Thursday, May 1, 2008

A response: Top 10...Ways to Save MLS (Part 1)

Above: Toronto FC's home stadium, BMO Field, packed to the rafters. Toronto sells out every home game and when the home team scores, the atmosphere is akin to a Premier League game. No joke.

My esteemed colleague The Sherm posted some very interesting ideas in his first Top 10 posting on how to save America's fledgling soccer league, MLS. I'm here to tell you that MLS certainly does not need "saving."

Now, does MLS need to get its act together and capitalize on the burst of popularity of soccer in this country that has been going on basically since the U.S. National Team's storied 2002 World Cup run to the Quarterfinals? A burst which has been bolstered by a growing immigrant population that is largely Hispanic and soccer-mad? Absolutely. But, it has already taken steps to do that. Growth has been slow and steady, and that is exactly what MLS Commissioner Don Garber wants.

In 2007, MLS instituted its "Game First" initiatives. This included improving everything from pre-game presentation (teams walking on to the pitch side-by-side in single files, no flashy introductions, to a league anthem), to team images (no more sponsorship on uniforms unless it is front-of-jersey sponsorship, i.e. no more ridiculous looking SPRITE logo on the New England Revolution's shorts) to monitoring of referees to make sure the game is called consistently. The goal of "Game First" was to make MLS look more traditional. To get it in line with the world's top leagues. It was designed to bring in more traditional fans, rather than cater to the typical American fan or the soccer mom and family crowd. To some extent, it has worked.

The other alteration that the league made was to its salary structure, by adding the Designated Player rule (the Beckham Rule, as it were), enabling teams to bring in one player at a high salary but only have a fraction of it count against the salary cap. Since the institution of the rule, world-renowned players such as David Beckham, Juan Pablo Angel, Cuauhtemoc Blanco and Claudio Lopez have brought some credibility to the league.

Another sign that the league is moving in the right direction is the recent trend of expansion. Seattle will get an MLS team in 2009 and already has sold 12,000 season tickets (years ago, 12,000 was some teams' average attendance). Philadelphia will play in 2010 and have plans to build an 18,000 seat stadium which will probably be sold out for every home game.

MLS, in its teen years (2008 marks the league's 13th season), is still going through puberty however. The Kansas City Wizards and the expansion San Jose Earthquakes play their home games in former minor league baseball stadiums. Teams like the New York Red Bulls, Real Salt Lake and New England Revolution are using football stadiums and fans often have to deal with the aesthetic nightmare that is playing soccer on a field marked for American football (though NY and RSL have soccer-specific stadiums currently under construction...RSL's opens later this year, NY's sometime in 2009). The salary cap stands at a paltry $2.3 million, hamstringing every team in terms of depth and the ability to bring in more than one premier player. Often, people around the world, especially in elitist Europe look at MLS as a Mickey Mouse league. It has done well to fight that perception, and certainly the improved quality of play says otherwise, but it still has quite a way to go.

In Part 2 of this post, I'll respond directly to The Sherm's Top 10 and also list my ideas for how to market the league. One thing is for sure, though. American soccer isn't going anywhere.

Click for Part 2...

(Click The Sports Freakers for more good stuff)


Anonymous said...

Is there a link to this list that Sherm has?

Anonymous said...

Here's a fun list I found today, Top 10 Ways to Improve the game of baseball

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