We’ve read for many years that a “traditional” calendar will never work in Major League Soccer. Stadium issues, weather and competition from other sports forces MLS to play over the summer.
After many years of defending that policy, I have to the realization that for once (and only once) Sepp Blatter may be on to something. The MLS calendar is misaligned not only for FIFA and world football, but for the best marketing possibilities here at home.
Let’s start with the Football side of things as they stand now
Transfer schedules are misaligned.
- The ability to take young players on loan from top European clubs is limited
- MLS struggles in the later stages of CONCACAF competitions because it is pre-season.
Now let’s lay out the marketing side of things.
MLS ends its season competing with the NFL and College Football
- The MLS playoffs get in some key markets less ink and lower attendance than early regular season games that compete with sports that generate less in the way of TV viewership and media coverage
- MLS plays through the summer when many Americans take family holidays and tune out sports.
The obvious retort to the idea of moving the calendar is that the weather is too brutal in Chicago, Toronto and Boston to play through the winter. I respond that the schedule can be framed strategically to avoid these troubles.
Playing through the summer has caused weather problems. Constant thunderstorms and violent weather in Washington, low attendance in steamy Dallas, the folding of the two Florida franchises, no other southern presence.
Football is difficult to play in the South during summer, just as it is difficult during winter. It’s also dangerous in the summer: As a Manchester City supporter, my mind often harkens to Marc Vivian Foe’s tragic death at the 2003 Confederations Cup, when temperatures were over a hundred degrees Fahrenheit in France.
The failure of many northerners to take into account weather in the Dallas as contributing factor to the poor attendance at Pizza Hut Park is nothing new: in all aspects of society people living in the Northeast tend to think all of America should think and look like they do and if they do not, then they are doing something wrong. After all, if Boston’s side cannot play in the winter, Dallas’ side must be the same, or at least should be.
My solution to MLS’ geographic imbalance towards the north would be simple. A setup, where the season runs August to November, breaks and returns in late February and concludes in late May or early June.
This would also allow MLS to conclude its season up against the Major League Baseball and even the NBA Playoffs which get lower cable TV ratings than College Football, the NFL and the end of NASCAR’s season. This would provide the largest potential audience for the MLS playoffs, while properly aligning the league with the top championships in Europe for transfer and loan purposes.
Before I get accused of euro snobbery, let me remind our readers that I DO NOT subscribe to either the single table or balanced schedule schools of thought for MLS, and actually think a single table would be damaging to the league’s development.
Here is why:
I believe, Football throughout much of the world is about regional rivalries and derby matches. That’s where a lot of the passion comes from. USL’s First Division has tried a single table format for the last few years and it has, in my opinion been a complete failure, as clubs are forced to track cross country and play teams 3,000 miles away as often as the club around the corner. Perhaps this helps to explain why so many USL First Division clubs either fold or want to bolt the league. Single table works in England because the distance from London to Manchester is similar to the distance from Houston to Dallas, Miami to Tampa, New York to Boston and closer than LA to San Francisco.
MLS needs to cultivate local rivalries and derbies, while reducing the amount of travel cross country which not only affects budgets but quality of play. The English pundits who watch MLS and claim the league is “slow” fail to account for the sheer size of this nation and the amount of travel within MLS (even though the nation’s most populated region, the Southeast, lacks a team within its borders, though DC United is just across the river from Virginia). These same pundits also fail to account for the climate in summer throughout the US lends itself to slow possession football.
My solution to MLS calendar would be to realign the schedule August to May, with a break in order to align with the best marketing potential and transfer/loan possibilities and to further develop conferences and divisions much like the Primera Division in Mexico has done. Promote regional rivalries and supporters groups to travel to as many away matches as possible. A single table with teams flying cross country constantly (like USL-1 currently) does not achieve this goal.