Well time for the final 4 things that I think need to be changed over the next couple years to help the league improve and grow. Part 1 gave you my thoughts on roster sizes, the second division, and developing a youth system. In part 2 I offered up better pay, improved quality of play, and better promotion of the players and the league.
So what is left?
- Embrace the fans
- Reduction of League Control
- New Television Deal
- New Leadership
Embrace the Fans
So given what has happened in Toronto and Seattle, and is expected this year in Philly the league all of a sudden now are embracing supporter groups and believing that they hold a great value in the growth of the league. This is the latest approach by MLS that have been part of "the Don's" regime, first it was the attempt to embrace the family and get kids who play soccer to bring their parents and all of a sudden they would transform into season ticket holders. Well, the reality is that most families with kids who play soccer didn't become season ticket holders and the reasons are plentiful, time, money, and in the end a very small bump in overall attendance resulted.
Much more after the Jump:
The next play was to embrace the Hispanic soccer fans in America to convert them to MLS and turn them into season ticket holders, and again it ended with limited success. Really it went main stream with the creation of Chivas USA and the partnership with Galavision and then it went to Telefutura, the effort went so far as to become the main catchline of the league with "football, futbol, soccer" campaign. But it is clear that the large majority of Hispanic soccer fans in the US remain attached to leagues outside of MLS, be it Mexican league or one of the others in Central America. The evidence is that MLS created an tournament SuperLiga which features 4 MLS teams against 4 teams from Mexico but all the matches are only shown on Spanish language television. Yet still the ratings on TV are low and the team with one of the biggest names in Mexican soccer history Blanco, the Chicago Fire, had a mediocre home attendance with just 14,689 in 2009.
Now we have the league claiming to embrace the supporter culture, or are they just latching on to what appears to be the "hot new trend"? There have been supporter groups since the start of the league and perhaps no team is a better example than DC United, with the Screaming Eagles and La Barra, who are located in the best seats in the house right on the "50 yard line" but that is at RFK a monster stadium. What will happen if and when DC United get a SSS, will their front office give up prime seats to their supporter groups? Or will they follow the trend of the rest of MLS in relegating supporters to the ends of their stadiums? I like the approach of Seattle and Philly which have gone so far as to include standing, chanting, singing descriptions on their stadium maps, but both have still relegated their supporter groups to the "end zones" of their stadiums, is this to allow them to get cheap tickets? It may be but I think it is much more likely to keep them out of the hair of other fans.
It was just a couple months ago in Seattle when I listened to "the Don" tell the supporter summit how important their groups are, yet only 100 or so tickets were made available for travelling supporters of the two teams playing in MLS Cup and neither were in the first tier of seating at Qwest Field. Instead most of the travelling fans for both teams were forced to buy scalped tickets from Sounder season ticket holders, if they chose not to take that route they were sent to the 300 level of the stadium. I ventured up to those seats during warm ups and the players reminded me of the old electronic football game were you could see figures moving around but it sure was far from quality seating. So later in the day, I again heard him talk about how important supporter groups were so I braved a couple questions.
First was to ask him why travelling fans from Salt Lake and LA , the teams playing in the Cup were being relegated to the upper decks, of course his response was no they weren't and that they had 100 level seating. I knew this wasn't true but I knew he wasn't going to address the issue and I knew that the situation in Seattle was a unique one, as most stadiums don't have their entire lower bowl sold out to season ticket holders. I hope that in the future that the league understands that to honor the supporters of the teams playing in the MLS Cup, that each team should be allocated at least one full section in the lower bowl.
Next up was a question about would he require owners to create supporter sections where standing and cheering was not only allowed but encouraged, he said such sections already existed, but when I mentioned the treatment of the Colorado supporter groups since the team moved to Dick's Sporting Good park, he simply avoided the situation. It is interesting that this news hit the web last week: Rapids Announce Creation of New Supporters Terrace for 2010 and they priced these standing room only tickets at just $216 for season tickets after season of having supporter sitting clubs one has to wonder what really motivated such a radical move by the Rapids?
So I ended by asking if the league would come up with a plan to have teams designated away supporter sections like the teams in Europe, now I knew the answer would be no so I added a caveat to my question. Would the league require that teams hold a lower bowl section for away supporters until 10 days before the match, after which the team could sell those tickets to any interested fan? The question was basically ignored as it was clear that I had pushed some buttons that "the Don" wasn't comfortable with. I would still love to get an answer to that question, but for me it is clear that this is one of the many things that MLS must figure out if they are going to proclaim that they are pro supporter group. It also means that things like the leagues "Code of Conduct" might need to be adjusted to understand that "foul" language is a mighty hard thing to enforce. It means that just pointing to Big Soccer and linking to team run blogs isn't really establishing a "Supporters network". I am waiting to see what the league does, or if they leave this important issue at the discretion of the teams.
I don't doubt that "the Don" means well, but given the results of past efforts, I question what the results will be and how long it will take until they move onto another "effort".
Reduction of League Control
It is interesting how so many of these things are linked and perhaps nothing is bigger than this one point, if you consider that just now after 15 years of existence the league is turning control of team websites over to the teams, you can see the lengths of the current grip on the reigns of MLS. Now that doesn't mean that tight control and an incredibly strong league were not needed up to now, in fact I would say the opposite. I think the league was in real trouble and the solution was Don Garber (sorry it sometimes pains me to say that, not really). He installed a level of discipline and order to the league that turned things around from a league that was losing teams to one that has cities and owners lined up to pay ever increasing franchise fees to join the league.
