Don’t Freeze Out the Fans, Don

Monday, November 29, 2010 | View Comments
by Matt Higgins

Every so often, one of the hot-button issues in American soccer rears its ugly head among the Internet forum cognoscenti. Whether it’s a well-meaning newbie suggesting promotion and relegation for Major League Soccer, a Europosing troll or a wayward Englishman who feels compelled to remind the colonials that “it’s called football, not soccer!!!”, flurries of posts and flames get exchanged before the issue sinks back into the murky depths, waiting for its next resurrection.

This time, none other than MLS commissioner Don Garber has the soccer community’s cyber-tongues a-wagging. While addressing the state of the league, he said this regarding concerns over MLS’s schedule:

“We are speaking to our fans. We are basically telling our fans that we have a goal and a vision to be one of the top soccer leagues in the world. In order for us to be able to achieve that, we are going to have to do a wide variety of things in the next X number of years to achieve them. The calendar is one of them. As we are thinking about our playoff format, our competition calendar, it makes sense for us to start really digging into whether or not this makes sense. We have been thinking about it for the last year, and it certainly is a message we want to say to the international soccer community: We are going to get closer to the way the rest of the world plays.”

As you can see, The Don excels at nothing if not saying little while saying plenty.

At first glance, one might think MLS is on its way toward scrapping its March-to-November schedule and conforming to the “international” approach, which apparently involves starting play around August and stopping in May. After all, that’s how the rest of the world does it, right? (More on this later.)

As usual with administrative types, though, of greater interest than what Garber said is what he didn’t say. He gave no definitive statement, instead saying MLS is “thinking” about its schedule and “digging into” whether it makes sense. Is that the language of a reformer? It sounds more like Garber is trying to play the political game with FIFA and its chief muckety-muck, Sepp Blatter. (Unless, of course, Garber was just trolling the soccer blogosphere. If that’s the case, I may have just developed my first man-crush.)

Blatter, as you know, is a man of wealth and taste. Not only is he an expert on women’s fashion, high finance and interior decoration, he and his organization also apparently know what’s best for American soccer. If only America would conform to the rest of the world, the conventional wisdom goes, MLS would gain international acceptance and soccer would flourish. Unfortunately, as Blatter and his cadre of thugs and boot-lickers hold the keys to the 2022 World Cup that the US would dearly love to host, Garber can’t give the Swiss cartel the dismissive snort and rude gesture that wisdom deserves.

Allow me, Don.

People who assert that MLS’s calendar is a detriment to its progress are either ignorant about soccer’s true standing in the US or are overly optimistic about its capacity to carve out a larger niche. Overexuberance is forgivable, if a bit annoying at times, but trying to shoehorn an American league into a European calendar for the sake of convenience or an inferiority complex displays a woeful lack of knowledge.

First off, let’s dispel this notion of MLS being out of step with “the rest of the soccer world.”

A cursory glance through the Interwebs yields a number of leagues scandalously operating outside the calendar used by “the rest of the soccer world”:

Angola, Armenia, Belarus, Bolivia, Brazil, Burma, Cambodia, Chile, China, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Estonia, Faroe Islands, Fiji, Finland, Gambia, Iceland, India, Ivory Coast, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Latvia, Lithuania, Malaysia, Mauritania, Mozambique, Netherlands Antilles, New Zealand, Norway, Paraguay, Peru, Republic of Ireland, Singapore, South Korea, Syria, Sweden, Tajikistan, Thailand, Trinidad & Tobago, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, Zambia, Zimbabwe

Are these nations the glitterati of the footballing world? Not exactly, but neither are they all backwaters and no-hopers. Having a non-traditional schedule didn’t stop Brazil, Japan and South Korea from hosting the World Cup, and you don’t see those leagues bowing, scraping and scurrying to meet FIFA’s every whim. Why should MLS come under undue pressure to change a business model that suits its unique needs?

Oh, that’s right – the transfer window.

