Now that we are into the off-season for the “real” soccer leagues, it is time to give the American Major League Soccer some tips so it can actually become a “major” league. One of my favorite sports blogs recently did a piece on why soccer sucks and will never catch on in America. It its current configuration, Aidan from Worcester is absolutely right. The trouble is that his piece is very American-centric, and therefore misses some important points. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; the last time I checked Massachusetts was still in America.
The more I hear the assorted rants of the “soccer will never be popular in America” crowd, I can’t help but notice they sound just like the guys 40 years ago who kept saying nothing would ever surpass baseball as the de facto national sport. Well, baseball got passed in the 1980′s, and whether you want to admit it or not, soccer is gaining in popularity ever day in this country. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying soccer would ever become the national sport of this country; that’s just never going to happen. But it easily has all the opportunity to become a very major sport, but it also isn’t doing anything to help itself achieve that status.
So, here’s where I’m going to ask you to make a decision. If you are a fan of soccer and think it can grow in popularity in America, go read Aidan’s piece first, then come back to this one. Conversely, if you think soccer sucks, then read this piece first , then go over to his article. Either way, read the one you agree with last so that nobody tries to find either of our houses with an enraged mob.
Now, let’s get to the ten things American soccer must do in order to not repeat the mistakes the North American Soccer League (NASL) made 30 years ago.
1) Move to the same season as the major European leagues.
This is key. By playing in the summer, the MLS simply won’t be taken seriously by anybody who matters in the soccer world. Think of it this way. The USFL was never taken seriously by football fans despite what a good league it was because it played in the spring. More importantly, in the world of satellite/internet broadcasting, a big-time American soccer league is going to get a lot of its viewership from foreign markets, markets who want to see soccer in its traditional August-to-May season.
2) Schedule more exhibition matches with major world clubs.
Nothing will build viewership of American soccer more than bringing in major clubs people want to see. The English Premier League is the most popular professional sports league in the world, and beleive me, the more you can get “Big Four” clubs like Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, and Liverpool on yor schedule, the better you will be. Even if the EPL doesn’t want to be bothered with American soccer (which by the way it does…the EPL loves American ownership so much so that LeBron James is a minority owner of Liverpool, and the guy who owns the Jacksonville Jaguars just bought Fulham), there are plenty of leagues who will. The Italians, the French, and the Germans would all love some easy foreign publicity, and every MLS match you can get on European television only ups the chances to make the next point happen.
3) Aggressively pursue major world stars, not just the washed up ones.
This is the biggest area where the MLS is digging the same grave as the NASL did. If you do remember the NASL, you know that it brought in major world stars, just only when they were past their prime. There really was no possible way a 40-something Pelé or a 35+ Giorgio Chinalglia was going to put the New York Cosmos on the world soccer map, and for the Los Angeles Galaxy to think a washed up David Beckham was going to do the same was ludicrous.
Here’s the thing, The world is full of countries that produce better soccer players than the U.S. does now, and all we’ve got to do is get owners in American soccer willing to spend some coin on world-class talent. A lot of people think world class players won’t come here, but I simply don’t believe that. Like I said, we’ve got to fix the schedule issue first, but the fact that Didier Drogba passed on big money from just about everybody to go play for Galatasaray in the Turkish Süper Lig means we can get big-time soccer players to come to America. These guys will go where the money is.
4) Invest in collegiate soccer.
Just like the NFL and the NBA are essentially using the NCAA as a developmental league, soccer needs to do the same thing, if for no other reason that the infrastructure already exists. As we speak, soccer is a scholarship sport at a ton of colleges. That means there is a system already producing players at a fairly advanced skill-level, but they’ve got nowhere to go once their college days are over. What MLS has got to do is to pump some money and resources into that system, and then find ways to get the products of that system into a league that can develop their talents. This is where the next two points come into play.
5) Establish more clubs in smaller cities, or put multiple small clubs in major cities.
