Amid Struggles, MLS Finds Ways to Transcend the Curve
Consider the implications of Major League Soccer’s Disciplinary Committee – the league’s implicit acknowledgement that decisions on the field need not be sacrosanct. In the Information Age, the willingness to review the league’s most controversial plays shouldn’t be novel, but in the broader soccer culture, MLS is ahead of the curve.
Violent conduct need never go unpunished. Diving? Leg-breaking tackles? Or Chelsea-esque ‘mass confrontation’ of officials? For MLS, these are credibility issues – solvable problems that need not interfere with the league’s ability to make its case in a less tradition-driven landscape. When millions of dollars are being spent on skill players to improve the product, it would be paradoxical to ignore other less expensive, more accessible solutions.
It’s an example of one of MLS’s more intriguing virtues: A freedom from tradition that allows the league to distinguish itself on a number of fronts. If the league had 100 years of history, it would be difficult to overcome a “this is how it’s always been” mentality – the type of logic that’s left Major League Baseball to fester as an impotent anachronism. While critics laud the immutability of the game and point with derision to comical innovations like MLS’s early era shootouts, a new, more modest approach that acknowledges the game’s core sanctity see the league ask “why can’t we tweak at the edges?”
Take adopting vanishing spray – a relatively established tool that saw parts of the World Cup-watching world stare jaw slacken, as if watching through a cobwebbed room of vulcanized rubber balls. Throughout the Americas, the technology started to take hold six years ago, making it easy for MLS to adopt its use in 2011. But given the Anglicized nature of U.S. soccer culture, that decision could have backfired. For too many issues, the way England goes about its business serves as a de facto standard. When it comes to something as beneficial as vanishing spray, MLS has elected to walk a different road.
The approach is something league executives might call a point of differentiation, though they usually reserve that term for bigger issues. Fan culture, game day experience, the new venues MLS is working to put in place – these help distinguish the league in a competitive sports landscape, the thinking goes. With concepts like the Disciplinary Committee and vanishing spray, MLS also embraces an early adopter’s approach, one that differentiates it from much of the soccer world.
The culmination of all those distinctions can be seen in Kansas City, a market that was one of the league’s least attractive. While trying to survive at Arrowhead Stadium and CommunityAmerica Ballpark, the then-labeled Wizards were a relic of “MLS 1.0″, stuck in a world that fit neither an oversized NFL venue nor a stadium best suited for independent league baseball. But starting with the appointment of team president Robb Heineman in 2006, the franchise embarked on a reclamation project, one that hoped to leverage soccer’s distinctions.
The team’s new name would be Sporting Kansas City, a clear sign the franchise would align itself with a broader soccer culture. A fanbase whose loyalty had outstretched the team’s modest existence became a reference point for the team, with organizations like the Kansas City Cauldron showing that vibrant supporting culture exists beyond fawned-over versions in the Pacific Northwest. And with the opening of Sporting Park in 2011, the team (and league) had a jewel that highlighted what the growing league could offer.
Winner of multiple architectural awards, expandable beyond it’s modest 18,467 configuration, Sporting Park has become an emblem, not only because of fan-friendly features (clean sight lines, Internet access, and the ability to order concessions from your phone) but also for the ambiance, something that only comes through when you’re actually at the park. In the shade a stadium’s canopy that evokes the intimacy of a childhood blanket fort, every clap from the supporters’ section can ricochet throughout the ground. Harnessing that energy at one end, allowing the family feel to permeate elsewhere, Sporting Park has become an example of the balance between being family-friendly and promoting the authenticity the fans allow.
It’s a package that would be the envy of many major sports franchises – teams who are now the product of generations’ evolution. But whereas a bloated NFL has priced so many fans out of its venues and basketball’s events are becoming as cultural as they are athletic, MLS is opting for accessibility. The league hopes to differentiate itself as the game that still gets you out to the park.
Driving to Sporting Park from Missouri’s more populous Kansas City, you feel MLS’s journey unfold. Like venues in Foxborough, Bridgeview, Commerce, and Frisco, Sporting requires a small commitment, one that gets you to the other side of the Kansas-Missouri line. The location lacks that coveted downtown charm, and public transportation is not an option. Yet once you arrive, you see the league’s ability to redefine itself. An older team with the same drawbacks others have struggled to overcome has become an example of MLS’s potential.
It’s also an example that’s drawn the attention of MLS’s more established colleagues, ironic considering how far the league has to go. Yet even in these formative years, there are some obvious areas where MLS has differentiated itself. With venues like Sporting Park, the use of video review, and the willingness to engage both hardcore and family-driven fans, the fledgling league has shown it can transcend the curve.
Photo credit: Mark Shaiken