That’s your big push, the chance to spend another couple months hyping up Blaise N’Kufo and Geovanni? If anything, MLS needs to get away from being a star-driven league, or at least get better at growing its own stars. How much more, and for how much longer, do big-name signings from Europe, Mexico or South America move the needle compared to homegrown talent? How much more must teams splurge on stars past their prime before soccer “makes it big?” Money spent on youth development, growing the talent pool and raising the overall level of play in MLS isn’t sexy and doesn’t get highlights on Sportscenter for the casual fan, but it’s the only fiscally responsible, long-term approach for a league apparently bound and determined to expand to 20 teams (if not beyond).

Say, let’s talk about those casual fans. You remember them – Joe Six-Pack, Soccer Mom and their Pony-Tailed Hooligans? They may not be singing, drinking and cursing with the supporter’s groups, but they’re at games more often than not during the summer and may even have season tickets. You may not like them, you may not respect them – heck, you may even want to live out your Tony Kornheiser fantasies and run their minivan into a tree. There are many more of them than there are of you, though, and any business that wants to keep its doors open does not make a habit of running off paying customers.

Playing during the winter or the middle of the week would do exactly that. According to the MLS website, the league had an overall average attendance of 16,675 this year, but let’s break that down by month:

March – 8 home games, 143,368 attendance, 17,921 average
April – 29 home games, 488,396 attendance, 16,841 average
May – 42 home games, 644,374 attendance, 15,342 average
June – 22 home games, 374,863 attendance, 17,039 average
July – 28 home games, 497,571 attendance, 17,770 average
August – 41 home games, 676,708 attendance, 16,505 average
September – 36 home games, 562,797 attendance, 15,633 average
October – 34 home games, 612,532 attendance, 18,016 average

A couple notes: All eight March matches were home openers, leading to increased attendance, and the drop in matches in June and July was due to a break for the World Cup (for those who don’t know). Also, seven teams – Columbus, Chicago, DC, Salt Lake, Colorado, Houston and Chivas – saw significant upticks in attendance for their regular-season finales, which goes some way toward explaining the outlier of October attendance. A full breakdown is included at the end of this post.

What proponents of taking the summer off should note is the drop in attendance from the peak of the summer as families curtail their outings and kids go back to school. Why should the league sacrifice the prime months of the season – when the weather is most conducive to playing and the league is least encumbered by outside forces – in the name of aligning its calendar? Fans in European leagues will show up for matches in awful weather, but those clubs have been around for much longer, built up more equity with fans and do not have to compete in markets as sports-saturated as the US. It would be folly for MLS clubs to expect the same level of diehard support in numbers anywhere near what it gets in the summer.

Why not strategically schedule home games for the best weather, one might ask? Can’t teams in warmer locales host during the cold months and travel north when it warms up? There are a few problems with that solution. 1) Why penalize teams late in the season – when the playoff push hits its peak – with more road games just because they play at the wrong latitude? 2) Unless MLS takes as many liberties with geography as it does with salary caps, it has more cold-weather cities – Chicago, Columbus, Denver, Foxboro, Kansas City, Montreal, New York, Philadelphia, Portland, Salt Lake City, Seattle, Toronto, Vancouver and Washington, DC – than it does ones with warmer winters –Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles and San Jose. How does the league plan to fairly distribute fixtures during the winter months with that sort of imbalance?

Another likely casualty of the proposed schedule switch is the multi-sport fan. This fan does not watch soccer to the exclusion of all other sports – despite the exhortations of True Supporter Guy – but they like soccer, go to games and will watch if it’s on TV. They also like basketball and that no-good, pointy kind of football, though, and that’s a problem for a league that doesn’t start until August. If MLS is trying to make itself as accessible as possible, the last thing it needs is to have its few media outlets swamped by sports with larger, more well-established bases of support.