This is how the European leagues became so huge. They built on the one thing all sports fans have: a love of rivalries. Every neighborhood has a club that plays soccer, and everybody knows that my neighborhood club is awesome and yours sucks toilet water. Every town has a team made up of the best club players, and everybody knows that my town is awesome and your is comprised of a bunch of sheep buggerers. And every country has its best players on a national team, and its not like international soccer fans haven’t been known to burn a city to the ground to prove how much better their country is than yours.
America doesn’t have millenia-long rivalries between nations; regardless of the sports rivalry in this country, it won’t have its roots from hundreds of years ago when the predominant sports was called “war,” and the winners paraded around with the heads of the losers on sticks. But we still love a rivalry, which is exactly why the college game is the perfect starting place to develop players, then we need s solid minor-league system. Both of which would serve a purpose; it gives a reason to scream “you suck” at the other guy, which as we know, Americans love more than cheap beer and grilled meat combined.
6) Get a men’s team that can win the Olympics.
If nothing else, Americans are event-driven, and nothing proves that more than the Olympics. For two weeks every four years, American will pretend that they care about which roided-up guy did something we normally don’t care about better than some other roided-up guy. However, that all changes once America wins at an event we normally don’t win. It is not just the Olympics where you can see that phenomenon. Americans didn’t care about the Tour de France until our roided-up guy won, and Americans didn’t care at all about women’s soccer until our team won and that one chick took her top off.
The men’s team winning the Olympics is a completely realistic goal, because the “traditional” European powerhouse nations of soccer don’t give a shit about the Olympics. They care about the World Cup. They tend to use the Olympics as an under-21 qualifying tournament for the World Cup, which is why American soccer, as laughable as it is now, could easily rise to this level. Mexico won the Olympic gold medal in London last year, and we beat them all the time. The last European “power” country to win a gold in soccer was Spain in 1992, and they only put a “real” team on the field because they were the host country.
In other words, once you can put an American men’s soccer team on a Wheaties box, Americans will pay attention…even more so than they did to a sports bra.
7) Promote the CONCACAF Champions League as a major sporting event
Here’s where we do three things we already know work.
First, we build on rivalries. CONCACAF stands for the Confederation of North, Central American, and Carribean Association Football. It’s basically the North American division of FIFA, the world soccer governing body. The U.S. and Mexico are already the biggest dogs in this fight, and so it only make sense they should promote anything that helps develop a rivalry. The European Champions League Final passed the Super Bowl a few years back as the world’s most watched sporting event. I’m not saying the CONCACAF can do the same, but you’ve got all the makings of an event that can be grown into a real money maker.
Secondly, we appeal to the market segments we know are already interested in soccer. Go down to your local park and note how many mini-vans full of kids are playing soccer. Look next to the kids, and note the guy who doesn’t speak English who is maintaining the fields. You’ve just seen you American soccer audience, and it is one that is growing by the day. One of the reasons soccer isn’t a big time TV draw in this country is that the stuff that is on during normal viewing hours in the MLS. Watching the MLS is like watching handicapped people fuck; They know the basic mechanics, and you know they are certainly trying, but they just can’t seem to get the ball into the net, if you know what I mean.
If you wanted to see real soccer in this country, you either had to get up at 7 am ET on a Saturday to watch ESPN’s one game per week of the English Premier League (EPL), or subscribe to a sports package located somewhere near channel 7,ooo,000 on your cable box. Once the NBC Sports Network becomes your American home of the EPL on your television, computer and mobile device next month, top-quality soccer will be available in more than just one game per week, and all EPL games will be available via the web. And it will get watched by the soccer playing kids, the guy who mows the fields, and a whole lot of MLS fans who are starving for a quality product.
Third, let’s not forget what I’ve already said about how Americans love events. Turn this into an America vs. Mexico affair, and it grows overnight. All it takes is the right “hook” to draw interest. Nobody gave a damn about the college basketball tournament 30 years ago until somebody came up with the “bracket.”
8 ) Market, Market, Market.
