I feel sorry for MLS.
Sure, I think their business model is sort of wacky and elitist. Why can’t they just adopt promotion/relegation like the rest of the world? Why can’t they just have a single table with a balanced schedule? And salary caps? That’s almost contrary to the spirit of world soccer!
But still, I do feel sorry for them, for several different reasons:
1. They’re losing the TV war.
MLS is trying to do something that is very bold and difficult: They’re trying to create a new, globally important soccer league in 2013. To do that, they need money. To get money, they need TV networks. To get TV networks, they need fan attention.
It sounds simple, right? Just get some fan attention and the TV networks will pay big dollars to broadcast your games and you use the money to buy the best players. Soon you have a virtuous cycle and the Europeans are paying money to watch your games on their televisions. Ha….how about THAT!
And, it would be simple except for the era when MLS was trying to pull off this feat. When MLS started in 1996, the problem was the most Americans didn’t care about soccer. In 2013, Americans are interested in soccer, but find they can easily access comprehensive coverage of the superior leagues in England, Spain, France, Germany and Italy along with a smattering of Mexican, Scottish, Australian, Brazilian, Argentine and lower-level English games.
A typical Saturday can start with Rooney, RVP, Ozil and the other stars of the EPL, a noontime switch to Pirlo, Balotelli, Vidal, Buffon and other Italians, before a late afternoon of Zlatan, Cristiano, Falcao and Messi. If you watch that all day, those first touches in the New England – Sporting KC game look really grim. It’s like watching foosball. I mean….how much soccer can a man be expected to watch!
And if you squeeze in that MLS game on Saturday evening, when are you supposed to play FIFA? That Career Pro you’re working on in the Irish League isn’t going to build his attributes by himself!
2. The country is too large to have a lot of teams local to all large metro areas.
Wait… I hear you say that we should “support our local clubs.” We should be patriotic and support American soccer! But, the closest MLS club to my home in North Carolina is DC United. It’s 5 hours away by car. “But we’re probably expanding to Atlanta soon!” Except that Atlanta is 5 hours in the other direction. It would take less time to drive from Newcastle to London than for me to drive to an MLS game. And I don’t live in the boondocks. North Carolina is the 10th largest state in the USA with a population of ~10MM. That’s more than the combined populations of Wales and Scotland combined yet we do not have an MLS team and don’t seem to have any prayer of ever being awarded one.
Simply stated, to have a similar density of “top” clubs as a true footballing nation like England, Germany or Spain, the US would need ~100 powerful teams (and several thousand lower-league and semi-pro clubs in the lower divisions). We’re not even close to that.
3. Even the weather doesn’t cooperate with MLS.
The MLS schedule avoids the winter partially because winters in Toronto are cold. But because of this, they play games in the summer in Houston. The rumor mill suggests that MLS will soon expand to Miami and Atlanta. Have you ever been to Atlanta in July? It isn’t even pleasant to be a fan who sits still with a cold beverage in July to say nothing of the athletes who have to run for 90 minutes in that heat and humidity. When your league includes all of the United States and Canada, it is impossible to find a calendar that suits the entire geographical area.
None of this is to harangue MLS and to say they should adopt promotion/relegation or a single-table or the FIFA calendar. I’m just pointing out the bravery of a group that looks at all these massive structural challenges and still says, “Screw what these lower division clubs do… where they just try to build a local market… [Make a wanker gesture.] We are expanding to big TV markets! We’re going to build a global soccer powerhouse in the next 10 years!”
How can you not enjoy the spectacle of it all?
So, if you’re like me and occasionally find fault with so many things that MLS does, let’s at least keep in mind the challenges they face. It would drive people to drink. I surely wouldn’t want their job.
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