The most recent MLS season ran from March 25 to November 21. Its most consistent competition in the American sports scene was Major League Baseball, whose regular season ran from April 11 to November 1. The other major sports leagues – the NFL, NBA, NHL and college football and basketball – did not start until September 2 at the earliest. How is MLS competing for eyeballs and airtime with these sports a good thing? Going up against them only gives viewers more reason to turn away from your product, which is not what the league and Soccer United Marketing want to take to ESPN when it comes time to negotiate a new deal.

Don’t forget the other TV concerns – MLS doesn’t exist in a vacuum, after all. What happens to the US Open Cup, Superliga, As Yet Unnamed Division II League, USL-2, PDL, etc. if MLS makes this switch? They all operate between April and October. Are lower-division teams, some of whom struggle to make ends meet even with summer attendances, just supposed to suck it up because MLS wants its transfer window to jive with Europe? Life from Division II on down is hard enough as it is.

Lastly, don’t expect this schedule change to be the masterstroke that finally wins the Europoseurs over to MLS. These stubborn souls – the ones whose bleatings about MLS’s “credibility gap” make forehead veins bulge and the Baby Jesus cry – will only find new excuses not to lower themselves to watching their national league. After all, they haven’t turned up when the uniforms, names, shootouts, clocks, playoffs, stadiums and goalkeeper substitutions changed. Why have faith they will brave the prospect of substandard footy in cold, snow and ice when they can be cozy with their scarf and cup of Earl Grey in front of the TV?

“How do you play games in Montreal in February?” Garber asked in the Reuters story. “It’s a matter of growing the fan base.” Making MLS less pleasant to watch in person and more difficult to find on TV is not the way go about that. This league is about steady, responsible progress, and no amount of tweaking and kowtowing to European interests is going to suddenly make it relevant at home and abroad.

New York: 3/28 vs. Chicago (24,572); 4/18 vs. Dallas (13,667); 4/25 vs. Philadelphia (15,619); 5/16 vs. Seattle (17,900); 5/21 vs. Columbus (11,940); 6/3 vs. Houston (11,462); 6/6 vs. CUSA (18,815); 7/11 vs. DC (16,239); 8/12 vs. Toronto (19,035); 8/15 vs. LA (25,000); 8/29 vs. SJ (21,859); 9/12 vs. Colorado (19,014); 10/3 vs. KC (24,799); 10/10 vs. RSL (20,829); 10/22 vs. NE (15,866)

Columbus: 3/28 vs. Toronto (13,536); 4/25 vs. RSL (14,322); vs. 5/9 NE (10,197); 5/16 vs. CUSA (15,027); 5/30 vs. LA (18,139); 6/27 vs. DC (15,335); 7/4 vs. Chicago (14,017); 7/15 vs. KC (11,304); 7/18 vs. NY (14,378); 7/25 vs. Houston (12,701); 8/22 vs. Colorado (16,603); 8/29 vs. Dallas (16,708); 9/19 vs. Seattle (17,144); 10/3 vs. SJ (10,867); 10/25 vs. Philadelphia (19,006)

Kansas City: 3/28 vs. DC (10,385); 4/11 vs. Colorado (10,228); 4/25 vs. LA (10,045); 5/16 vs. Chicago (8,155); 5/24 vs. Columbus (10,385); 6/11 vs. Philadelphia (10,176); 6/27 vs. NY (10,385); 7/11 vs. CUSA (10,288); 8/1 vs. Toronto (10,385); 8/8 vs. RSL (10,385); 8/22 vs. NE (10,385); 9/23 vs. Houston (9,679); 9/26 vs. Dallas (10,385); 10/10 vs. Seattle (11,522); 10/24 vs. SJ (11,518)

Chicago: 4/11 vs. SJ (20,276); 4/25 vs. Houston (11,312); 5/2 vs. CUSA (13,224); 5/28 vs. Dallas (12,522); 6/6 vs. Philadelphia (14,658); 6/10 vs. Colorado (13,607); 7/9 vs. RSL (17,847); 8/9 vs. NY (21,868); 8/19 vs. NE (14,056); 9/5 vs. LA (21,068); 9/9 vs. Toronto (12,891); 9/26 vs. Seattle (17,477); 10/9 vs. Columbus (15,124); 10/13 vs. KC (12,230); 10/17 vs. DC (19,056)

