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MLS after coronavirus: What will the league look like when it returns?

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LAFC & Philadelphia play to thrilling draw (2:11)

LAFC answers every Philadelphia goal in a back-and-forth 3-3 draw. Watch MLS on ESPN+. (2:11)

On March 8, the Philadelphia Union and LAFC played a thrilling back-and-forth affair at Banc of California Stadium in Los Angeles. Eddie Segura's 71st-minute strike capped the home side's third comeback of the night, and the match ended in a 3-3 draw. It would also be the last MLS goal for the foreseeable future. Four days later, the league suspended the 2020 season and issued a training moratorium as a response to the coronavirus pandemic.

While stay-at-home orders for more than 300 million Americans are showing signs of helping to slow the spread of the virus, there's no timetable for when MLS will return, with sources telling ESPN on Wednesday that they're planning to extend their postponement through June 8. But one thing is clear: It won't be for some time.

There is one bit of good news. Unlike the XFL, which looks very unlikely ever to play again, MLS will return at some point in the future.

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Speaking to ESPN's Taylor Twellman, MLS commissioner Don Garber said the league is exploring tournament formats and neutral locations with games that would mostly be played behind closed doors in what he dubbed "MLS Studio" matches.

MLS Players Association executive director Bob Foose echoed Garber's sentiment about seeing a return to action.

"We came into the season very bullish," Foose said. "We have to remember that that good news is still there. It's pushed back. We don't know when we get back there but we fully expect that we will get back to that."

According to Victor A. Matheson, a professor of economics and accounting at College of the Holy Cross, there's far too much investment in the league to simply walk away.

"MLS owners have plowed about $4 billion into stadium infrastructure. What is good for the MLS fan is that all these MLS owners have a bunch of skin in the game. At this point, every owner has hundreds of millions of dollars in investment, either in the form of expansion fee or in a stadium or some combination of the two," he said. "There are a couple billion reasons why MLS owners aren't going to walk away."

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1:23

Jack Harrison: MLS isn't a retirement league

Jack Harrison speaks about his time with New York City and the impact of playing with players such as Frank Lampard.

So then, back to the original question: When will MLS return? Sports leagues, in general, are conservative organizations. They are concerned about safety and wary of litigation. It's possible that a team or league could be held liable if, for example, a fan went to a game and contracted the coronavirus.

According to Darren Heitner, founder of Heitner Legal and a sports law expert, the courts would consider a number of factors including the standard of care that is owed to the spectators by the league or team and whether the league or team was negligent in failing to cancel the event or mitigate risks. One piece of evidence would be CDC or other governmental guidelines and regulations like stay at home orders.

"So long as there are individual jurisdictions that have stay at home orders, particularly those jurisdictions in which MLS teams are based, I would expect that games will not be played or if they are spectators will not be in the seats," Heitner said.

In thinking about when to restart, teams and leagues across the country and the world are performing a cost-benefit analysis. They want to keep their players, staffers and fans safe (and prevent the possibility of lawsuits) but also, their financial upside is significantly limited if there are no games. While the crisis won't be over until there's a vaccine, Heitner doesn't believe that leagues need to or will wait that long to reopen.

"I do think that once regulations and recommendations change, it will be up to the leagues to make that individualized determination as to whether or not they believe that they can provide the standard of care that's necessary and put in the instrumentalities that are necessary to best shield themselves," he said. "I think it's a risk/reward situation from a league and team business perspective.

"At some point it's very clear everyone will have a true appreciation of the risks and they are to a large extent assuming the risk of attending a game if in fact doors are open."

Matheson, the economist, doesn't think fans will return to stadiums until there is a vaccine. While he can envision some leagues having closed-door matches broadcast primarily for television, this doesn't make sense for MLS, a league that makes a significant portion of its revenue (roughly 40%) from home games and associated sponsorship money. (Some estimates: if you take the average per-game attendance in 2019 (21,330) and multiply it by the average ticket price ($31), you get $661,230 in per-game ticket revenue. Factoring in an average $20-40 matchday spend at the stadium -- basically food, drink and merchandise -- for every person in the stadium and that number rises to roughly $1.5 million per game, plus whatever in-stadium sponsorship opportunities arise from programs, mascots and/or announcements.)

MLS earns around $90 million a year from its television partners, compared to $6 billion for the NFL, $2.66 billion for the NBA, $1.5 billion for MLB and $200 million for the NHL.

"MLS is an in-person league, probably for the foreseeable future," Matheson said. "There's no plausible reason why it would go to closed-door games. If you can't put fans in the seats, you can't do anything." (MLS did not respond to requests for comment for this story.)

MLS, obviously, would like to play again in 2020. But it's possible to see a situation where leagues with richer television contracts like the NBA and the NFL play in empty stadiums while MLS and others simply wait until there's a vaccine in (hopefully) 2021.

One final factor is the new CBA, which remains unratified. According to Foose, there's a signed term sheet based on the negotiations between the MLSPA and the league offices, and ratification is simply a matter of turning the term sheet into CBA language. That process is on pause for now, meaning that the governing document is the new term sheet overlaid on the previous CBA.

"Our guys are regular employees in terms of being on payroll 52 weeks a year and getting checks twice a month," Foose said. "We don't have game checks. The cycles are regular now and will stay that way. There have been no proposals to cut from the league [as of April 6]. I'm optimistic that we will have a good dialogue with them on what all of this means to the league and we will all do our best to get ourselves back to normal as best that we can."

For now, however, Segura's messy, scrambling effort on that chilly March night in Los Angeles will be the final image of MLS action for months.