In truth it is the success that Don has brought with his controlling leadership that is what causes me to believe that we are close to the time where that changes, and while all the major sports in the US operate with very dominating central leagues and commissioners, I believe soccer must be different. I believe that MLS should follow in the footsteps of Europe for long term success, that means a central organization that controls and negotiates things that impact the collective of teams, like national media contracts, league run tournaments, and league standard equipment (balls, goals, pitch sizes). Teams however should take over responsibility for things that are unique to individual organizations, player contracts and salaries, team merchandise and equipment deals, and local media contracts.
While we are still in the middle of the second extension of the CBA talks, one of the "big" issues of players is some type of free agency within the league and how rights are held by teams if a player leaves the league and then returns. With all the contracts being held by the league anything close to free agency, the ability for a player to seek a position with another team in the league, would be a disaster of conflict. Many of you deny the reality that the rules are bent or modified on a regular basis for some teams like LA, but that is a topic for another day, but imagine the league being approached by a good player on San Jose who wants to go to Seattle.
This player is a big name and would bring both improved TV ratings and merchandise sales for Seattle, but they are at their cap limit and the player couldn't get under their salary cap, would the league make an exemption? Would they claim that the players salary could be grandfathered and not count against the new teams salary cap? Why not they have done it before, so what would stop the league from deciding they have teams they think are more important to the brand of the league and stacking them with talent at the expense of other "less popular" teams? There would be nothing that could or would stop them. If each team owned the contracts of the players on their roster something like free agency would be much easier to work out.
New TV Deal
For me this is the easiest of the 10 things to see the clear need for and as the contracts all end within the next 4 years it simply seems like a no brainer, but wait it isn't that easy. See for me this isn't about getting just a bigger paycheck, hell we know that ABC/ESPN/Disney has deep pockets and has tossed money around Europe to grab rights to leagues with a much larger fanbase than MLS. For me this is about a partnership with the growth of the league at the heart of the deal, it is hard to get higher TV ratings when your major partner puts your events on midweek and then often doesn't show the start of the event to finish coverage of things like little league baseball, WNBA, or whatever else might be on their network.
I think Fox might be the right partner for a major shift in how MLS is covered and I say so because of their bold approach to the UEFA Champions League Final, which won't be shown on FSC, or FSC HD, Fox Movie Channel, or even cable powerhouse FX. No Fox is going to put it on their broadcast network, the same place the Daytonna 500, BCS Football, and other premier sports are shown. What is the difference you might ask, well FSC is part of a sports package available via cable/dishes but outside of their normal packages so you have so spend more to get that channel and a smaller number of people do that. So while FSC may be available in 10 million home (numbers are for the purpose of the example only), FX which is part of most base packages is available in say 50 million homes, but Fox broadcast network is available on almost every TV in the US or a potential of 100 million homes.
Showcasing soccer to such a large audience for something other than the World Cup has never really been done in the US before and could be the start of something huge. So should MLS figure out how to get the same level of conviction from their current major partner ESPN to promote the sport as much as they do "poker"? Should we see if we can get Fox Soccer to improve our relationship with them? I know the move to HD for both MLS and FSC are great first steps. Or should MLS look for another partner? NBC's USA network, Versus, or do they really push the matter and create a new network? It has worked for the NFL, the NBA, NHL, heck the NFL now has multiple networks under their control. I know it is brave, but imagine the possibility of a network that would rebroadcast MLS matches, become a home for SuperLiga and other SUM owned properties?
I don't know what will happen but I honestly believe that there has to be a major change in the attitude of the league in how it deals with TV and the biggest change has to be a move towards a real partnership, instead of a relationship meaning we will deal with you because you control other rights we want but you are clearly a red-headed step child to them?
I know this will not set well with some people as "the Don" has a huge number of fans, among them most of the owners who are prepared to offer him a new contract, one which could pay him up to 3 million dollars a year. The length of that contract wasn't mentioned, but if it is done I would suggest it only be as long as the CBA. I think "the Don" deserves full credit for the incredible stability and now growth of MLS, the increased value of franchises, the push for SSS's (soccer specific stadiums), and numerous things. However, does this mean that he is the right man for the future, I don't think so.
The world is changing and changing quickly, two years ago twitter was a thought, now it has hundreds of millions of users. Two years ago HDTV's were and expensive product with little programming and a small footprint, now millions of people won't watch anything else. Today 3D is quirky and has limited appeal to the masses, but in 4 years it will likely be the standard. Blogs have been around for years, with millions and millions of them but MLS finally got themselves on board in the last few months. In a day and age where brands can be made or broke in days (just ask Toyota the long term impact of their recent issues), there needs to be someone who is less in charge of everything but someone who leads a team of those who understand the unique elements of sport and culture and can help them make fast decision.
I think someone from Europe who has seen how the sport functions when it has a fan following like the NFL or NASCAR instead of coming from the NFL and trying to apply their model to a sport where it just doesn't fit. It will take a visionary who isn't afraid to be wrong, who will surround himself with a unique breed of people those who have as much passion for soccer as they have knowledge about the ever changing business world.
I know my list has some very high hopes, but I am not expecting things overnight or even next year. I do think that a number of these items should and easily could happen by 2014.
OFF MY SOAPBOX