SBJ/Feb. 24-March 2, 2014/Opinion

Focus group of friends gives the skinny on MLS

I’m not part of any soccer nation or one of the devoted evangelists of the sport, but I take great interest in watching MLS’s development for a number of reasons. We’ve covered the league closely since its start in 1996; I have a number of relationships at the team and league level with people I admire; and I have friends who play frequently and who follow the sport religiously.
 
My view is that MLS has made impressive progress over 19 years, and particularly over the last 12 to 14 months has made a number of ambitious, strategic moves. Expansion with New York City FC (franchise fee near $100 million), Orlando City SC ($70 million) and now Miami ($25 million, a reduced fee for David Beckham as part of the deal he signed when he joined the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2007) provides a list of clubs paying franchise fees I believed were a dream just five years ago. I remember when the initial franchise fee was $5 million.
 
I’ve also liked over the past year how Tim Leiweke has rejuvenated Toronto FC and made acquiring talent the foundation for building up a fan base. And the league’s impending TV deal seems like a massive hit as well, especially because the viewership numbers don’t justify the economics of what the league will be receiving.

Looking ahead, there are even more positives. The World Cup this summer could have a significant, lasting impact on the game in the U.S., something that bodes well for the league. And MLS’s footprint looks poised for still more growth. There are a number of markets wanting in: Atlanta, Minneapolis, Charlotte, San Antonio, St. Louis, Austin and Sacramento are all exploring bids.

So what’s missing? It’s not a surprise, but MLS needs a more passionate fan base resulting in more television viewers. It needs an improved TV schedule leading to appointment viewing. It likely needs a new schedule and, of course, the biggest piece, more talent on the pitch to get past the perception that it’s a lower-level league. That’s just my top-of-mind assessment. To get a broader perspective, I asked a few of my buddies, all soccer advocates — current and former players and coaches and all ardent followers of the sport (most of them named Matt) — about their impressions of MLS. Some may not be the demo MLS is targeting, but these are soccer fans that MLS needs. Their responses were consistent with what the league and teams have heard before. It comes down to quality of play, quality of the environment, and quality of the scheduling.

Matt is a 43-year-old soccer coach who has been around the game his entire life. He gives the league major props for its progress. “At the start, it was focused on entertainment more than soccer and grabbing the casual sports fan versus the soccer purist,” he said. “But the ship has been righted, and the league realizes that it must be soccer first and that there is enough of a critical mass here in the U.S. and a global audience for MLS to succeed.”
 
But he does have his issues. “Both at the game and on TV, it just doesn’t always look like and feel like a soccer environment, as some of the venues don’t fill in the stands, some are turf, and on some you can even see football lines,” he added. “Personally, I am a huge opponent of artificial turf for high-level soccer.” He believes the turf hurts the style of play, making the game choppier and less fluid. He watches far more EPL for its high quality of play and “the better venues, all on regular grass, always with packed attendance and chanting fans,” he said.
 
My buddy Ross agreed and admitted that, as a parent, his time is limited. “Access to watching world-class players is easier than ever,” he told me. “Why watch Seattle and [Clint] Dempsey, who are both excellent and compelling, when I can watch Ibra, Messi and Ronaldo?”

A 20-year-old college soccer player, Matt P. said he catches only two to three MLS games a season, but he watches the EPL every weekend. He cites the lack of “household names” in MLS and the “superstars” in EPL. He also stressed that NBC Sports’ TV coverage and scheduling “also favors the EPL.”
 
