The State of MLS: An A to an Unsolicited Q

A smarter blogger would sit on this one till Monday, but I just want to clear my desktop.

I received an email a couple days ago from someone who just started reading Center Holds It, asking me a question. I banged out a reply and was about to send when it occurred to me that 1) the subject was interesting, and 2) I kinda liked my answer. So I figured, why not just post the thing.

In the future, I’d love to do more Q & A’s but don’t know that I have the expertise or sources to make it worthwhile. It’s nothing I’ve considered on my own, anyway. Still, if anyone out there ever wants to know what I think about just about anything, you are absolutely welcome to drop me a line and ask the question. I will answer it.

Anyway, the question that came my way appears below (a couple others are waiting in the hopper; don’t know if I’ll post those; haven’t really thought them out yet); the answer comes after the jump.

Q (it didn’t occur to me to ask permission to use his name):
I was wondering if you could answer something for me. I think [MLS] great, and clearly you do too, but unfortunately we are in the vast [minority] of Americans. That said, what do you think is the current state of the MLS? And why hasn’t it ever really caught on in the US?

Suffice to say Major League Soccer has exceeded every expectation I originally had for its success. I braced myself for its demise through the first 10 years; I’m still ready for it psychologically, even if I don’t see it happening any time soon (though, I have to say, a recession, or full-blown depression, could kill the league as it did an old, East Coast-centric professional leagues of the 1930s). The slow and steady growth is encouraging, nothing more so than the permanent infrastructure – e.g. the soccer-specific stadiums. You build something like that and you’re somewhat obliged to use it. Given the “soccer-specific” tag, soccer suddenly becomes the first option instead defaulting into some god-forsaken slot between an idle night and monster-truck jams. Also, the number of fans I encounter online who talk about having come to MLS and the U.S. domestic scene only in the past five or fewer years still blows my mind.

But having come of age in the dead years between the NASL and MLS, a nation without soccer feels like the norm to me – even today. Stray items and events old and new keep reinforcing that general impression, from a thoroughly underwhelming guest-appearance by Roberto Baggio at a Seattle Sounders game right after the 1994 World Cup (thought there’d be a mob; nope), or damnably persistent realities like sub-par crowds taking in Olympic qualifying and the U.S. National Team playing as an “away team” every time they play at home. The amount of promotion required for events that, elsewhere, would be automatic, suggests it hasn’t really embedded into the fabric of American pop culture. As a nation, soccer just isn’t what we do on Saturday

All the same, Americans get up for World Cup and there’s enough interest in the Euro leagues to sustain a few soccer-specific channels – something I still find nuts. And, it’s worth pointing out, the interest in the Euro leagues hurts the domestic audience, both in terms of consuming any given individual’s leisure time and by direct comparison in quality.

To offer a big picture (and, frankly, untested) theory, the tricky equation of “any given individual’s leisure time” provides an answer to the larger question of soccer’s fourth-tier (or is it fifth-tier?) status in the sporting scene. I mean no disrespect to fans of other sports when I write this, but the traditional American sports benefit greatly from being easier to find and follow. This drags in all kinds of factors, from immediately having something to talk about with random, “normal” people, to simple reference to the familiar. But I think the element of social conformity – and it’s more subtle than I’m making it out to be – plays the larger role; after all, soccer’s large youth participation means people are familiar with the game and its rules. So, chalk this up more to the comparative ubiquity of Super Bowl parties and March Madness betting pools. People have limited time for entertainment and, when choosing what to do, it makes sense to gravitate toward popular entertainments; it’s what we know, it’s what everyone else is doing – so why not enjoy it?

There is a reason, however, why soccer can succeed now where it hasn’t before: the explosion of available cable channels and technology reducing the expense and complexity of broadcasting met with the Web’s ability to build communities. Basically, I can exist in a self-built niche where the American Big Three (football, baseball, and basketball) don’t really exist. In that world, everyone watches and talks about soccer. This is semi-delusional, sure, but it’s also without precedent. In other words, soccer benefits from the fragmentation of pop culture; the competition to “make it” or be viable isn’t what it was when you had three networks and only the sports section of the morning paper available to cover it. Soccer can compete in this new world – and it is. Even little ol’ MLS. And, fortunately for fans, it’s doing it.