Toronto: 4/16 vs. Philadelphia (21,978); 4/26 vs. Seattle (18,394); 5/9 vs. Chicago (20,060); 5/23 vs. NE (20,672); 6/6 vs. KC (21,583); 6/27 vs. LA (18,809); 7/2 vs. Houston (21,374); 7/11 vs. Colorado (21,386); 7/25 vs. Dallas (19,743); 8/8 vs. CUSA (20,648); 8/22 vs. NY (22,108); 8/29 vs. RSL (21,047); 9/12 vs. DC (20,395); 9/26 vs. SJ (20,064); 10/17 vs. Columbus (18,084)

New England: 4/11 vs. Toronto (12,798); 4/25 vs. Colorado (8,142); 5/2 vs. Dallas (10,057); 5/6 vs. CUSA (5,990); 5/16 vs. SJ (13,611); 5/30 vs. NY (11,316); 6/28 vs. Chicago (12,306); 7/11 vs. LA (20,155); 8/8 vs. DC (12,218); 8/15 vs. Houston (11,546); 8/29 vs. Philadelphia (13,578); 9/5 vs. Seattle (13,124); 9/26 vs. Columbus (13,533); 10/3 vs. RSL (18,130); 10/17 vs. KC (18,298)

Philadelphia: 4/11 vs. DC (34,870); 5/16 vs. Dallas (25,038); 6/28 vs. Seattle (18,755); 7/11 vs. SJ (17,158); 7/18 vs. Toronto (17,251); 8/1 vs. NE (18,147); 8/6 vs. Columbus (18,001); 8/12 vs. RSL (16,128); 8/15 vs. Colorado (17,749); 9/5 vs. KC (17,182); 9/12 vs. Chicago (18,563); 9/26 vs. CUSA (16,481); 10/3 vs. Houston (16,115); 10/8 vs. LA (18,779); 10/17 vs. NY (18,578)

DC United: 4/4 vs. NE (20,664); 4/18 vs. Chicago (18,407); 5/2 vs. NY (12,089); 5/6 vs. KC (10,038); 5/16 vs. Colorado (13,570); 5/30 vs. CUSA (13,043); 6/6 vs. RSL (15,328); 7/16 vs. Seattle (13,716); 7/19 vs. LA (17,688); 8/15 vs. Dallas (12,474); 8/23 vs. Philadelphia (12,165); 9/5 vs. Columbus (12,075); 9/26 vs. Houston (13,828); 10/10 vs. SJ (14,822); 10/24 vs. Toronto (18,071)

LA Galaxy: 3/28 vs. NE (21,376); 4/2 vs. CUSA (19,805); 4/18 vs. RSL (20,344); 5/2 vs. Philadelphia (15,453); 5/16 vs. Toronto (20,007); 6/6 vs. Houston (20,826); 7/5 vs. Seattle (27,000); 7/23 vs. SJ (17,712); 8/2 vs. Chicago (20,348); 8/29 vs. KC (20,112); 9/12 vs. Columbus (19,482); 9/19 vs. DC (20,094); 9/25 vs. NY (27,000); 10/17 vs. Colorado (27,000); 10/25 vs. Dallas (24,993)

Real Salt Lake: 4/11 vs. Seattle (19,970); 5/2 vs. Toronto (12,659); 5/9 vs. Philadelphia (14,224); 5/14 vs. Houston (12,945); 5/30 vs. KC (15,588); 6/10 vs. LA (19,513); 6/26 vs. SJ (16,216); 7/3 vs. NE (19,101); 7/25 vs. CUSA (19,469); 8/1 vs. DC (17,719); 8/15 vs. Columbus (16,906); 9/5 vs. NY (19,115); 9/19 vs. Chicago (14,440); 9/26 vs. Colorado (18,317); 10/17 vs. Dallas (20,236)

