Four teams — two from the Premier League, two from Major League Soccer — meeting in a mid-summer, trans-Atlantic, trans-federation battle. And we’re not just talking about random teams that volunteer for the task. No, we’re talking about a partnership between MLS and the EPL, one that would see each circuit’s league and cup winners descend on New York each summer, creating a fan, television and marketing bonanza.
Chelsea and Arsenal. LA Galaxy and DC United. For so many Premier League-loving MLS fans, what could possibly be better?
In this case, the right answer is the obvious one: Games that actually matter.
Today in Manchester, at a SoccerEx expo that gives soccer bigwigs a chance to showcase their TedTalks, MLS commissioner Don Garber not only repeated his “league of choice” goal to pull his league level with England and Spain, he also floated an idea that would have MLS start to take a big, bolder role in the growing summer exhibition circuit.
“We have been talking to the Premier League about doing some sort of official competition as opposed to just having clubs come over to the country on a random basis playing in a tournament that takes place every summer …
“I would love to find a way that we could play our cup champion and our league champion against an FA Cup and league champion in a tournament and play it in New York City every year…”
If not every year, then every four years, he said. And if not England’s champions, then maybe Mexico’s, or another league’s. I don’t know. I’m just spitballing here.
Only with Garber, nothing is ever spitballing. A consensus-maker, somebody that values cultivating cooperation within his group, Garber rarely lets something like this out unless it’s been hashed out among his council. This may just be a trial balloon, but it’s certainly one that’s been floating around small rooms in MLS HQ for some time. Else, the idea wouldn’t have seen the light of day.
In that way, this is more than Garber taking the stage at SoccerEx’s open mic night. It’s very much a request for comment. With that in mind, allow us to react: While this doesn’t seem like a bad idea, it doesn’t seem like a particularly innovative one, either, and the costs of trying to impose an “official competition” on a league already struggling to balance scheduling concerns could be annoying.
Like it or not, mid-summer friendlies are here to stay. Big European clubs love coming to the United States, promoters and venues love selling tickets to see them, and devoted fans with little access to teams and players in Europe get a rare glimpse of their favorite stars. Scene after scene of parents taking their toddlers to this games, pointing to Real Madrid and Barcelona talents like they’re rock stars on tour, should convince anybody that there’s value in these games.
But why does MLS feel the need to up the ante? Garber didn’t explain, but the reasoning may be tautological. MLS wants in because it is a big deal, and because it is not going away, and while Soccer United Marketing (MLS’s marketing arm) play a huge role in bringing in European super clubs, there’s still space in the market. So if MLS can dominate that space by having an official, showcase event — one it can argue is not only official but part of a partnership — then, theoretically, it can have the upper hand in that market.
To a certain extent, it has worked with the All-Star Game. What was once a format-morphing Ambien analog has become a showcase event, with the likes of Bayern Munich jetting its players in from a World Cup to be part of it just over a year ago. Manchester United, Chelsea – there is no team too big to be part of the showcase, one that gives MLS a cornerstone promotional week on its calendar. What the NBA All-Star Game is to winter, MLS’s event could, in time, be to the summer.
So this isn’t a question of whether MLS can make something out of nothing. It’s a question of whether that something will have anything of value. The league already has a marquee summer showcase. And its marketing arm is the major player in arranging summer friendlies for super clubs. Is there any value in piling on, upping the stakes by telling people it’s “official,” and repackaging something that already exists?
That’s for the fans to decide, but if they vote with their wallets and cast their support behind tickets, flights, hotel rooms and other tourism dollars, MLS can have an annual trademark even in its backyard. It can continue to try to rule New York, no matter how long that takes. And whether more exhibition games in the middle of the season make sense for hardcore fans who just want real soccer, the less critical fans that make up more of MLS’s target audience will have the ultimate sway.
But put yourself in the shoes of MLS’s schedule makers, already in one of the most difficult positions possible. The league plays a March-to-December schedule – fine. But some teams have to have open dates in the summer to have their own lucrative, irresistible friendlies. Those aren’t going away. Plus, the league wants to take U.S. Open Cup seriously. And CONCACAF Champions League, too. It wants to expand, but maintain something close to its current 34-game schedule, but it also wants more playoff teams, which means, eventually, a slightly longer postseason.
Now the league might take two teams — two teams more likely to go far in Open Cup, CONCACAF Champions League, and the playoffs — and, let’s say, pull them out of action for a week. Maybe the tournament format is like the Emirates Cup — two games over three day — but there’s no sense in doing this without promotional commitments. This isn’t just soccer; this is an event.
It’s an event the league can sell to television partners – potentially new ones. It’s a chance to put Steven Gerrard and Eden Hazard on a billboard in Times Square and have John Strong interview Garber in front of it. It’s a idea that could forge new relationships with coorporate partners all over the globe, because unless it’s a Euro or World Cup year, what else are those soccer fans doing each summer? Even then, there will always be an appetite to carry over that excitement into the new club season. If MLS can use the star power of Hazard and Ozil, Ronaldo and Messi, Ibra and Luiz to create a new summer classic? Well, it’s at least worth a shot.
But how do you think Bruce Arena, who complains almost annually about having to travel for U.S. Open Cup, will react to this? Especially since his team is unlikely to forgo those full-house friendlies they have each year at StubHub and the Rose Bowl. Think he’s going to enjoy a drop everything, fly cross country, bring his big names (because there are mics here, Bruce) and play two-in-three tournament. Knowing Bruce, I’m sure he’ll love it.
There seem to be two interlinked, otherwise non-issues that become a problem when ideas like this come up. First, MLS is not on a similar schedule to the teams that come over, meaning there will always be a second issue – a preseason-versus-in-season dissonance. Don Garber doesn’t want to move the schedule yet, which is fine, but this conflict is an externality. No matter how seriously MLS will want to take this event, the Chelseas and Arsenals of the world are still likely to play kids, while the Bruce Arenas of the world could bring out their benchwarmers.
In reality, there’s nothing wrong with that. You can’t have everything your way, and if a sacrifice of playing March-to-December means some exhibitions that don’t count in the standings get treated as, well, exhibitions, so be it. But it does bring us back to the obvious issue with Garber’s new idea: To what end? Living in a world where there will always be a ceiling on how popular these games can be, why double down, throw some weight behind a new tournament, when you’re not changing the realities of that world?
And ultimately, you have to consider the alternative. What if Major League Soccer just … didn’t? What if it just played actual games, in front of loyal home crowds, where the results matter in the standings? What if, instead of making your business model about diversions, you continued to crack that elusive but all-important nut: Getting people to care about the product the same way they care about the NFL or NBA; not one an event-to-event basis, but on a game-to-game, night-to-night basis. Implicitly, with every reach for a new event to deliver what fans want, there may be an acknowledgement that the league’s core product is still not strong enough.
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