We know how these things work. As leagues return and more and more kneeling protests take place more and more often, as they should, there’s a serious threat that they become normalized. Routine. Part of the scenery, and then the actual purpose can get easily lost. We’ve seen it before. But it keeps the protests vibrant, noticeable, and in the news when players kneel for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, as they did last night, or wear the names of Black people killed by police, as they did this morning. Perhaps, in that sense, this is all worth it.

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At the same time, it’s hard not to cringe at the juxtaposition of these players following their inspiring calls to action by playing in a setting that’s specifically designed to paste advertising everywhere. The entire league has been put in this dangerous situation so ESPN and Disney and MLS can sell ad space. The ads are everywhere, even superimposed on the field, something of a first for the sport (digital ads have been used on the sidelines but never in the center circle like this). There’s a field-length green screen opposite the camera, along with two half-field length ones above it. We can clearly see those, but can’t see the near sideline thanks to the camera’s position.

And that’s clearly the purpose of this. MLS putting on something, however bastardized, to get any TV money they can, while ESPN and FOX put ads everywhere to try and recoup the cash they’re shelling out. It’s so naked. It’s what the sport would look like if it were run by NASCAR.

MLS and their broadcast partners made it clear they wouldn’t be piping in crowd noise and would compensate with extra mics on the field, forgetting that “FUCK OFF!” is a standard goal celebration. It was a problem they ran into immediately, after the very first goal scored in this silliness.

But piping in crowd noise would have been nonsensical, even more so than it’s been for other leagues because there are no seats here. It’s one kind of disconnect to hear crowd noise when there are empty seats. It would be disorienting to hear crowd noise when there’s not even a stadium, just a field. At least the European leagues and NWSL are playing in stadiums. This is where the games would take place ordinarily. Something about it looks right, or, at the very least, it sounds right. The added crowd noise is at least an attempt to normalize the whole picture on our screens.

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This competition very much doesn’t look like it’s played in a stadium. This looks like they’re playing on the fields of an affluent, suburban high school complex. You can see the baseball fields in the background. And surely it was odd or uncomfortable for play-by-play man Jon Champion to mention that one of the arenas the NBA will be playing in was just on the other side of a shot, knowing that two teams have been expelled from MLS grounds. You can’t help but feel two leagues are in danger now, or at least more than you did before.

And that’s the overwhelming feel: that this is just taking place on some soundstage or set that feels like an updated version of The Running Man. It’s not “the best we can do right now” that we’ve gotten from other leagues, which are simply missing the element of the fans. MLS is missing pretty much every element besides the 22 guys on the field. With advertising slapped across everywhere they could think of, it feels artificial. Given the format, we already had that feeling going in, and they haven’t done anything to alleviate that.

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Today’s news that Nashville has been expelled and Chicago is moving groups and changing its schedule, after the tournament has already begun, only lessens the legitimacy of this process. They’re clearly just making up rules as they go, even as it seems to concern players’ health.

It’s a game show. Watch as these teams compete for prizes, assuming they even can get down to Bidder’s Row, which Dallas FC and Nashville SC couldn’t. The more apt analogy might be “Survivor” if it wasn’t so damn terrifying.

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The actual play will improve. Asking anyone to perform immediately at the top of their capabilities after three months off in Florida’s humidity, and today at 9 am which is antithetical to everything they’ve been training for for years, was too big of an ask. But the play isn’t really the point, is it? It’s the ads, and whatever ratings come from this. Which either will justify the ads or make them yet another futile attempt at making this seem worth it.

Come on down.

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