MLS teams tackle a fan-free experience

As many teams are now tackling an MLS fan-free experience, there are significantly different approaches to game day presentations, as teams work with local officials to ensure safety for all involved.

Safety for all means many different things, of course. Player safety is one thing: operating in a Disney World bubble is one thing, but returning home and living an everyday life means more potential COVID-19 exposure, but teams have implemented testing regimes and social-distancing routines at training facilities and stadiums to cover both players and staffers. 

Managing fans is a different issue: local authorities have the final say over crowd sizes and management, and many state and local officials are still issuing plenty of prohibitions against crowds of any size.

For the Portland Timbers, the decision was made to play the entire season with no fans at Providence Park, typical of an MLS fan-free experience. Yes, there will be piped-in crowd noise and chants, but it’s not the same. From KGW:

“Everybody who is in the stadium who has any contact with the players has been tested multiple times a week,” explained Mike Golub, Portland Timbers president of business. “Everybody gets temperature checks. There is social distancing throughout the stadium.”

Those new rules don’t just apply to home games. Depending on where games were in the country, Golub says, the Timbers sometimes used to arrive at the host city a day or two before the match. “Under this new world we are in, we are going in day of and actually leaving the same day after the game.”

That new policy was in place last night, when the Timers hosted Seattle Sounders FC and taking the 3-0 loss. Portland Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese was asked about play in an empty stadium:

“No of course not having fans in our stadium, especially our fans, that are so unique and amazing, it is difficult because you know how this place gets every game and how important our fans are. We live in different times. At the moment we have to be strong mentally. We were in Orlando. Coming back in our stadium, we showed some very good things in a majority of the game, but in the end, we gave them a little bit too easy. Too many goals that they shouldn’t have found. Of course we miss our fans. We wish our fans were here. But these conditions right now don’t allow that to happen, so we need to be still a very good team and make sure that we don’t have defeats at home. We want our home to be a place that everybody, whoever comes here has a difficult time and unfortunately today, the last 15 minutes we gave the game away. Credit to Seattle that they took advantage in the last 15 minutes.”

Similarly, Inter Miami FC opened the team’s new Fort Lauderdale facility with no fans in the stands.

So far FC Dallas has allowed fans in the stands for several matches, but it’s not been a huge success. Even though the team can have up to 50 percent capacity under Texas guidelines, the team has chosen to limit capacity to just over 5,000 fans per game. Even that smaller number has not been met: ESPN is reporting an attendance of 2,912 for a Nashville SC match last week.

Right now MLS is in the midst of the first set of games, with the next round of games set to be played after Sept. 16. In addition to FC Dallas, fans (in a reduced capacity to meet local guidelines, of course) are expected at future Sporting KC, Orlando City SC and Real Salt Lake matches, per team announcements. The feeling is that these efforts are less about finances and more about planning for the future:

On a conference call last week, Sporting KC CEO Jake Reid was asked whether the decision to open Children’s Mercy Park to fans made financial sense, considering the staffing and protocol required. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense … to be honest with you,” he said. RSL chief business officer Andy Carroll echoed that sentiment, telling ESPN: “Finances aren’t driving much of major league sports at this point.”….

One source in Kansas City pointed to the club’s role in developing the protocols that were successfully implemented at MLS is Back and suggested that SKC could once more play the role of pioneer as teams around the league determine how to move forward in the era of social distancing. That source also noted that such protocols — mask requirements, socially distanced seating, staggered entry and exit at gates, temperature checks and health screenings, touch-less ticketing and cashless concessions, to name a few — might be not just for the remainder of the 2020 season but the reality in 2021 as well.

Some of these measures were already in place: touchless ticketing and cashless concessions were inevitable anyway. So it will be interesting to see how they work this season in MLS.

Photo courtesy Portland Timbers, via Twitter.

This article originally appeared in the weekly Soccer Stadium Digest newsletter. Are you a subscriber? Sign up here!

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