Monday, October 21, 2013

MLS, Winter Soccer, and American Viability

Every year or two, rumors get going around Major League Soccer about the possibility (some years mentioned as probability) of MLS' March-Thanksgivingish schedule changing to one that's in line with nearly every other soccer (er, association football) league in the world.  Most countries (think Britain, Germany, Spain) operate on a "winter" calendar, with soccer seasons starting in August and continuing through May. For a number of European countries, that schedule comes with a break in the winter's coldest stretch...a break that varies between two weeks in France, four weeks in Germany, and three months in Russia.

The recent MLS schedule change rumor was shot down about a week ago by the league itself but it does call into question the viability of whether soccer could be played on a winter calendar. I won't get into the economic reality that MLS has fewer sporting competitions to compete against in the summer, nor will I focus on whether the move would be viable from a "let's sit in the stands and enjoy soccer on a 40 degree day in January" point of view, but from a weather-related perspective...would such a move work?

First off, if you don't pay attention to soccer in North American, MLS is a relatively large league of 19 teams that stretch from Vancouver to Los Angeles on the West Coast, eastward to include Boston, New York, Philly, and Washington along the East Coast. There's a wide array of geographic and climatic spread in the league where *some* markets would not have any issue with a winter schedule while others will. However, there are some misconceptions out there regarding the level of mildness that European soccer players play in.

England does play through the winter without a break; however, the average high and low in London and Manchester in late December and January are 46/36 (London) and 45/35 (Manchester), respectively.  Compared to our averages of 40/26 at our coldest, it isn't a huge improvement in weather. Granted, American winter weather is harsher in its extremes than what occurs over in England but "average" tends not to be too far away. More on this in a bit.

Germany, with its four week break around the holidays, probably provides the best comparison viewpoint for us in the states...and with similar temperatures overall to what our cities deal with. Berlin averages a colder temperature in January than we do in Philly and averages really close to what Boston's averages are. Munich is warmer than Chicago, in general, by a few degrees. Germany is also more prone to arctic air intrusions than what England deals with and has cold air outbreaks where temperatures drop into the single digits and teens, if not colder, for lows.

If one looks at the MLS' geographic footprint, there are four camps of climatic reality for its teams:

1) The warm(er) weather towns -- these are places where winter weather is less often or is not much of an issue. The two Los Angeles clubs, Houston, Dallas, San Jose would make up this camp.  Dallas is arguably the coolest of these places but does not get enough wintry weather for there to be much, if any, issues with play into January and February.

2) Rainmakers (and occasionally some snow) -- Seattle, Portland, Vancouver. It rains here more often than not, snows sometimes, but generally not a climatic impact from arctic cold (although they can get some chilly weather in brief duration events). Vancouver, playing in a retractable dome, is least impacted but a snowstorm outside would impact their fans' ability to show up.

3) Climatically cooler but workable markets -- these are the cities where some wintry weather will impact play if MLS flipped to a winter schedule. Denver, Washington, and Philadelphia. These are places that would do well with a break but are still going to have some issues with the possibility of snow and/or cold if MLS played a winter schedule. Philadelphia is the closest to being in the "cold weather" market but given the average high temperature stays north of 40 year-round, it gets lumped in with these other towns.

4) Cold weather markets -- these are towns where the average high does not reach 40 at some point in the year. This is where Boston, Columbus, Chicago, Kansas City, Montreal,  New York, Salt Lake City, and Toronto reside -- over forty percent of the league.  Toronto and Montreal have domes as work-around options for scheduling, which is great if you want to have December or February matches but terrible for sport purists.  Even with a winter break, matches in late February in Chicago or Boston are going to be rather chilled. Games are played in early March in many of these locations so two weeks isn't going to make a huge difference here.

I think it's really, really important to point out that weather is going to be an issue regardless of schedule timeframe in MLS due to the season length -- the current setup puts playoff matches into colder weather situations (such as last November's snowy playoff game). The ultimate question is what matters more to soccer fans and to the league itself -- playoff games in November getting postponed because of weather or a regular season game in November? You can always build in makeup games through the season (England and most European leagues do this if weather is an issue) as a midweek affair if weather is uncooperative.

The other key is the change in the MLS Cup now being awarded to the team with the best regular season record. If a cold weather town like Chicago hosted a MLS Cup match in early December, would the league be thrilled with the prospect of bad weather?

One also has to look at the impact of heat and humidity on July soccer in places like Kansas City, Dallas, Houston, Washington, and Philadelphia...not just on the body itself, but the quality of play on the pitch.

A winter schedule is workable if MLS were to start August 1 (or the weekend closest to that date) and played into December before taking a break for the holidays and NFL playoffs, with season resumption taking place around mid February.

If MLS were working a winter calendar next year, a season start on August 2nd would allow 17 or 18 weeks of matches to be played before taking a break after the games of December 13th or 20th, with the remaining weeks being played out from February 14th through May 15th before playoffs in late May into early June (playoffs may need to be streamlined from 10 teams or go to a pure single elimination). There would need to be some doubling up of matches -- probably three to six midweek games built into the calendar -- but it is workable.

Would it be cold out? At times, absolutely! Would there be games getting cancelled? Probably.  I doubt it would be a dramatically higher clip than what occurs now, which is infrequently, especially if MLS scheduled matches properly.

That said, MLS *could* theoretically flip the script on its schedule and switch to a winter calendar and make it work from a weather perspective if it were so inclined, provided there were a six week or so break.  Scheduling most of the December and February matches in the South, West, or in the Canadian domes would be one way to accomplish this.

The question is whether the economic reality is such in MLS that a shift in the schedule would be viable. That's where someone like Jonathan Tannenwald is best suited to discuss the sport's scheduling situation.