Friday, September 12, 2008

Life for MLS - February 09, 2008

The MLS has existed for over 10 years now, but has yet to gain the respect of its American market. Commissioner, Don Garber has tried several reforms but they haven't been enough, and now Barclay's Premier wants to have each team play one game in the US. It looks as though the MLS is going down the drain until the LA Galaxy brought in world soccer celebrity, David Beckham, who was supposed to save the league, but besides the headline that his contract could max out at 5 years for 250 million (was only 50 million) he hasn't done much for the league. Beckham doesn't seem to be staying in the US for long as he has been training with Arsenal in the offseason. Soccer was been a world phenomenon ever since it’s invention around 2oo B.C. but hasn't become popular in the US. For those that soccer isn't in our blood, well most of our ancestors played soccer before coming to the US. Soccer was brought to South and Latin American where it was become a sensation. So isn't it possible that soccer can make it here; every time the FIFA world cup comes around, we become world class experts on our native country and follow the tournament like some sort of spectacle. There must be hope for soccer in the United States.
First of all, soccer is am industry and not sport. Like every other game played on this planet the point of it is to make money and not to just draw native fans who will love the team. The Europeans may think this is true but they also drive in cars the sizes of our closets. There must be teams sponsors like Red Bull with NY and Best Buy with Chicago. Local companies may work for starts but if the game expands and teams become more recognizable then bigger name corporations should outbid the smaller ones. As the companies market and advertise themselves they will also market the teams as fans will create a connection between the team and the company simultaneously marketing each other at the same time. This has worked in Europe as recognizable companies like AIG with Man U and Unicef with Barcelona. Also when marketing the league and its teams he must localize; you can’t sell NY to Iowa. Fans are going to have natural attractions to their native squads since most people in this country aren't frontrunners. Being a New York native, I can name all 25 players on the active Yankee roster but it would take me some time to think of several players on the Washington Nationals. As fans generate a greater knowledge of their local teams it will naturally correlate to knowledge about the league and other teams from checking of stats and standings. It is hard to sell the entire MLS at once but doing it on a gradual, local scale could work.
Next, he has to encourage American talent to stay in America. Whether it is from the North, Central, or South the players can come to the MLS as opposed to Europe if the they presented with similar sums of money. It will be okay to spend the mass sums of money to keep the players here rather than to let Americans go to Europe and show the inferiority of play and talent. It is obvious that Europeans are better since there is way more competition for youth soccer than here but if the players only play each other in International matches than it will become difficult to prove the weakness of our game. Players like Landan Donovan and Freddy Adu have been stars here but when going to Europe they have had trouble. If they never left then no one would know that our stars are second stringers on their clubs. Losing players like Eddie Johnson to Fulham and Clint Mathis to Ergotelis. Even though Mathis isn't that good he is still one of the most recognizable MLS players since his debut in Backyard Soccer. Point is the talent has to stay here. Also, the teams have to pay the price; Americans see price a correlation between quality and price so the more owners are willing to pay the better fans are going to think players are.
The teams have to be in good locations. There must be teams in soccer stations and other major sporting cities which will attract fans. Don Garber has recently given a list of cities he would like to have teams in which includes Atlanta, Las Vegas, a return to Miami, Montreal, a second team in New York in Queens, Philadelphia in the area of Chester, Portland, St. Louis in the area of Collinsville, and Vancouver. This list has to get done. If the league expands especially to these hot spots, ESPN will see an opportunity to raise more advertisement money as these regions are extremely specific with people on a certain mind track. Of the cities on the list St. Louis, Queens, and Miami must be hit as soon as possible. Queens and Miami are hosts of large numbers of Hispanic culture and could attract tons of fans. St. Louis is also a major city with one of the highest soccer playing percentages which is extremely surprising that the city doesn't have a team yet.
There must be promotion on America tournaments with US involvement. Have an all America tournament from Canada down to Argentina and Chile. Unify soccer on the continents so that South Americans will have a greater to urge to play in the MLS. Also try to develop a Champions League like tournament for the US. If the teams play each other than it will interest Latin and South American interest into the US just as the Champions League tournament draws interest into other countries in Europe to help identify competition. Model tournament after the ECC and EFA as they have been successful in Europe and could be for America.
