Monday, May 5, 2008

A Response: Top 10...Ways to Save Major League Soccer (Part 2)

Last week, I carried on the discussion started by The Sherm on Major League Soccer and its current status on the sports landscape. The title of The Sherm’s post was Top 10…Ways to Save Major League Soccer, and my immediate response was, well, soccer certainly doesn’t need “saving” in this country. Perhaps as little as seven or eight years ago that would have been the case, but it is not so now.

However, MLS is at what a lot of people see as a make or break juncture in its existence. David Beckham is in good form with the Los Angeles Galaxy and regularly drawing sell-out crowds. D.C. United just signed a front-of-jersey sponsorship deal with Volkswagen which will enable the team to rake in around $3.7 million annually and will make Volkswagen MLS’ major auto sponsor. These major steps forward must carry the league to the next plateau.

The Sherm’s Top 10 list was very interesting. For someone who has a familiarity with the game and the league but isn’t a die-hard like myself, some of the ideas were eye-opening, while others were downright implausible. Here is my response to his Top 10 and some of my ideas as well.

1. Reality TV show – This has already been done in a Spanish-language format. The show is called “Sueno MLS”, which translates to “MLS Dream.” While I think this is a good idea, you have to consider it this way. With MLS trying to gain credibility on the world stage (which many feel will attract more fans at home), how does it look if one of Chivas USA’s Starting XI won his spot through a reality show? A little “Mickey Mouse,” no?

2. Market Individual Players – Agreed here. MLS must do a better job of this. There are some very marketable, young American players in this league and you don’t really hear about anyone other than David Beckham. Some names: Jozy Altidore, Sacha Kljestan, Stuart Holden.

3. MLS teams vs. Premier League Teams – This has been tried and will continue into the foreseeable future. The problem here is that these are exhibition games and usually the Premier Leauge team is just starting their pre-season training. Plus, people come to the games to see the world-renown clubs and couldn't care less about the MLS team. It doesn’t do well for the league, even if the MLS team wins.

4. Bring Known Players to the League – Definitely a major focus of the league and something they should continue to pursue. The idea here is to get them while they can still play at a high level. At this point, a guy like Zinedine Zidane is 35…too old.

5. Bring a European-Based Team to MLS – Interesting theory, definitely displaying some “out of the box thinking” by The Sherm, but it would never work. Logistically it’s a nightmare. How many transatlantic flights would that team have to make?

6. Have a Community-Owned Team – While this probably won’t happen in the near future, the spirit of the idea is what’s important here. Get the fans involved! Make them feel like an important part of their clubs.

7. Make Soccer a One Day Event – This is very important. Other than ESPN’s Prime Time Thursday game, every MLS game should be played on Saturday night. Other than the odd baseball game here and there, Saturday night is the least congested sports night of the summer. Usually the Sunday afternoon and other mid-week games are very poorly attended.

8. Make Tickets Cheaper – When all teams are in their own stadiums, they will be better able to control prices. But teams like New York and New England, who pay handsomely just to use the football stadiums they play in, need to keep prices at a certain level so they don’t lose millions upon millions of dollars.

9. Player Meetings Before Games – Great idea here. A lot of teams are pimping out their players and should continue to do so.

10. Mic Up Players/Coaches/Refs – A very good idea, though ESPN usually overdoes this sort of thing and ruins the game. They can barely get sideline reporting right. I can’t tell you how many times they’ve gone to a useless report or interview and a goal has been scored or a penalty kick awarded. These moments are what make soccer the beautiful, tense game it is! 99% of a broadcast’s focus needs to be on the game and the game only. Look at telecasts from England, Spain, Italy. Nothing on the periphery. Just soccer, how it should be.

So there are my responses to The Sherm’s ideas. Here are two of mine, very quick.

Promote the U.S. Open Cup – And the crowd goes, “Huh?! What in God’s name is the U.S. Open Cup?” This is where I direct you to Wikipedia. Yes, MLS’ main focus should be its own league, but this tournament should be seen as a big asset. Every European league, and most leagues in the world, have “Cup Competitions” that take place during the season outside of league competition. The most well-known international competition is the UEFA Champions League, and the oldest domestic Cup Competition is England’s Football Association (FA) Cup. The U.S. Open Cup could really become soccer’s NCAA tournament. People in America love upsets and the U.S. Open Cup provides them.

Increase the Salary Cap – The league has seen marginal improvement of the quality of play over the last few years, but this has been hamstrung by the ridiculously low salary cap (around $2.3 million this year). Give MLS teams the resources to compete for players on the open market. Enable them to bring in young players in their primes, not just aging stars or unproven kids. Many players in Europe have expressed interest in coming to America (Thierry Henry and Didier Drogba among them), but the money keeps many of them away.

Sorry for the long post. With the Rangers eliminated from the playoffs, you can expect continuing soccer talk from me on the blog in the future. Til then, happy freaking!


rma said...

Great post. I think another thing that MLS has done well is encouraged the development of soccer specific stadiums. Packing 18,000 fans into a 20,000 seat stadium makes the atmosphere way more exciting than having the same crowd in an NFL stadium. My suggestion for improving the league is simple: no more artificial surfaces!

Cap said...

Finally, a post about soccer that is level headed, thoughtful and realistic. I like your thoughts and have many of the same opinions, you're right...the MLS doesn't need saving, but could use some tweaking. Getting on page with the FIFA calendar and not have games on dates of international match fixtures would be a start.

And I'd love to increase the salary cap, but it's a fine line they're walking already since MLS teams don't turn a profit. I agree that it has to go up, but slowly and steadily. You don't want to spend your way into a black hole just as the books are beginning to level out.

Mark said...

When you said the Rangers were eliminated from the playoffs, you meant Texas Rangers, right?

Xavier Hutchinson said...

RMA and Cap...thanks for the kind words. Specifically cap: Getting on the FIFA calendar is something that may not help the league because of two things; 1)congestion in the American sports calendar and 2) the weather. However, the CONCACAF Champions League will be taking place more in line with the FIFA calendar, meaning MLS teams will basically be playing matches year round. I think this is a good thing!

Also, I know the salary cap needs to be low for now, but eventually a bump to $4-5 million per team needs to take place, as well as giving teams the leeway to sign two Designated Players. A mix of well-known veterans and rising stars is the way to go right now for MLS until the youth academies start producing stars...but that won't happen until at least a decade or two down the line.

And Mark - I'm posting about MLS. You think it's farfetched that I'd be a hockey fan, too?

Anonymous said...

I have to disagree with you about having MLS games one day per week. While I can see how attending a Saturday night game would be great for the fans, It's not for me. I don't get any local team broadcasts in my area and I'm not quite into forgoing any other Saturday night plans to watch whichever teams are on the national broadcast. However, I'm usually home on Thursday night and willing to watch whatever game is on. Plus, all the other leagues around the world spread games out over a few days every weekend. Shoot even the NFL does it.

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