If you don’t think sports and marketing don’t have a marriage with more complications than a polygamist who can’t find his car keys, then you clearly haven’t seen teams in all sports that wear a different uniform three times a week so they can sell more jerseys and hats. You clearly haven’t seen how ESPN has essentially turned SportsCenter in to a vehicle to promote sports it has a contract to cover. And you clearly haven’t seen how sports and the electronic media now can’t live without each other.
The point is that the last time we tried to make a major soccer league flourish in America, ESPN was a mere tadpole in the TV pond, and the electronic ocean of information we have now didn’t exist yet. Getting people to watch anything now requires that they a) have an interest in the material and b) they know you can give them the coverage they want and c) you make it available on the platform they want. NBC Sports Network was smart enough to put their EPL coverage on line so it can be reached by computers, tablets, and smartphones, now they just have to grow the interest and make sure people know it is out there.
After all, the MLS has survived and grown over close to two decades despite the fact it sucks. If you promote a quality sports product in a country with 500 national/regional/local sports channels, you are going to grow. Especially when that country has a changing demographic. Remember the guy I mentioned earlier who mows the lawns at your kids’ soccer field? He watches soccer, and so does the ever-increasing number of guys in this country just like him.
This is what cracks me up about the Americans who refuse to believe that soccer can gain in popularity in America. The group that keeps saying that stuff also happens to have a significant overlap with the group that bitches about the increasing foreign-born population in this country. Well, guess what? The lawn-mowing guy, the guy who answers the phone at tech support, and the guy who works at your local convenience store all work in America, and when they go home from those jobs, they watch sports like every other guy does, and they don’t watch the NFL…they watch soccer.
The English Premier League became the most popular sports league in the world by going global, and Americans are having a hard time understanding that “global” has moved into their back yards.
9) Avoid all the stupid labor/money shit all the “big” sports are buried in.
This was how NASCAR rose out of the minor/regional sports pack. For at least ten years, all NASCAR coverage was about the sport, not about labor negotiations and money like what the “Big Four” sports were mired in. There a reason why people don’t watch CNBC; its the same reason why once ESPN becomes the financial report, America deafens itself with the thunder of channels changing all across the continent. People want to watch sport, they want to see sports highlights, and they don’t give a shit about the business end. If you don’t believe that, there is really not any doubt the NFL is king of the American sports world, and yet the average NFL fan couldn’t explain the salary cap if you pointed a shotgun at their nether regions.
10) Introduce Promotion/Relegation
This is the one existing MLS owners would kick and scream against, but once you expand the minor leagues, it is time to make those minor franchises able to grow into major ones. What it boils down to is that team who don’t perform don’t stay in the major leagues, and minor league team that do preform get promoted. The equivalent in American sports would be if major league baseball finally got tired of franchises like the Kansas City Royalss finishing last for 20 years and sent the entire franchise down to play a minor-league schedule, ten promoted a successful minor-league club to compete in the bigs.
The advantage is that guys like Mark Cuban, who have clearly been blacklisted by major league baseball, could buy a minor league team, then stock it with major league talent in order to left that team into the top league. This has done wonders to promote competition, and to flush out owners who are just not going to build a competitive team.
As far as American soccer is concerned, allowing big-money guys to by in small and then grow big would allow a team like that to get in the door a t low prices and then spend money on big-time world soccer talent. The minute you get a guy who does that and succeeds…well, in America, imitation is good business.
Boil it all down to gravy and here’s what you get. Right now, soccer is about as popular on the whole in America as televised bowling. That’s because other than for special events, American have only been exposed to a quality of soccer that equals the talent seen at a strip club if you are there on a Tuesday afternoon. No red blooded American male should be expected to pump dollar bills into the plus-sized G-string of a D-list skank with fresh C-section scars and thighs that look as though they’ve suffered some serious hail damage.
The MLS has every opportunity to transform itself, but it has to make some decisions now to capitalize on that shot. By taking the steps I’ve mentioned, MLS can move from the skank working the Businessman’s Special the the main stage on Saturday night. That’s when the dollar bills will start flowing in.