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8 Responses

  1. Hm, I wouldn’t say American football’s rules are all that easy.

    I will point out that the US sports scene suffers from severe fixture congestion; there are so many things going on that any newcomer’s going to get lost in the noise. (Not just MLS; NHL suffers from this as well. And if you think MLS has it bad, consider Major League Lacrosse!)

  2. Good points all around.

    A few economic points:

    * We almost lost FSC a year or two back when they tried to make bundling illegal. Sure, it adds $20-40 to your monthly bill, but that keeps the likes of FSC and GolTV afloat. It also keeps three Food Channels going and spawned that new reality TV channel.

    * Expect the Revs to get hit hardest by the downturn. The NE economy was based on high home prices and the states reacted by hiring a lot of workers who are all getting laid off now. The fed’s bailout is going to sink the dollar even more, which will make it even more costly to drive out to Gillette. Say what you want about Kraft, this is where he comes in handy. He’s rich enough to easily weather this storm.

    * 2009 will be an awful year for a new labor agreement for the players. One thing that separates soccer players in the US from athletes in our other sports is they don’t have a ton of money in the bank to ride out a strike. They have families to feed and I predict they will get far less than predicted out of the new contract.

  3. I like the economic points, Chowda, especially the one about bundling. I was a huge fan of taking cable “a la carte” until I figured out what that would really mean (e.g. too few subscribers).

    And, yeah, I’ve been watching expansion news and talk of recession with some curiosity. Let’s hope for everyone’s sake – MLS, players, families, etc. – that the current/looming recession/downturn is either short or winds up being non-existent….I’m not sure it will be either.

  4. geekosaur – It took a re-read for me to catch your point. Whoops. I wasn’t clear on that: I was only speaking to availability and coverage of the sports, as opposed to how they work on the field and in their schedule. That noted, dang, do I agree with you; in terms of learning the fundamental and rules of the games, American football comes hardest – and the rules have only grown a little more complicated since I started watching.

  5. Good piece.

    Some slight disagreements.

    I think the explosion of the soccer channels and the popularity of the European leagues only helps soccer here. Being able to watch games, any time of the year, from all around the world and learn the game at the same time is incredibly helpful. I wouldn’t have started attending Fire games if it wasn’t for FSC and the World Cup. Now I’m a Fire flex plan season ticket holder.

    I think that the growth of your internet Euro-snobs who posts on Big Soccer and seemingly never shut up (World Soccer Daily anyone?) obscures the fact that most fans who enjoy the game like to go to a live game. MLS needs to do a better job reaching these people. At least it seems they have finally figured it out.

    A point to make about recessions is that sports, generally speaking, usually don’t suffer business losses during them (baseball during the 30′s and sports in general booming during the last recession we had). I would expect MLS to be fine (fine being a relative term during such an economic period) during a prologned downturn as long as they keep their ticket prices cheap. One would expect the NBA, NHL, and NFL to be hurt more by a longterm recession than other sports leagues because their ticket prices are already considered prohibitively expensive.

    After digging around a bit it seems like research is a bit mixed on the subject. Really no one is sure how a recession would hit sports today considering how much the sports economic world has changed since the last serious recession. If you want you can check out the following link that discusses baseball and recessions of the past. Worth a look.

    http://www.bizofbaseball.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1861&Itemid=41

  6. I agree with geekosaur.

    Especially from a foreigner’s POV, when my friends learned how many sports I actually played in High School in one year, they couldn’t believe it.

    The American sports landscape has SO many different sports that people simply tend to pick and choose their favorites. It’s completely normal though.

    I mean I HATE the NBA with an undying passion, but love College Basketball (also throw the College sports into the mix here. I mean college sports are essentially non-existent in European countries)

  7. Fair points, gregg. I look forward to reading that bizofbaseball piece.

    And, ryan, I’m the same with basketball…don’t know why that is.

  8. As long as American athletes run off to top tier leagues MLS will never do anything. Truth be told, most footyfans I run into care to watch English teams before they’d rather think of watching an MLS teams.
    That being said, if there’s no incentive for our players to stay here or for their players to come here the MLS can’t compete; especially with ESPN becoming more interested in euro-football as well as Fox.

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