My good buddy Scott plays in a number of men’s leagues and is on the pitch virtually every weekend. Over a few beers, he told me that MLS is more in the conversation among his soccer friends than ever before, but the drawbacks are in presentation and quality of play. “The lack of a set TV schedule for MLS prevents me from watching more, and if I’m going to watch a game, it will be an EPL game, both for the quality and the fact that I know it is on Saturday and Sunday mornings,” he said. “The coverage of the MLS game needs to be more engaging. There is still such a distinct difference and feeling in watching an MLS game versus an EPL, La Liga or Bundesliga game.” He also cited the quality of play, and while he loves the addition of Michael Bradley in Toronto, he said, “The next big MLS coup will be to get a world-class, non U.S. player here in his prime.” He also wants more competition against Europe’s best. “I wish there was a way that our better MLS teams could play in a European tournament and be tested there more. The CONCACAF Champions League is somewhat compelling but not enough,” he said.
 
A positive element is the emerging rivalry that has developed in the Pacific Northwest. Another Matt (yes, the third), a 19-year-old college player, has watched MLS seriously since 2009, when the Seattle Sounders entered the league. He doesn’t miss a Sounders game. “I enjoy watching the Sounders because of the atmosphere at the games. Roughly 40,000 fans attend each home game, and the team gets good road support as well,” he said.
 
Lance, a 43-year-old former college player, wants more rivalries and said the Pacific Northwest teams have led him to consume more MLS action. “I like the Portland-Seattle rivalry. The fans make watching the game on TV actually kind of fun,” he said. Scott agreed with that point: “Seattle has created a great atmosphere and fan base.”

Coach Matt has been around the game the most, and while not an early believer, he’s now bullish on MLS. “Keep evolving,” he stressed. His plan: More grass-only, soccer-specific venues; expansion of the salary cap and designated-player position; continued focus on player development; and changes to the schedule, “[to] be like the rest of the soccer world by dropping conferences and having one table where everyone plays each other twice, home and away.” His other point: Drop the MLS playoffs and MLS Cup. “No one else in the soccer world has a regular season, then playoffs, then a ‘Super Bowl’ or championship game,” he said. “Make the league champion and the U.S. Open Cup the big trophies.”

MLS Commissioner Don Garber and his staff have heard all this before. Garber discussed these points at his State of the League address in December, especially the development of rivalries in New York, the Southeast and the Midwest. The issue of “talent” is a focal point of the discussion of the club presidents in our In-Depth this week; Leiweke called the “level of play” the league’s strongest asset. And the TV and promotion schedule of the sport was hit on very astutely by Timbers owner Merritt Paulson.
 
These are all important, difficult and complicated issues to be resolved, no doubt. But to my original point: Impressive progress continues to be made, and the good news for MLS is that each of my buddies wants to support MLS, and they are doing so more than ever. I’ll give Coach Matt the final word, as he told me in signing off, “We are grabbing more of the pie, and we have the momentum on our side.”

> CHECKING IN WITH JOEL, THE FARMER: Many of you have commented how much you enjoyed reading the story about the Pennsylvania dairy farmer Joel and his family on their way to a vacation at Disney World (SportsBusiness Journal, Nov. 18-24, 2013). I recently heard from a friend of Joel’s who read the piece — Scott of Orrstown, Pa. He is also a farmer and the same age as Joel and thanked me for telling the story of his friend. “I think that most of us are proud of what we do and what we stand for. It still feels good when you get a little pat on the back. I feel like your story does that for me,” he wrote.

I really appreciated that note from Scott and have kept in touch with Joel since meeting him in November. He wrote me last week, “We are all doing well, just really tired of winter. We have had a lot of below normal temperatures, mornings at zero degrees and more snow than normal. It makes for more work and it takes longer just to do ‘normal’ chores.’” He did catch the Super Bowl at a friend’s house: “The food was good. What a bad game!” He is looking forward to spring and baseball season. “As a kid, I would listen to baseball on the radio, [and] since then I have been an Orioles fan. [My son] Isaac is now interested in it as well. We hope to go to a game this summer in Baltimore and have a vacation day with the family.”
 
My new friend gives me a laugh when he ends his note by easing my concern of whether I could handle their work hours if I ever get to visit the farm. “You are welcome here anytime. You don’t even have to work, just visit.”

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com.

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