Dallas: 3/28 vs. Houston (8,016); 4/11 vs. Columbus (10,556); 4/23 vs. Seattle (8,512); 5/9 vs. DC (10,323); 5/21 vs. LA (10,947); 6/6 vs. SJ (14,331); 7/4 vs. KC (15,993); 7/18 vs. RSL (11,170); 8/9 vs. Philadelphia (8,732); 8/22 vs. CUSA (10,309); 9/5 vs. Toronto (10,033); 9/17 vs. NY (15,105); 9/23 vs. NE (7,468); 10/3 vs. Chicago (10,615); 10/10 vs. Colorado (10,119)

Seattle: 3/26 vs. Philadelphia (36,241); 4/4 vs. NY (36,066); 4/18 vs. KC (35,294); 5/2 vs. Columbus (36,219); 5/9 vs. LA (36,273); 5/23 vs. SJ (35,953); 6/6 vs. NE (36,344); 6/11 vs. DC (36,146); 7/12 vs. Dallas (36,091); 7/26 vs. Colorado (36,333); 8/9 vs. Houston (36,111); 8/29 vs. Chicago (36,386); 9/10 vs. RSL (36,078); 10/3 vs. Toronto (36,079); 10/16 vs. CUSA (36,356)

Colorado: 4/4 vs. Chicago (11,641); 4/19 vs. Toronto (9,928); 5/6 vs. LA (9,882); 5/30 vs. Seattle (18,166); 6/6 vs. Columbus (14,318); 7/5 vs. NY (18,363); 7/18 vs. KC (12,825); 8/1 vs. Dallas (10,596); 8/8 vs. SJ (12,701); 8/29 vs. Houston (11,511); 9/5 vs. CUSA (10,312); 9/19 vs. NE (16,314); 9/30 vs. Philadelphia (10,165); 10/3 vs. DC (15,478); 10/24 vs. RSL (17,729)

San Jose: 3/28 vs. RSL (10,589); 4/18 vs. NE (9,082); 5/2 vs. Colorado (8,674); 5/9 vs. NY (9,711); 5/30 vs. Toronto (10,214); 6/3 vs. Columbus (8,033); 7/4 vs. DC (10,304); 8/1 vs. Seattle (10,351); 8/15 vs. KC (8,619); 8/22 vs. LA (10,799); 9/12 vs. Dallas (10,342); 9/16 vs. Philadelphia (8,109); 9/30 vs. Chicago (9,829); 10/17 vs. Houston (10,597); 10/21 vs. CUSA (9,633)

Houston: 4/2 vs. RSL (18,197); 4/11 vs. LA (16,459); 4/18 vs. CUSA (14,843); 5/2 vs. KC (16,042); 5/6 vs. Dallas (13,231); 5/23 vs. DC (24,471); 5/30 vs. Philadelphia (13,555); 6/27 vs. Colorado (13,744); 7/11 vs. Columbus (13,486); 8/1 vs. NY (24,750); 8/22 vs. Chicago (18,890); 9/6 vs. SJ (15,073); 9/19 vs. Toronto (16,453); 10/11 vs. NE (16,479); 10/24 vs. Seattle (23,990)

Chivas USA: 3/27 vs. Colorado (18,653); 4/11 vs. NY (12,597); 4/25 vs. SJ (14,389); 5/9 vs. Houston (12,577); 5/23 vs. RSL (14,287); 6/27 vs. Dallas (14,173); 7/4 vs. Philadelphia (14,479); 8/1 vs. Columbus (13,419); 8/15 vs. Seattle (13,839); 8/30 vs. DC (12,517); 9/11 vs. NE (10,783); 9/20 vs. KC (15,382); 10/4 vs. LA (24,283); 10/10 vs. Toronto (12,426); 10/24 vs. Chicago (14,825)

Matt Higgins is an intrepid journalist commenting on American soccer from behind the Great Firewall of China.  When he has access, he blogs at Have Notebook Will Travel.  
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