Lessons From Belarus

By John Sloop, columnist.

A few weeks back, one of my friends sent me a link to watch a game in the Belarusian Premier League.

I confess: I watched it.

I also confess that I could never have picked out Belarus on a map. Indeed, if you told me that Belarus was a country that no longer existed, I would likely have believed you. Nonetheless, I watched it. I watched it in desperation. I watched it in awe. I watched it and devoured it like a junkie who has been desperate for the real thing for weeks and will happily inject anything even close after being deprived for so long.

And I got to thinking: while I certainly think sheltering in place should go on a lot longer than do some of our politicians and public officials, maybe it would make sense for MLS to reopen its schedule. Keep the crowds away, of course, and perhaps, as has been suggested, move all of the players and officials to a neutral location so they don’t have to travel.

One of the problems MLS faces is that team revenues are strongly driven by attendance rather than television rights. Without high ratings, it’s difficult to demand much in the way of revenue for the product. And, historically (and surprisingly to me), MLS never seems to improve much in ratings. While individual games might do well, the overall news is not good.

Belarusian Premier League fans. | Photo credit: Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters

So, in a way, it seems counterintuitive to say, find a way to play the games without crowds, if the crowds are your main revenue source. But bear with me: wouldn’t this be the greatest period in history to get viewers’ eyes on you? With no other sports being played, we have been reduced to watching documentaries, classic sports, and the Belarusian Premier League. Last weekend, I watched three Muhammad Ali fights in one day. The only person still alive from any of the three fights is George Foreman. I’m watching dead guys. I would have preferred to watch almost any live competition.

I stress: I would watch other sports, sports that I don’t normally follow, if they were being played right now. And I have to believe there are numerous sports fans out there who may not like soccer, may even think they dislike soccer, but right now, unless Belarus has a pro football or basketball league, they may just tune in to an MLS game. And maybe they’ll find they like it.

What would it take to pull this off? For some lines of thought, it would take changing the definition of soccer itself. Simon Critchley, among others, argues that soccer isn’t just a set of rules but a community, an organization, a way of life. And that requires fans to be part of it, not just watching on television but watching live and bring noise and support to the team. And while I agree with him on some level, I’m willing to bet that MLS now would lead to virtual watch papers and other fan events that would lead to a larger baseline when soccer returns.

Second, it would take a heavy commitment by the league to a set of health protocols and daily checks to protect the players.

Third, it would take a strong commitment by the players and managers, television staff and officials—all of them—to be isolated solely with each other, without contact by anyone from outside that community (no wives, no kids, no nada).

I’m sure there are millions of things I’m not thinking about here, but what an interesting experiment it would be. And even at its worst (let’s say the lack of crowd makes the game feel soulless and the players are awkward around one another), it still has to be better than what we have now, which is memories, dreams, and Belarus.

I think I’m ready. So, tell me why I’m wrong.

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