Even if you haven’t filled out your NCAA Tournament bracket (or five) yet, you are probably still aware that there’s some big college basketball tournament about to explode onto several networks today. Colloquially it is known as “March Madness”.
In recent years there have been articles written about the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup characterizing it at the “March Madness of American Soccer“. As much as there is a valid comparison in the structure of the two tournaments, it’s the execution that makes it ring hollow.
Serious fans of the Open Cup look at the way it is handled by the sanctioning body, US Soccer, and will immediately start shaking their heads.
The NCAA basketball tournament wasn’t always this big, but at some point the NCAA convinced CBS that it could be marketed as the exciting free-for-all it has become. The tournament is now marked by upsets, and the wall-to-wall coverage of every game on CBS, TBS, TNT, and TruTV is a sports bar’s dream.
The Open Cup has upsets, that’s for sure. But MLS teams seem to fear the upsets, which often come at the hands of NASL, USL, or worst of all, amateur teams. Instead of embracing the idea that the upset as a marketing tool, many MLS teams take the tournament as an unnecessary add-on to their hectic schedule. In the past they could easily field a reserve team, and therefore a loss to a lower division team would be excused. It also meant fewer fixtures down the road.
This aspect is changing, with MLS reserve teams now included in the US Open Cup. It’s much more difficult for a team to simply sit the first team and call on the reserve bench. Most of their reserve teams will Cup-tie their players.
Then one looks at the coverage. Televised soccer matches are still gaining the trust of network executives, but clearly when ESPN, FOX, and Univision are willing to spend big on MLS, there is some room to sell soccer fans on the US Open Cup.
As such, there have been rumors that FOX has furthered their relationship with US Soccer and gained access to the US Open Cup Final. This should be a clear upgrade from GolTV, which lacked the resources to produce a high-quality presentation of the last three championship matches.
But if the Open Cup is to grow to become soccer’s “March Madness”, as some have marketed it to be, you need those earlier rounds on television. Obviously it would be impossible to broadcast every single match on network television, but even two-three matches per round (as FOX does for the FA Cup) would be a significant investment towards building the presence of this tournament.
The other thing you will notice about the NCAA basketball tournament is how the matches revolve around the weekend. From the second round on, the matches are held Thursday through Sunday, which is much more convenient for fans who want to attend matches.
The US Open Cup is held midweek, to avoid cutting into league weekends. While this does make MLS’s job of scheduling easier, it also leads to empty grandstands (it may also temper networks’ interest in the event).
Those who have followed the USOC in recent years have seen some excellent strides taken by US Soccer. This is not meant to denigrate those changes. Getting rid of the blind bidding for home field advantage and eliminating the qualifiers for MLS teams have greatly enhanced the integrity of the competition.
It also sounds like USSF will take a more hands-on approach to the tournament starting in 2016. If that means that they will take a more serious approach to promoting this tournament to the public, then that’s a great development. There hasn’t been a whole lot of discussion as to the implications of this change.
I definitely hope we can see the USOC progress to one day be a tournament that enjoys the attendances of “March Madness”. The NCAA tournament wasn’t an overnight success, and the US Open Cup won’t be either. Still, it took a lot of persistence and hard work on the part of the network (CBS) and the sanctioning body (the NCAA).
In the spirit of seeing the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup become a rousing success, FOX and the USSF need to step up their game.
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