Guest Commentary: WHAT MLS IS DOING RIGHT (AND WHAT IT CAN DO RIGHT NOW) TO GROW ITS POPULARITY AMONG U.S. SOCCER FANS

We are still traveling, so we thought we would re-visit this excellent guest post from Craig Codlin posted during the season.  Craig does a great job looking at MLS efforts to market its product and grow its popularity.  We should be back on Wednesday.

All season, we have focused on the efforts of individual teams to convert soccer fans to MLS fans.  We have interviewed various front office personnel, analyzed marketing efforts targeted to hardcore fans and interviewed soccer fans around the country to determine what they want from MLS.  Today, we offer the guest commentary of Craig Codlin, a 38 year old corporate attorney and lifelong soccer fan living in Seattle.  Now a Sounders season ticket holder, Craig previously lived in New York City and endured multiple losing MetroStars seasons.  He is a fan of all things MLS and today provides us with some great insight into the League’s effort to keep and retain fans.  Thanks to Craig for some outstanding analysis.

Don Garber, the commissioner of MLS, recently articulated an important concept relating to the way MLS is going to be marketing itself in the future.  Essentially, he said that he believes there are plenty of soccer fans in the U.S. and that MLS’s job is to convert these soccer fans into fans of the League. This is important in many ways, not least of which is the apparent complete shedding of the original plan MLS had and stuck with for many years, which was to focus most of its energy to selling its product to the U.S. non-soccer fan.  The theory, I imagine, was that MLS would already have the diehard soccer fans in its pocket just by virtue of showing up in the U.S. and filling the void and that it should spend its resources on converting the non-soccer fans into fans.  As we all know, this was a flawed approach, resulting in such horrors in the early years as the game clock that counted down to zero and the “shootouts” to avoid the seeming travesty of a tie.

Soccer fans in the U.S. are a fiercely loyal and stalwart bunch.  They show up at pubs at 8am to watch games in Europe and they endure the constant barrage of barbs and verbal jabs that come from the general American sports media and fans who sometimes seem to feel that the possibility that soccer could gain a toehold in this country is a personal affront to everything American.  But because of their fundamental love for the sport, nobody else can bring as much passion to the stadiums, and as solid numbers to the TV broadcasts, as this group of people. But getting this group to embrace MLS, when they are generally more inclined to spend their soccer viewing time watching higher quality European, Mexican or national matches (even more so given the abundance of high quality soccer currently available on cable and satellite)is an immense challenge. I do not believe it is insurmountable, but it will take some time, partially because MLS in many ways dug a hole with this group of fans from the outset due to its focus on the soccer-mom families instead of the true U.S. soccer fan.

I believe that there are three actions that MLS is currently taking (or in the process of taking) that will greatly enhance its ability to bridge the gap and pique the interest of the U.S. soccer fan who has not yet embraced the League. seattle

Building and Cultivating Regional Rivalries. One of the major problems MLS confronts from a marketing perspective is that its geographic spread (which, of course, includes Canada) is much larger than almost all (if not all) of the existing domestic leagues world-wide, with major population centers spaced thousands of miles apart, making it much more difficult to cultivate interest outside of the cities that have teams. If you live anywhere in England, you are at worst a short train ride away from an EPL club and if you live in a major population center such as London there are many teams all within a ride on the Tube.  The proximity of all of the teams naturally creates intense rivalries, which in any sport generates interest. MLS simply does not have a situation where all of the teams can be in relative proximity to one another, so it must foster regional rivalries. The addition of Philadelphia, whose sports fans bear chips on their shoulders as the red-headed step-child city of the Mid-Atlantic, and two more Pacific Northwest teams, will clearly help.  The hope is that their entrance into MLS will create pockets of intense regional rivalries on which the League can build interest and a broader fan base. The first time Seattle Sounders FC heads into Portland, you can bet that the game will be nationally televised and promoted, simply to get as many U.S. fans as possible seeing a stadium packed to capacity with passionate fans creating complete and utter bedlam.  I would imagine that any soccer fan in the U.S. would find it worth their time to spend two hours watching that game, the same way that many hard core baseball fans country-wide love seeing the Red Sox and Yankees square off in meaningful October games.  The addition of Montreal would also create a natural rivalry with Toronto, which will also be great for the League. Putting aside the quality of the play on the field for a moment, nothing gets the U.S. sports fan more excited than the perception that a sporting event is something more than just a game, but rather something that is greater than the sum of its parts.  Stands filled to capacity with screaming, chanting, passionate fans helps create that perception.  Which leads me to…