A very important aspect of American culture is rivalries which is part of the reason that the MLS hasn't been successful. The MLS needs to create and promote rivalries in the MLS even if they need to be fake. A good start would be to have one between NE and NY. New Yorkers hate people from Boston just as it is the same way around. If fans find another sport to hate each other in they will find some sort of interest in it. Rivalry games also create more media coverage as well as fan interest in the game. The New York-DC United rivalry doesn't create much for the game as there isn't much hatred between the regions. There also needs to be player rivalries. One that may work would be Beckham vs. Reyna. Two players who have turned the corner, one with American blood and one with European. The rivalry may not work for what ever reason but there are surely players that dislike each other enough that could publicize it enough to create media for the MLS. Maybe create a "fight" between two captains outside of a bar which is "taped" and then put on YouTube a week before a game. ESPN would gladly air the clip and have Tommy Smyth analyze the game that no one intended to watch. Rivalries make the game better and attach the fans' hearts to the game.
The MLS also has to make their players' names household names. Whether or not people are fans there are players that everybody knows like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James in the NBA or Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in the NFL. The league must promote stars like Ching, De Rosiaro, Emilio, Angel, and Altidore. Most Americans can’t even identify who those players are, yet they are the best players in the sport. You can't expect fans to know second squad players. This may happen in Europe but in no sport are US fans attached to their development team players. Not in the MLB, NBA, or NHL; fans don't follow the real deal. The players need to be in the public eye. Have them date major celebrities or become contestant and guests on game shows; people just need to know their names, not their complete life stories.
An all-star game is intriguing but nothing is funnier to watch than a carefully planned Skills Challenge. If there is a Skills Competition that could be aired on ESPN2 then fans will watch and think that the "Street Soccer" is interesting. Fans will watch games in hope of seeing this in games. Include events like the best trick, the best shot, and a shoot out. Fans will find these fascinating and will love to watch them just as basketball fans love watching the NBA mini-games before the all-star game. It would also be fun to see players play a game on a smaller field where tricks on skilled plays are highly emphasized to induce fans.
The timing of the game will be essentially crucial for the game. The games should be played between after school hours and 7:00. If games start at 7:00 they will have to compete with baseball and basketball games which just wont work. The Americans will choose those sports over soccer any day. Plus the only competition in the sports category are reporter shows like PTI and Around the Horn. Real fans would rather watch a competitive game as opposed to sports reporters bantering about whatever they want. Also during soccer games there should be few commercials, and the ones that exist should be during game so fans don’t miss action. There is no reason to create TV timeout for throw ins and other dead ball situations. IF fans start watching they will fall into the action and before they know it they will have watched into Half time and will be thrilled to watch the second half. The game isn't boring, fans just don't know where and when to find the game. To help promote the league there should also be a MLS channel for cable. This channel should have live games, reruns, history, analysis, news, few specials; the costs of the channel should be kept low cost like NBA TV. NBA TV would be a great model since there probably isn't a lot of money put into the network and the channel always has something that will interest fans. A channel will help unify fans that want to watch American soccer. Avoid becoming like the NFL Network which probably costs more than it make. If fans want to watch it they should be able to and they is plenty of random information to place into the program.
Another reason the game isn't popular is because there is a very tight window of opportunity to play professional soccer for Americans. If there are more teams then there will be more opportunities so kids will stay with soccer. Kids don’t stay with soccer since there is small chance of making it to the MLS or Europe. IF there are more spots for kids to think that they could play professionally then more kids on second and third level youth teams will continue to play into college. This will increase competition helping to improve the American game as well as interest in the sport. Also unprofessional soccer must expand outside of the 3 NCAA divisions, NAIA, and PDL. Soccer teams should be as common as football and basketball teams.It would also be helpful associate yourselves with the PDL, USL-1, or USL-2 to increase the talent pool of players that didn't make the MLS but still have potential. If players on minor league associates are used on practice squads against pro-teams than the level of play will increase in the minor league escalating them to the level of second division teams in Europe.
The last and probably most important thing to help save soccer is to advertise the masculinity of the sport. The reason men don't continue to follow and play the sport is because of the unspoken gay stereotype around the sport. If men see the game as manly they will watch; the advertisements should have blood and dirty slide tackles in it to express the rough side of the sport. When guys see men running around after goal with their shirts off and hugging each other, they will be turned away. When people get hurt; Americans will be naturally drawn. Also women will be drawn because the game is guys in short shorts. If men watch, women will also be interested in watching for that inadverted sexual appeal. There is still life in the MLS, it is just going to take some effort.

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