SBJ/June 20-26, 2011/Opinion

MLS must choose between more markets and quality of play

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The morning after Barcelona’s glorious coronation as the planet’s best soccer team, I was overjoyed to pick up the Los Angeles Times and read no less than six soccer stories in the sports section, including one on the front page. As someone whose résumé includes stints at a Major League Soccer franchise, a team in England, Fox Soccer Channel and the 1994 World Cup, I have long been and remain intensely passionate about growing the sport domestically, even as my full-time career has moved in another direction.

Perhaps most noteworthy from the collection of stories was the columnist Bill Plaschke writing on his eye-opening experience watching the May 28 UEFA Champions League final in a pub and realizing just how big the sport is here in the United States, thanks in no small part to the “ever-changing America” from a demographic standpoint. Overjoyed at this take over my morning mocha, I then came to the part of the column where a pub owner noted how relatively few MLS fans there were, saying, “People who know soccer laugh at the quality of that league.”

After working to grow the league for many years myself, that is the type of line that used to infuriate me. But now, years removed from working full time in the game, I know that opinion definitely has merit, and it provides the incredible challenge, but also the monstrous opportunity, facing Major League Soccer.

MLS has gained buzz in recent years with some moves into new markets that on the surface seem very successful, especially if you have experienced the passion in Seattle or witnessed the support for a terrible team in Toronto.

GETTY IMAGES
Have new MLS markets, like Seattle (in green), shown success but diluted the on-field product?
But with every new market opened up, I believe MLS has actually hurt itself, as it has consistently diluted an on-field product that already wasn’t good enough. And the play on the field is the only thing that matters, period.

New stadiums and other window dressing only last so long. Witness Minnesota’s Target Field, an urban baseball cathedral that opened to sellout crowds all of last year but this year saw empty seats and dismayed scalpers dumping below-face-value tickets as the team became baseball’s worst before a recent resurgence.

My career also includes the ultimate lesson in this theory: I handled corporate communications for the short-lived XFL. As you read recently in this publication’s 10th anniversary package on the league (May 16-22 issue), our marketing was incredible, leading to massive tune-in and huge ticket and sponsorship sales before Rod Smart even dreamed up putting “He Hate Me” on his jersey. But the product was so awful that the league was dead on arrival. Even Harvard Business School wrote a case study on the league as the classic example of the import of product quality, no matter how good every other aspect of the business may be.

That is what I worry MLS is forgetting as it continues to expand. And I am not alone. I have spoken with executives at television partners including ESPN and Fox Soccer Channel who agree, as they struggle this season to drive ratings to a product that withers compared with the competition. Some might think expanding the footprint would drive TV ratings. In this case, not true. With the best players and teams in the world playing on U.S. television almost every day, and many of them playing in America every summer for the star-studded series of exhibitions that take place, the contrast between MLS and the other leagues is there for all to see.

So MLS is going to have to make some tough decisions regarding the number of teams in the league in coming years. How do you turn down an owner who wants to hand you tens of millions of dollars in expansion fee money when you are not raking in hundreds of millions in TV money like other leagues? Or how do you face the stigma of contraction? The league will have to decide if it really needs teams in markets with small but passionate fan bases, like Columbus and New England, at the expense of a weaker product overall — or is it better served keeping the number of teams static or fewer, concentrating the talent base and hopefully improving the product. I would lean toward relocation over expansion when new markets come calling.

One thing is certain: The league has no choice but to continue to pour its every last dollar into attracting better talent on the field. Nothing else matters. And the only way to do that is through money.

As I mentioned, the bar owner’s opinion of MLS is also a massive opportunity for the league. They don’t need to convert mainstream sports fans to soccer. That is a fool’s errand. They have a massive target audience, which is the tens of millions of Americans who eagerly watched Barcelona destroy Manchester United but didn’t go home later to catch a game featuring the Galaxy, Fire or Red Bulls.

That is huge and enviable upside. A league like the NHL (sometimes compared to MLS in many ways) doesn’t have that luxury. It already has most of the best players in the world, so where the growth comes from is a challenge, though its new TV deal leaves it on solid footing to be sure. But for MLS, the road map is obvious: Get soccer fans of all nationalities that live in the U.S. and love to watch leagues around the world to buy into the domestic league.

And the only way to do that is to make the product better on the field. More markets won’t accomplish that; in fact, it will do the opposite.

People who know me have heard me say it wouldn’t surprise me if I ended up working in the “beautiful game” full time again one day. If it is in MLS, I would fight for one strategy and one strategy only: It’s about the product, stupid, and we need to make gutsy decisions to get a better one. n

Ben Grossman (bgrossman@nbmedia.com) is editor-in-chief of the television trade publication Broadcasting & Cable.

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