Friday, July 25, 2008

MLS: What can be done?

As I am sure you all watched the big game last night. When I came in to work everyone was talking about it. Yep, that's right the MLS All-Star Game. (I always thought it was called the All-Star game because they 'all' the players were 'stars', if that's true why are they individually called 'All-Stars'?) Anyways, if you don't know about the MLS all-star game it differs from how the NBA and MLB do it. For the past five out of six years they have had all of the All-Stars on the same team and they play against another Club team from another country. So far they have played, Chivas De Guadalajara (MX), Fulham FC (England), Celtic FC (Scotland), Chelsea FC (England) and yesterday they played West Ham United FC from London England and beat them 3-2.

They have yet to lose one of these games. Which really, they never should. These are the best players from our entire league going up against a regular club team. Add to that the fact that the MLS teams are in the middle of their season, where all other leagues are just getting started. Eventually I see the MLS getting strong enough where these games will no longer happen, but for now it's a good way to show other countries the talent the MLS has as well as spreading the foreign teams to America and Canada. Since it's first season in 1996 the popularity of the league has fluctuated. During the years of the World Cup and other major tournaments it tends to grow, recently picking up big names like Beckham in LA and Blanco in Chicago has also helped boost attendance. But there is still a long, loooong way to go before the MLS can even compete with other leagues around the world, both on the level of talent and on economics.

If anyone is still reading, here are a few things that I think would help grow the league in the US.

1. Soccer only stadiums. About half of the teams have them currently or are building them. But for the league to be successful long term each team needs to have a good soccer stadium to watch a match at. In the short term, teams need to make it at least look like soccer is the only sport being played there that week, or at least that night. Nothing looks cheaper than seeing a bevy of colorful lines, representing football, lacrosse and lawn darts. It doesn't grow credibility to an international or domestic audience and not to mention it can be another barrier to the new fan that doesn't know which line is which.

2. Get rid of the conferences. Or at least make them less important. Right now there is the Western and Eastern conference and a vast majority of the games are played intra-conference. I get that this is in an attempt to build rivalries, but being able to see your team play all of the other teams would help keep things fresh. Conferences within leagues are an American development, they work for sports like basketball, football and baseball, but for some reason not soccer. Everyone should play everyone.

3. Get some more big names. Beckham is a good start. But there needs to be more stars in the MLS. Foreign and homegrown and not just European stars in the twilight of their careers. I realize you can't get stars without money and you can't really get money without stars, but what if teams could get money?

4. Sponsorships, Sponsorships, Sponsorships. Just recently the Chicago Fire finally put a sponsor on the front of their jersey. It was a ridiculously long time and it was foolish of them to wait. One of the major problems with soccer from a television and advertising standpoint is the game never stops. There for no convenient TV timeouts, pitching changes or official challenges. Therefore the MLS needs to be more creative (read: copy other leagues advertising models) instead of it being the MLS make it the Microsoft Soccer League or the AT&T Soccer League. Does this sound familiar? What other sport doesn't have any real breaks in the action yet is growing at an alarming rate and for most people is as boring as soccer? If you answered NASCAR you are correct! The MLS needs to look at NASCAR and other leagues (example: Barclay's English Premier League) for ideas on how to make the MLS more profitable.

5. System of relegation and promotion. Many people who are only familiar with American sports are really surprised when they hear about the promotional systems in Europe and around the world. In this system the worst team (or two) in the MLS gets relegated to the first division in the USL and the winner(s) of the the USL gets promoted to the MLS. This will make more games "count" and help develop a more traditional league setting.

6. Development of youth teams. Soccer teams around the world have youth development teams to do exactly what it sounds like. Groom young talented players to play for their side. There are no drafts in these leagues you develop homegrown talent or you go out and buy talent. MLS teams are embracing this but until they get rid of the draft it's kind of pointless.

