Perception versus reality in Major League Soccer
I am a season ticket holder of Major League Soccer’s Philadelphia Union. The matches are held in a picturesque setting underneath a bridge and in a lovely 18,000 seat soccer-specific palace along the Delaware River. MLS appeals to all, truthfully. The crowds contain plenty of children and older folks, young marrieds and hardcore sporting enthusiasts. People come because of the game, the world’s game, the Beautiful Game.
There is a large culture of American online authors and podcasters who are becoming overwhelming with their cacophonous innuendo about where the league stands, how good the competition is, the league’s presence on television, why some markets draw better than others, and so on. It has devolved to the point where there is a growing perception that the game is not that accessible to new enthusiasts because of this groundswell of elitism being displayed. No one just talks about the games on the pitch. Literally every second of every day is spent putting things into context. How does the league match up against other leagues around the globe? Does the United States really matter to the upper echelon of the sports governing body? Should the league be playing a top level club from another country in it’s All Star game? Should the league be solely concentrating on trying to develop the best possible players from this country? Why does the league have playoffs instead of just crowning the team with the most points the champion? Why hasn’t the league considered promotion and relegation?
The list of questions goes on and on and on. All of it makes for endless fodder for this new generation of pundits and talkers. All of them have been raised in the ESPN model of “debate everything, put everything in context, compare everything to everything else”. The truth is that MLS is more than likely exactly where they ought to be in terms of what they are and what money is available.
MLS started with ten teams in 1996, and in seventeen seasons, has expanded to 19 teams in both the US and Canada. The league has television contracts with NBC, ESPN and Univision. The Seattle Sounders drew over 66 thousand supporters for a match against local rivals Portland Timbers last season. MLS routinely outdraws local basketball and hockey rivals. While it does not do great numbers on television, the presentation on NBC and ESPN is first class (Univision suffers from a lot of non-HD affiliates that pick up the matches). The league would have a long list of cities lining up if and when it fully opens a 20th slot.
I understand that debate and contextual discussions are here to stay, but realistically, MLS is and will continue to be a solid going concern. To compare it with European leagues is utter folly, for the most part. Those leagues are much older and have established traditions. The supporters are used to the idea of promotion and relegation. European sports do not have playoffs, nor do they seem to want them. The Euro leagues (and most other leagues around the world) play over the Winter months, but MLS has stubbornly stuck to the March-October calendar to make sure they can maximize the possible attendance.
MLS does not want to be the Barclay’s Premier League. They want to be the National Football League. They want to be seen as a big deal to Americans, not to the French or English or Germans. They want to be seen on the same stage as other big-time American sports. Their constituents have a certain amount of luxury money, if you will, to spend per year. They need to worry about people going to baseball games rather than taking trips to Stamford Bridge or Old Trafford.
Yes, it’s soccer. Yes, it’s the same game being played in those other countries and all over the world. To assume that MLS has the same expectations and needs as those other leagues is complete and utter nonsense. MLS has to do what it can to survive. They need to court families. They need the atmosphere to be raucous but benignly so. They need to be seen as safe and fun and worth your time and money. Their goal is to not punish the worst teams in the league by demoting them but by helping them through the player drafts (much like what happens in the other American sports).
I know the league appreciates and in some cases encourages the online debates. I know they want to cater to the blog writers and podcasters, because everyone knows in America, attention is attention, no matter how it comes. I want this league to succeed and become what they want to be, a major American sporting league with great television and live presentation. I also want the debate to continue online, albeit with a bit less noise and fierce competition to be the best-known.
In short, keep talking about the league, make sure that you know what you’re talking about, and try to make sure that you understand what the league wants as opposed to what you want. Chances are good their way will be the one that actually happens.