Saturday, March 29, 2014

Euro-snobbery and the Discontent with MLS

We Americans love sports.  This is hardly a big surprise. In the pantheon of American sports, what the world calls football and we Americans call soccer arguably ranks fourth or fifth in popularity in this country.  In fact soccer is an English abbreviation for Association Football (Assoc-er) that the high-brow upper-class gentry of the sport passed on to their cousins across the pond and then later adopting the more popular, working-class term of football… actually kind of a sick joke in my opinion, but I digress.

The Americans who do like soccer can be categorized into two groups: Fans and distant admirers.  We all know the distant admirers.  They are the ones who tune in during the World Cup and read up on the teams and players during that one month every four years; kind of like we all become experts in Curling every fourth February.  The more serious distant admirers may even research the professional club teams of the stars’ of the tournament.  After all, nothing quite impresses ones’ friends at the bar by quoting Messi’s latest stats for Barca while Argentina gets bounced again by Germany.

The American Fans … capitalization fully intended… on the other hand, are a serious bunch.  We either despise the term soccer or wear it proudly like a badge of honor.  We are more knowledgeable in the game than the average European fan.  We embrace our pedigree as American rebels, picked on throughout high-school for playing a ‘girly’ sport.  Yet, even here we have a divergence.  I speak of the Eurosnob versus the MLS Fan.

Now, I fully admit to being a Eurosnob, but not for the aforementioned reasons.  As a lifelong fan of the beautiful game, I enjoy viewing the game played at its finest level.  Watching an MLS match to me is as enjoyable as watching an NCAA Men’s soccer match.  And the last time I saw one of those games, due to the thuggery and lack of imagination, it was difficult to distinguish between the version with the pads and oblong football, and the one with the spherical football and shorts.

I admit I don’t watch MLS … except on rare occasions … and on those rare occasions, I have seen marked improvement.  And I should watch the MLS.  But to the Eurosnob, it is simply no contest.  The MLS is light-years away from parity with the best leagues of Europe.  This is a problem.  And, it is a problem that the MLS is not too stupid to realize.  They fully know their product is vastly inferior to the teams one can see on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons in the Champions League.  But they also know their product well and have a plan for long-term success.

Here is the harsh reality:  The MLS has to compete in a market saturated with sports… while being perhaps the fourth or fifth best draw out of the sports.  So, how does one grow the MLS in America?  The Eurosnob will quickly go capitalist on you and bemoan the salary cap, the fact that there is a profit-sharing agreement with the teams, that the MLS cannot attract the top talent with these financial restraints in place.  Granted, they cannot.  But I ask, what then the alternative?  If one remembers the NASL, the New York Cosmos did just that.  They paid enough to attract some of the best players in the game to come play in America… granted, they were a little past their prime, but the point remains.  The Cosmos instantly became the Harlem Globetrotters with the rest of the league playing the Washington Generals.  It was a phenomenal success… for about five years, when other teams tried to increase their stock by spending vast amounts of cash to attract other talent to simply keep up with the Cosmos.  It was a failure.  The teams went broke and the league folded.  How can you keep a national fan-base interested with one team winning it all every year?  We, after all are not Greece with Olympiakos, or Turkey with Galatassary.  Those leagues can afford to have a sub-par league and a singularly dominant team that competes in Europe every year because of football’s hegemony in their respective markets.  American soccer cannot and MLS knows this.  So, they grow slow.

Small, soccer-only venues like Sporting Park are testament to MLS's small, but steady growth

How can they better grow the sport?  Well, they have done a remarkable job by starting player development like the European academies.  Hopefully soon, this will be their primary talent pool from which to draw, lessening their dependency upon the NCAA system and attracting foreign stars at the end of their careers.  They are also improving their game.  The MLS has seen an improvement in the quality of play since their start in the mid 1990s.  No longer is it hoofing it up the field and trying to knock it down to the feet of a massive 6’5” forward to clumsily take a whack at the goal.  There is an emphasis on play development, coming up from the back, building an attack, possession, etc.  MLS does still have a lot to do on the whole thuggery of the game though… but so does Stoke City.

What I see as their biggest missed opportunity is in the TV market.  Now, one can only tune into about 50 games a year on television through ESPN and FoxSports1.  It’s not a bad deal, but it televises only two or so games a week nationally.  If one wants to grow the sport into a success outside of the markets of the individual cities holding teams, there has to be an emphasis on TV deals that broadcast games to the regions.  Fans outside of the immediate markets have no attachment to a team.  It is impossible to develop a rabid fan base if one can only catch a game from a particular team twice or thrice a year.  This could be for further down the road, but it seems to me to be the primary recipe for success.

Oh, that other subset of fans outside of the Eurosnobbs?  The Domestic Fans?  Those are the MLS fans.  They, unfortunately occupy a very small minority of the American soccer Fanbase.  They are the ones who have the ability to be season-ticket holders and support their local team vociferously.  We Eurosnobs are a bit jealous of that, like an Ohio Scouser is of a real Kopite … unfortunately we don’t have the ability, or we don’t have the patience to grow the domestic sport slowly.  And lest the Domestic Fan become too depressed, we should be encouraged that our league probably ranks somewhere in the top 30 of the entire world.  That is nothing to be ashamed of considering our sport is not the top draw.  There is nothing wrong with supporting the best product in the market.  And our watching the EPL and Champions League every week cannot but help grow the sport in America, but we also cannot neglect growing the MLS.  TV execs watch the numbers.  If we tune in, we help it grow.

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