7. More teams in Canada. As of right now only Toronto has a franchise. It sells out every game and is generally considered the best atmosphere in the league. The Phoenix Sun's Steve Nash is trying to get a franchise in Vancouver. But as of now there is no word on any more teams going north of the border. I think a fairly good Canadian presence is important to the longevity of the league (Think NHL).

As you can probably tell many of the MLS's failures is to try to make it more "American" from the team names (New York Metro Stars) to rule changes (Countdown clock, and 35 yd penalty shootouts). People in the US don't want those types of things, they work with baseball, football and basketball because that is part of the tradition and they have been perfected in these settings. Soccer has been around for many, many years and it has been popular all over the world and was also developed all over the world.

There are still some difficult questions concerning soccer in America. One of them is the dreaded tie. Tie games are a big part of soccer as it often gives both teams points in the standings and can make the end of the season actually even more exciting. Most of us are not used to ties and the worst way a game can end is in one of these draws. Unfortunately, going into overtime over and over again can really wear on the players and can actually make the games intense as the season goes on.

It is possible for it to be successful here, you don't need to make cheap changes to the game to dumb it down for us. We will get it, it just takes a bit of time. What would it take for you guys to actually flip the channel to an MLS game. Naked Girls? Money coming out of the TV?


haasertime said...

why do soccer balls have pentagons?

Milt on Tilt said...

I'm a recent convert to soccer, and I have to say the biggest advantage it has over all American leagues is the promotion and relegation system. Much better than the franchise system.

Daymonster said...


It's a mixture of pentagons and hexagons. You probably only notice the pentagons because they are black.

Surprisingly, this type of ball was only introduced to the soccer scene in the 1950s and eventually popular in the 60s and 70s. It was made to be black and white so it would show up well on the black and white tv sets. Also it helped show spin on the ball for the players.

It's essentially called a bucky ball. It was invented by Richard Buckminster Fuller. Which he discovered he could make an almost perfect sphere from hexagons and pentagons.

Most high end soccer balls don't use this design anymore though.

brex said...

What could you change about soccer to make it more interesting?

Make the playing field smaller.

TwinsWin83 said...

I actualy read today in USAToday that the MLS announced yesterday they will be exanding the league by two more teams by 2011, and that those two cities have yet to be announced. Possible one of those cities could be in Canada eh?

The league must be doing something right if they are already expanding to two new cities the next two years in Seattle and Philly and now are planning two more cities on top of that. So why does no one realize this is going on? Ive always wondered why the US refuses to accept the most popluar sport in the world. I mean I can take a few guesses but Im not gonna rag on soccer here. I guess its just kinda like the metric system in this country. Everyone else says we need to embrace it and that makes us like it even less.

Best part about soccer growing up...Orange slices for treats during halftime.

Daymonster said...

haha yeah, I meant to mention that. Seattle Sounders FC in 2009 (part owned by Drew Carey) and Phildelphia in 2010.

2 more in two years. And one will probably be vancouver or montreal. And I think it's a long shot but I think Minnesota could possibly happen. I actually think it could work.

soup said...

Good stuff, daymonster

It is a bit perplexing that soccer hasn't become more popular in America. I would guess that more kids play soccer than any other sport in America. I guess these things take time. College football was around a long time before pro football took off. I would say the NBA didn't really become popular nationwide until the 80s. But it seems like it's heading in the right direction.

What do you think about getting rid of the salary cap in the MLS? It think it's a good idea. Parity and fairness would take a temporary hit, but getting some big (and expensive) names in the league would increase popularity and revenue for everyone.

Daymonster said...

Agreed about the salary cap. Thats another thing about other soccer leagues is there are a hand full of really good teams in each league with really good well known players. Adding relegation to the mix makes all the games exciting.

RM said...

I was in attendance last week when David Beckham and the LA Galaxy came to NY to play the New York Red Bulls at the Meadowlands... Almost 50,000 people showed up to watch, which was very impressive. The amount of tailgating going on beforehand was impressive, and people were really into the game! In some markets (i.e. really big ones), I don't see why this sort of thing couldn't become the norm, despite the fact that I personally don't really care for soccer.