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The Salt: Why I hate MLS’s arbitrary preseason streaming rules

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It’s almost like MLS hates fans.

MLS: Cup Final-Seattle Sounders FC vs Columbus Crew SC Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

One of the major points of discussion in MLS last week centered around preseason streaming and the restrictions the league has put on individual teams in that regard.

It’s a topic I’m weirdly passionate about. I love traveling for preseason, and I’ve done it at least half the preseasons I’ve covered here at RSL Soapbox. It’s something that gives me excitement, and it helps me build my passion for the team.

It’s also something into which I know not everybody sinks their teeth. Streams are usually of a worse quality than a regular season game. Commentary is not usually done by the typical crew. Sometimes, the games are really, truly terrible.

But those things don’t erase the importance of access, for me. We’ll get into the whys, but before that, we should likely focus on the situations present now.

Here. Let’s have Chicago Fire take this one away for us.

This is a terrible place for any club PR representative to be. Building excitement around the season is vital, and I know I am not alone in feeling this way. Trey Fitz-Gerald, former RSL VP of Communications, has a typically good take on this.

But MLS is here with a regressive approach that could be straight out of the Utah-Jazz-on-ROOT-Sports playbook. These are not high-value matches. Advertising on these is extremely limited, if it’s present at all. Sometimes it’s just a local jewelry store pitching their wares.

There are, of course, also teams that won’t be streaming any preseason matches. This, too, is a mistake, but I am inclined to let those things slide slightly while the COVID-19 pandemic continues impacting our day-to-day life. That said, these are not new issues in the league and at Real Salt Lake, and it is worth remembering that we should expect more from a league that needs passionate fans to foster growth, and who markets visible displays of that passion.

There are multiple segments of the fanbase that are ill-served by restrictions like these imposed by MLS.

Fan engagement

Getting fans deeply interested in your team is the model for sports. Casual viewership is important when you think about huge franchises and sports in the U.S., but soccer is nowhere near that. The life blood of any MLS team is in its passionate fans.

Notably, this does not necessarily mean fans who sit in one section of the stadium and join in unified chanting. That comprises an important but limited segment of the broader passionate fanbase. There’s more to be had: The fans who read sites like this one because they are excited to see if we’ve signed somebody, for one. The fans who put out their RSL flags before every game. The fans who will tell everyone they know about the latest signing, the best goal, their favorite player. These people are not being served by a restrictive preseason streaming operation.

Build anticipation for a new season

After a season like the one Real Salt Lake had — and like so many MLS teams have in their back catalog — getting a breath of fresh air is vital. We need time away from the team. But we don’t really need six months away from the team, as will be the case by the time the season starts. Streaming preseason matches is one way to re-introduce the team to fans, to showcase new faces, and to bring soccer again to the foreground.

It’s not that feature stories and well-executed highlight reels aren’t nice — they are. I love a good training clip as much as anybody. But those are desserts: Sometimes, we just want a meal. And that meal is a grainy, choppy, poorly played preseason game, and I like it.

Build the brand, grow the sport

For so long, MLS fans have rallied around “growing the sport” as pushed from league headquarters. It provides a compelling underdog story, certainly. The “us versus them” mentality when going head-to-head with a major league team? There’s real value there. But it can often feel like MLS feels that job has been done, and it’s now time to focus their attention elsewhere. There may be reason for that — but if there is, the way to approach seems like it might demand some more visibility and transparency.

Instead, we’re treated to a league that is so worried about broadcast regions for local franchises that everyone ends up feeling worse about things. They’ll feel worse about broadcasters, about teams, and about the league. It’s a recipe for failure, and I’m just continually disappointed in MLS for it.