rio tintoStadiums: Even on television (and even more so in person), there is a vast difference between seeing a game played in a fantastic venue like Rio Tinto or HDC versus converted baseball stadiums (with pitchers mounds in full view, tiny dimensions and horrible fan sight lines) and cavernous football stadiums (particularly once the NFL and college football get started and the additional lines on the pitch make die hard soccer fans’ eyes bleed). Thank goodness, assuming there are no unpleasant surprises, MLS is in the process of building great new stadiums in Houston, San Jose, Kansas City, Philadelphia, Portland and New York, all of which should be completed and fully functioning by 2012 (and all of which, other than Portland, will have natural grass surfaces, I believe). Only Seattle (which seems to work, even in a large stadium…for now), New England (which will not change in the foreseeable future), D.C. (which is actively seeking a new stadium deal) and Vancouver (which sees B.C. Place as a temporary home with a waterfront soccer stadium on its wish list) will be left in gigantic football stadiums, and there will be no more minor league baseball or small college football stadium eyesores left. This alone will make MLS seem much less “minor league” to traditional soccer fans. Getting the soccer specific stadiums filled, of course, is still a challenge (see Colorado and Dallas as prime examples), but I believe that as more and more games are played in proper soccer venues, soccer fans will as a whole take MLS more seriously and begin to show up in greater numbers.  Also, with the vast majority of MLS teams having permanent homes for which they control the scheduling, the League will be seen as more financially stable, eliminating the concern for fans that they will be getting themselves invested emotionally and financially in a team and league that could disappear at any time.  Ideally, MLS will do its best to ensure that future stadium projects are as close to downtown epicenters (or at least easily accessible public transportation from those epicenters) as possible, since those stadiums tend to draw the best crowds. Of course, in the end, it is the product on the field that will do the most to win over the hearts and minds of the U.S. soccer fans, leading me to probably my most important point…

collective bargainThe Collective Bargaining Agreement. While the traditional management stance since the beginning of time has always been to keep wages as low as possible, MLS needs to take a giant, progressive leap forward here and take a position which for management will seem counter intuitive. MLS teams have got to have the ability to pay, and therefore retain, their quality players, particularly the players that they spent the time to develop.  The wages paid to second and third tier players (after the designated players, of course) are disgraceful by any standard, much more so for a professional sports league that considers itself “major league”.  Even the top tiered non-DP players have every incentive to leave the U.S. for even minor European leagues since the pay discrepancy is so vast (Kasey Keller has stated he was offered three times as much as his $300,000 salary with the Sounders to play in the Romanian league).  Keeping as much domestic talent as possible (understanding that, for now, almost all truly world class U.S. players will still bolt for Europe if given the opportunity) should be a huge priority for MLS.  Not only does it keep recognizable American faces here, but it increases stability for the teams within MLS to be able to build their team (and their brand) around a core of high quality American players. Knowing that the same players will (generally) be around from year to year fosters more fan loyalty and, not coincidentally, sales of player-related merchandise such as jerseys. Currently, MLS team strategy seems to be to sign one aging big name DP plus a couple of decent players, and then to fill in the gaps with the chaff of dirt cheap, interchangeable parts. The solution to this problem is conveniently available right now, as the League is conducting its collective bargaining agreement negotiations with the MLS players union. The cap needs to be loosened considerably (possibly with a Larry Bird-rule type exception, allowing teams to keep the stars they cultivate) or, at the very least, should be more than tripled to around $6-7M (plus the DP exception) with annual lock-step percentage increases to the cap each year during the life of the new collective bargaining agreement. This action alone will immediately increase the quality of the product on the field and allow MLS franchises room to develop and sign players good enough to create much higher quality play league-wide on the pitch. MLS needs to be forward thinking about this and understand that while the “NASL dilemma” makes this step a bit scary, there is a way to do this smartly that will dramatically increase the league’s credibility among the U.S. soccer fan.

With the “Summer of Soccer” being an unquestioned success at both the turnstiles and in the amount of attention heaped upon it by the mainstream media, the time is right for MLS to make its sales pitch to the U.S. soccer fan.  By continuing to take the steps MLS seems to be consciously taking to foster rivalries, as well as building stadiums that represent well the sport we love, MLS has begun making much better choices to appeal to this crucial base of fans.  But in the end, the quality on the pitch will be the ultimate determining factor as to whether these fans will buy-in to the MLS experience.  The collective bargaining agreement is the tool with which the League can finally make a huge statement to these fans that it understands that quality of play is the single most important thing a soccer league can offer.  It is time to shed some (but not all) of MLS’s fiscal conservatism and give MLS teams the flexibility to go out and build quality clubs that have the capability to play aesthetically pleasing, competitive soccer.

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