Baseball calls it Hot Stove season. The NFL occupies months with draft talk, organized team activities, mini-camps and training camps. Whatever the name, off season events have become an integral part of the modern sports business model. Fans hungry for team and league news flock to websites, mainstream media sources, sports radio and sports television for year round coverage of their favorite sports. Major League Soccer has 3-4 months of “dead time” which must be filled to keep the league and its franchises relevant on both the national and local sports landscapes.
Over the past few years, the league has significantly improved on the “back end” of the off season with respect to generating interest. Last year MLS teams did a great job keeping their fans updated on scrimmages and matches through Twitter during the preseason period. The league’s official website stepped up its offerings with in depth reporting and highlights from training games around the country. There were also taped interviews and the video provided views of the excellent Arizona facility where many teams played. The quality of the broadcasts were surprisingly good and provided a great way for fans to keep track of their team in the weeks leading up to the season. Teams also participated in neutral site matches (like Corpus Christie) which drew sizable crowds.
Presuming the league builds on that effort, the key is now the December/January period. The league runs its expansion draft right after the Final and deals involving Montreal have dominated the post-Thanksgiving period. The Superdraft and re-entry drafts also have potential to become publicity generating events during the Winter months. While these events should garner some attention, the league should work harder with its partners to generate more interest in the drafts. This is especially so of the Superdraft, which has typically been squeezed into a mid-day broadcast on ESPN2 or News. While the quality of the broadcast has increased significantly over the years, the mid-week/mid-day timeslot reflects the limited interest in the event. Increased interest in the draft begets increased interest in rookies, which ultimately creates interests in the on the field product. Fans become vested in their draft choices, which also drives jersey sales and increases connections with the players on the field.
Generating interest in the off season for any but the most fervent of fans is of course challenging. However, it will be interesting to see if the league can leverage its new relationship with NBC Sports to increase coverage of hot stove, draft and other off season changes. 2011 was a very successful campaign for Major League Soccer; the league now has a great opportunity to build upon that momentum through an well orchestrated off season