Playoffs Are Dead, MLS Just Doesn’t Know It Yet

TORONTO, ON - NOVEMBER 21: MLS Commissioner Don Garber (R) hands the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy to Captain Pablo Mastroeni  (L) of the Colorado Rapids who accepts it on behalf of the team in honor of their 2-1 overtime victory against FC Dallas during the 2010 MLS Cup match at BMO Field on November 21, 2010 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Abelimages/Getty Images)

Now that 48 hours have passed since the 2010 MLS Cup, it’s time to face reality and that is that the MLS Playoff system is broken and dead. It’s a joke. Absolutely meaningless. And needs to be completely revamped so it isn’t the way of crowning the MLS champion. Or the playoffs need to be eliminated entirely.

In the most successful year for soccer in the United States in the history of the sport, more people than ever watched the sport on US television. Yet, in the same year, MLS TV ratings dropped 12% for the regular season on ESPN. And the final was one of the lowest overnight TV ratings for more than ten years. Something is absolutely wrong with Major League Soccer and there needs to be massive changes to overhaul this league and turn it into a winning formula. The league and the sport in this country cannot afford for MLS to sink any lower. However based on MLS Commissioner Don Garber’s comments during half-time of the MLS Cup Final, he’s digging a deeper hole by deciding that the playoff system will be expanded next season from eight teams to ten.

In August, Garber’s contract was extended to 2014. According to an article in Sports Business Journal, the MLS owners expect Garber to improve the league in the following three areas:

  1. TV ratings,
  2. New media business,
  3. Quality of play.

These are three areas that are definitely in much need of improvement by Garber. To make a positive difference with the TV ratings, even if some of the TV rights are acquired by Versus, will require significant changes to the way the league operates. Having a MLS Cup Final on a Sunday night with an 8:55pm ET kick-off is going to be a ratings disaster even if it would have been LA Galaxy and New York Red Bulls in the final. But the biggest difference needed of all is to blow up the current idea of a playoff system. To improve TV ratings during the regular season, games need to be more meaningful. If you, as a soccer fan, know that only the team that finishes on top of the single-table league is crowned MLS champion, you’re going to want to see your team fighting for that spot throughout the season. Every game matters.

Taken by itself, I’m not a hater of the playoff system. It’s exciting. And it’s intriguing, especially when teams upset bigger teams in the rounds of games. But it should not be used as a system to crown a champion. It should be used as an end-of-the-season qualification tournament to determine who gets a spot in the CONCACAF Champion’s League group stage. The winner of the single-table regular season can be crowned MLS Champion, while the winner of the playoffs can be crowned MLS Cup Champion.

Fixing the playoffs will greatly improve the TV ratings, but that’s just a start. The times and days when the games are played needs to be revisited so they’re more consistent (so people know when to expect to see a game on TV). Plus they need to consider more Saturday night games at a time that works for both the east coast and west coast of the United States.

As for new media business, most of us remember that the launch of MLSSoccer.com was a complete and utter disaster. Garber doesn’t fill me with a lot of confidence that MLS will be able to succeed in new media business, but hopefully he’ll prove me wrong.

As for quality of play, most of us know that it needs to be vastly improved especially when the TV viewing audience has a choice of picking any major soccer league from around the world to watch on their TV set or computer. There definitely has been a wave of shining stars who are coming through the ranks. There are a lot of youth players who are very promising. And the MLS teams are doing better in the CONCACAF Champions League. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, but still a lot of hard work is required.

Major League Soccer finds itself at a critical crossroads for the future of the sport in this country. It’s coming off a MLS Cup Final that few people on television or even in Toronto cared about. The number of teams are growing, but TV ratings are dropping through the roof. It’s time for change and it’s time for Major League Soccer to make some significant changes which will win over the soccer fans in this country. For far too long MLS has tried to appease the casual American sports fan with a system of playoffs that is comfortable and palatable to them. At the same time that they do that, MLS upsets the traditional soccer fans who see the majority of the world adopting a different system to crown their champions which seems more fair and balanced. By playing it down the middle, MLS upsets people on both sides of the fence. And that’s where we are today.

So instead of seeing a continuing decline in TV ratings for the next few years, MLS needs to act now and change to survive and grow.

I was disheartened Sunday night when I heard Garber mention that they will take the next 1-2 years to research and investigate more significant changes to MLS such as adopting an international calendar. It was a cop-out answer. Something to satisfy both the critics and FIFA at the same time. But it was completely against everything MLS has ever said in the past. Instead of white lies and focus groups, MLS needs to embrace the hardcore soccer fan in the United States by making changes, killing the current playoff system and moving forward with changes that will reinvigorate the game in this country.

Whether they will or not, we’ll have to wait and see. Don Garber’s contract has another four years left on it, so all we can do is live and hope.

148 Comments

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