The reality and perception of MLS’s inferiority complex

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Around the world, soccer is king, well football is king, with billions of fans who follow leagues, clubs and national teams, they attend matches in huge numbers, they buy merchandise worth billions of dollars, and they watch TV by the billions.  So it is easy for some to expect that type of success to flourish in the United States, but for Major League Soccer it just hasn’t happened.  In fact perhaps nothing points to the league’s struggles more than the TV ratings for the recent LA Galaxy (2 time defending MLS Cup Champions) vs. New York Red Bulls on ESPN 2, the match was a bit early by MLS standards (1:15pm ET) but had the lead in of the final match of the English Premier Season, yet despite that 250,000 people watched the match.  Now think about that, ESPN 2 is in almost 100 million household, New York and LA markets are the two largest in the US, with over 30 million people, and ¼ if a million nationwide watched that match.  One quarter of one percent of the households with ESPN 2 watched that match, more people watch fishing on TV than watch MLS.  That fact, and it is a fact no single team (even in New York City) is going to make MLS as popular or successful as the NFL, MLB, NBA, or even the NHL.

The United States there is a flooded sports market, there are more professional and college options than anyone can keep track of and a good number of them are and will be more popular than MLS, I am OK with that fact and every MLS fan should be OK with that fact.  We should rather be focused on making MLS as successful as we can, understanding the market we are in.  That is an important point to make, we aren’t in Europe where soccer is the most popular sport by a landslide, where merchandise and TV deals are negotiated in billions, not millions of dollars.  We can either spend all our time wondering why we aren’t as popular as the EPL, or trying to beat the NBA or NHL for fans, or we can focus on doing the best with what we have.  I have been to NFL games, NBA games, MLB and NHL games, but I am a MLS fan, and have been since the league started, the reasons are simple.

First, I enjoy watching soccer and have since the days of the Minnesota Kicks, and my time in Europe.  I will watch it live when I can, and on TV as often as I can.  I disagree with Don Garber that there is too much soccer on TV, I do believe that the availability makes it harder for MLS to get a TV foothold, which they need to generate more TV revenue.  I however think the solution is to continue improving the product of MLS to compete better with other televised leagues; this is going to be tough next year when NBC Sports starts broadcasting EPL matches.

Second, I love the atmosphere and fan experience of soccer, something MLS is starting to get. Now the early days at the Horseshoe in Columbus or the Cotton Bowl in Dallas were rough, but now more and more MLS fans are showing up in supporter groups (both authorized and none) in numbers to support their home team with chants and songs in the stadium, by making road trips, and by creating a vibe that is unique among sports in the United States.  I am lucky as a RSL fan that the fan experience is unique in our small market where players, staff and fans have a relationship that is only really able to be described as the “RSL Family”.  Some markets like Portland and Seattle have huge supporter groups that do large TIFO displays before matches, others like Sporting KC and Columbus have growing groups that provide their teams with incredible home support.  It is something that takes time for fans to understand, as this is something unique in US sports, the only real similarity is the alumni and student groups in colleges.

So how do we make MLS more popular, how do we make it grow?  Well if you look at the numbers over the last decade, we know that MLS simply hasn’t caught on with the national TV crowd for whatever reason, and we know that growth in attendance is largely part to expansion and more matches being played.  Now before you get all puffy chested on me, understand those are league wide averages, some teams have grown their ticket base well, Seattle has done a great job, Sporting KC as well, even FC Dallas which has struggled since their move to Frisco has seen a real uptick, and RSL is doing well with over 10,000 season ticket holders.  Other markets have seen numbers go down, with no more clear example than Chivas USA, but they aren’t alone the Chicago Fire and New England Revolution have struggled, and even in the most populated market in the US and with big name DP’s the New York Red Bulls have underwhelmed.  So what we have done has been a mixed bag of results, to me it is clear that just adding a sprinkling of high dollar/big name DP’s isn’t the solution, the days of giving away thousands of tickets just to get people out to the stadium is coming to an end (thankfully).

I am not sure what will work but here are a couple of ideas that I have come up with over the years:

  • Improve quality of play
    • Increase Salary Cap – cap goes up 5% per year, players get 5-15% minimum raises, this means teams can’t keep teams together.  I know that we aren’t going to get rid of the salary cap, but I would like to see it go up more, how about 500K a year until we get to 5 million, then base increase on league and team revenue?
    • Increase minimum salary – I refuse to believe that MLS believes they can attract the best young talent in the US or from anywhere else with a minimum salary that is almost equal to the minimum wage.   You can’t convince me that $35,125.00 is in the best interest of anyone, the average starting wage for someone with a bachelor’s degree is about $45,000 a year.  I suggest that we jump to $45,000 a year and increase that 5K a year until it hits $70,000 a year and then increase are tied to league and team revenue.
    • Continue to improve officiating – I know for a lot of fans we question if PRO has paid off yet, and I would be hard pressed to say yes, but change takes some time.  I believe we are headed in the right direction.
    • Flush out details of USL-Pro relationship – I think this is a huge thing for MLS and I can’t wait to see how it all works out but I think it is a great step in filing the gap between the academies and MLS.  I would love to see this partnership eventually become bigger with MLS/SUM helping USL-Pro with marketing and sales efforts.  Growing the sport at all levels will benefit MLS.
  • Improve TV relevance
    • Focus on rivalries – We have seen the attempt to focus on market size for more than a few years and it simply doesn’t work, so how about you take a lesson from your rivalry week and schedule one major rivalry match each weekend and promote it like you have the playoffs or Cascadia cup matches?  Will it work?  I don’t know but intense matches both on the pitch and in the stands seem like they would make for compelling TV.
    • Focus on players – We have a World Cup coming up (there is always a World Cup coming up), so why not do matches featuring those players?  I mean SKC’s Graham Zusi is a player on the rise and a great story, RSL’s Alvaro Saborio is as well.  There is more than Landon Donovan.  Promote their matches, do a halftime feature of a player who is in the next national TV match to promote it.
    • Weekly highlight/recap show – I don’t know how many people have asked for it, but it is one of the constants, it also helps you build up your players and teams by exposure.  Get a couple of good hosts who know the league (they don’t need an accent), my suggestion is someone like a Brian Dunseth, who knows the teams, the staffs, and players.  Make it a regular thing, and play it several times a week.
    • More, and more often – I know Don Garber said a couple of weeks ago that he thinks there is too much soccer on TV, not too much MLS, but rather he was talking that you can almost always find a match on TV if you look hard enough between Bein, Fox Soccer, ESPN/2, UniMas, or NBC Sports.  I think he is wrong about it, I think MLS needs more exposure, if you really believe that we have a world class product then don’t be afraid of competition, embrace it.
    • MLS TV – I know it is probably a stretch, but if we can’t get the coverage we want with the current networks out there.  If you can’t convince them to do highlight/recap shows, and player profile programs (the MLS 36 were great last year).  Then maybe it is time to take ownership of your product and do it yourself.  Now this would require a huge investment from current owners and investors, but maybe that is what it will take.  Imagine a hour long show for each team in the league, in addition to live matches, replays, heck you could even buy rights for the US Open Cup, broadcast reserve matches, academy tournaments.
  • Embrace the fans
    • Stop Segmenting – Over the years I have seen MLS focus their marketing on, Soccer moms, and then the Hispanic market, and most recently they have turned to the Supporters culture to try and grow the fan base and show relevance.  I say stop, don’t try to segment your fans, embrace them all and realize they are all different.  You have a product that is simply different from other sports offerings, it isn’t for everyone.  I have found that people who come to a match enjoy the environment as much as the match, embrace that by doing more prematch stuff to get fans to the stadium and then in their seats for the start of matches.
    • Swearing will exist, deal with it – For the last several  years I have watched MLS and in proxy their teams take varied approaches to stamping out the “YSA” chant, of course the entire time MLS and their TV partners have pointed their mics right at the fans most likely to chant that.  I would think muting that mic for the 5-10 seconds of opposing goals kicks might be a better strategy to deal with it.  Now I understand swearing exists at all sports venues, but MLS has a unique issue of trying to deal with hundreds or thousands of fans all swearing the same thing at the same time.  I get it is problematic for TV, and for some families, but guess what it is a part of the culture of MLS, and unless you want to kick out the very core of your fanbase you need to learn to deal with it.  Or you can implode over it, see the Fort in New England for an example of what could happen elsewhere.  This is not your biggest issue, stop trying to make it your biggest issue.
    • Transparency – Unlike most professional sports leagues in the US or around the world, you are a single entity.  This means you control almost all the information about your league, and so far you are far too tight with the info for most fans.  When you do things that fans don’t understand it is easy for them to speculate on favoritism, things like allocation money, how generation Adidas players are selected, and other things simply make MLS seem much more mysterious than it should.
    • Make it easy to be a fan – Soccer is an easy sport to understand, do PSA at matches to explain the laws of the game.  Simplify the schedule, going from unbalanced & random, to balanced, to unbalanced & static in the last 5 years confuses fans.  Decide on your playoff format and stick with it, again in the last 5 years they have been multiple variations of who gets in, who plays how, how often they play.  Figure it out and stick with it, stop confusing fans.   Also, referee calls should never be a tie breaker for anything, to judgmental.   Along those lines, get rid of most goals scored as a tie breaker, stick with overall goal differential, then road goal differential, then home goal differential, then flip a damn coin.   Rewarding only goals scored demeans the work of defenders and goal keepers, the game is played on both sides of the ball

 

Now I get that not everyone will agree with me, I get that not all these things are something that can happen overnight.  This is by no means an exclusive list, I didn’t mention turning ownership over to the owners instead of the league, and many other things.

I do believe that MLS can be a successful league, but I measure success a bit differently than most.  I want a league that has teams competing for the CONCACAF title every year, I want a league that invests in the US Open Cup, I want a league that invests in their players, their communities, and their fans.  I don’t want the NFL or the NBA, with overinflated salaries and ticket prices where their market is corporations more than fans.  I don’t need the EPL, or La Liga, but I do want a league that provides a high level of entertaining soccer to their fans.

That’s How I See It

2 comments

  1. Mike says:

    I’m a mid 30’s new soccer fan and found your article by dumb luck. I think this a great write up. One thing I would add is for more teams to try to build soccer specific stadiums. I’m a DC United fan and wish they could get out of RFK. It really sets a better environment having a 18, 000 stadium near full instead of a near empty 45, 000 seater. It shows better on tv. Great article though. I’m glad I became a soccer fan…. I can’t believe it took me so long.

  2. admin says:

    the soccer bug can take some time to get around but I firmly believe the live experience of a MLS match is the best way to convert people into being fans. I agree that having a stadium who’s primary purpose is the soccer team is a huge thing for many clubs, both for revenue but also for team identity. The fact that their isn’t a stadium for DC United yet is one of the issues MLS has to deal with.

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