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Complicated process hit several understandable snags this year, but the tardy release may impact the bottom line.

With every club now in the midst of preseason preparations for the upcoming campaign and First Kick looming just five weeks away, MLS is well and truly on its way to starting the 2011 season.

One considerable hitch has hindered those efforts on and off the field and tempered a bit of the enthusiasm: MLS has yet to issue its regular season schedule.

League officials expect to rectify the problem by unveiling the entire slate on Thursday after previously revealing the home opener for each team on Dec. 20, but the delay has sparked consternation among club officials and fans eager to start their own planning for the season.

“We recognize that the timing of [the schedule’s] release has caused some inconvenience and we appreciate our fans’ continued patience,” the league said in a statement released last week.

Although there are several understandable reasons available to explain why the fixture list has taken so long to complete, MLS must grapple with more immediate problems. The belated schedule release will likely detract from the bottom line for some clubs in the early stages of the season and erode a portion of the goodwill harbored among ardent fans accustomed to the league's peccadilloes.

The continued fluidity of several key scheduling factors contributes to this unpleasant exchange of dollars and supporters for additional time. When MLS president Mark Abbott explained to Goal.com how the league devises its schedule last year, he cited three primary considerations in the process: (1) maximizing attendance; (2) creating a television schedule to maximize ratings; and (3) balancing the schedule from a competitive perspective.

The second factor appears to have thrown the most significant wrench into the procedure this year. MLS has yet to announce a deal with Fox Soccer Channel to renew its contract for the upcoming season. The two sides entered negotiations far apart – FSC offered $7 million per season, while MLS sought $20 million, according to a December report in Sports Business Journal – and it remains to be seen if and when the two sides will strike a deal. The extended negotiations likely played some role in prolonging the scheduling process due to FSC's affinity for exclusive broadcast windows and its desire to play some role in picking its preferred matches.

While the protracted FSC negotiations contributed to the delay, other internal and external factors also posed problems. The presence of the reserve league and several external competitions, the continued discussions over the tenuous future of SuperLiga, the desire to avoid conflicts with World Cup qualifying and the addition of four regular season matches complicates the process. By placing more matches in midweek to compensate, there are inevitably concerns about venue availability given the need to schedule non-soccer events at certain points during the summer to generate revenue.

The fluid stadium situation in Vancouver – the club would like to conclude the season with a few matches at newly renovated BC Place, but the construction work may not be completed in time to do so, according to a January report in The Globe and Mail *– and the need to send Sporting Kansas City on the road until its home opener on June 9 also pose competitive balance issues that must be juggled carefully.
(* - writer's note, Monday afternoon: The soon-to-be-renamed BC Place will be ready to open by Sept. 30, according to reports on Monday from The Province and the Vancouver Sun.)

Those considerations may explain why the scheduling process has dragged on for such an extended period, but they do not eliminate the fallout caused by the considerable delay.

Individual clubs – and, by definition, the league as a whole – will inevitably feel the financial pinch in the early portion of the season. Although every MLS team has had ample time to market and sell its home opener, each club now faces a compressed period to move tickets for the subsequent matches. Some clubs with significant season ticket bases may not feel the impact, but other clubs dependent on individual ticket sales and multiple-game packages will face an uphill task to recover lost time over the next month. Some teams – particularly in wintry cities – will likely see fewer fans through the turnstiles in the early part of the season due to the delay, though increased venue control should limit the damage after that point.

Bridging the gap created by the meager notice will require all parties further extend themselves in terms of resources. Clubs will have to commit more time and money in order to match or exceed numbers generated and work through any glitches with external vendors. The central office may also have to bear some of the burden because it is charged with picking up the tab for travel costs. Seat availability on direct commercial flights could pose some problems in secondary markets, while the overall cost of booking a large group will likely increase for the early stages of the season.

Traveling fans will also have to cope with higher fares and limited options. While the league correctly values the casual fan, it must also treasure the supporter willing to expend significant capital to follow the team and purchase merchandise. The tardy schedule release will place additional strain on the already tight budgets of the league's most die-hard fans.

In an ideal world, the early stages of this particular season would include short- (for traveling) and long-distance (for skipping) trips with less emphasis on the medium-distance trips that might be affected by the truncated time frame. The relatively modest number of traveling fans – as ardent as they may be – may not hold much sway, but they do deserve as much consideration as can be afforded under the circumstances for a variety of reasons.

No amount of angst or blame over the delay will alter the current landscape or fix the immediate problems. While  MLS may view this delay as an mere inconvenience to its fans, it must also address this belated unveiling as a potential threat to its bottom line. For both reasons, the league must do all it can to address the situation and publish the schedule with more notice in the future.

Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSsoccer.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at kyle.mccarthy@goal.com and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.

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