Soccer

Bringing in Casual Fans: MLS Needs Super Clubs

| by World Soccer Reader

With the impending start of the 2010-11 English Premier League season, your Soccer Web Site of choice (World Soccer Reader, of course) is offering predictions for the upcoming season, and like a movie sequel unwilling to risk killing-off one of its main characters, the Premier League has a predictable group of protagonists. If you see a site that doesn’t have Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal in the top four, you’ve found the rarity amidst a seemingly homogenous sea of predictions (and somebody that may be trying too hard). Even amongst the prognoses that have pushed one of the big three out of Champions League, few have the gumption to say Manchester City will finish first. As it’s still unclear whether the Abu Dhabi Group has found the José Mourinho to fit their Chelsea rubric, sites’ predicted Premier League winners have been tried and true, red or blue.

Across European football, the presence of a small, ruling class is not exclusive to England. Real Madrid and Barcelona have combined to win 51 of the 77 Spanish Primera Division titles. Italy’s big three (Juventus, Internazionale, and Milan) have been awarded the 72 of the 105 scudetto. Bayern Munich’s won 22 Bundesliga titles since 1963, Portugal’s big three (Benfica, Porto, Sporting Club) have won all but three Ligas, while Ajax and PSV have combined for 50 of the Eredivisie’s 118 championships. If you continue your search to Russia, Turkey, Greece and more you see that hegemony is the rule; parity in leagues like Ligue 1, the exceptions.

These are the type of lopsided results leagues in North America have codified against. Long before Major League Soccer came along, we had adopted a culture that judged one team’s dominance as the symptom of a broken system. All teams in a league should have a chance, our sporting egalitarianism held, and the only way to prove that all teams have a chance would be to have an array of teams in each league winning titles. While there is a flaw in that logic, salary caps and revenue sharing have become staples of the North American sporting landscape, measures which help prevent a monopoly of titles. Even the last frontier of sports capitalism, Major League Baseball, is giving lip-service to redistributing revenues (though the New York Yankees’ brand is a bit too strong for the league to completely turn its back on).

Major sports leagues in this part of the world have not always been this way; in fact, almost every popular, non-soccer sport in this country has built its brand on being decidedly hegemonic. Baseball’s last boom came on the back of 15 Yankee World Series appearances in 18 years (from 1947-1964). Basketball’s first rise to consciousness was due to the Lakers then Celtics in the 50s and 60s, its launch to a dominant sport resulting from a second Lakers-Celtics period in the 1980s. Hockey had the Canadians, and even individual sports like boxing, tennis and golf had Joe Louis, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and Jack Nicklaus. The National Football League – the league that’s held up as the model of league-first planning – may not be the model were it not for a run of five titles in seven seasons from the Green Bay Packers the coincided with the advent of the Super Bowl. Our sporting culture may not like hegemony, but when a game’s in need of a boost, it’s nice to have that constant, successful presence that serves as an “anchor” for the casual fan.

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The rationale goes like this: Until casual fans are committed to the league, they are only going to tune-in to your high profile offerings. When they do, they are more likely to stay if they know something about what they’re watching. A casual baseball fan in the 1950s was likely to stop and watch the Yankees (on their black-and-white Zenith), and after years of doing so would be more likely to take notice when the Yankees were visiting their local team. Once at the park, the fan’s more likely to find a reason beyond the Yankees to attend baseball games, and voila – causal fan converted. In the modern age where television viewership is the prize, if a Yankee-esque team can get a casual fan to tune into another broadcast or purchase a viewing package? Converted. The fan just needs that initial anchor, giving them reason to pause and take notice.

At one point, Major League Soccer was going in this direction. In the early days of the league, D.C. United emerged as MLS’s Yankees, winning three of the first four MLS Cups and winning the 1998 confederation club title. Additionally, the Los Angeles Galaxy achieved some prominence, reaching two of the first four MLS Cup finals, winning the 2000 CONCACAF Champions Cup. Now a decade later, with the league having taken a turn to parity while dealing with contraction and expansion, MLS is still trying to regain the television ratings, time slots, and on-the-field results of its first four seasons.

Complicating MLS’s quest to regain that audience is competition from leagues that have already established anchors. Whereas in 1996 Major League Soccer could function as the only game in town, the ubiquity of European soccer broadcasts makes the Premier League, Spanish Primera, Serie A and Bundesliga competitors to convert the casual fans. And unfortunately for MLS, the EPL has anchors. Spain, Italy and German have anchors. As recent attendances in Houston (70,728 a Manchester United appearance) and Pasadena (89,134, Real Madrid) affirm, brands of the big European clubs are capable of capturing the casual fan. While bringing Real Madrid in to play the Los Angeles Galaxy exposes that fan to the MLS product, it could also reinforce the fans’ desire to watch Real Madrid on GoalTV, ESPN Deportes, ESPN2 – wherever the fan may drift.

Once there, that fan is not going to care that Spain is one of the least competitive leagues in the world. History hints U.S. sporting culture’s value of parity is throw out-the-window for emerging leagues, and in this market, English, Spanish – European football – is still emerging. The casual fan is less likely to care that Real Madrid is facing an Almería side withe little chance of winning. In tuning in at all, that fan’s already anchored to Real Madrid,. Given many La Liga matches start opposite early MLS weekend kickoffs, that anchor could inhibit the fan from patronize the local league.

Thankfully, Major League Soccer is putting itself in position to win-over some of these fans. Though it goes against many of the professional sports ideals that fans in North America have come to espouse, developing Major League Soccer anchors – super clubs – will help. With the rising salary cap, expanding rosters (reserve teams), and more designated player spots, MLS’s rules have allowed teams that want to become relative super clubs to do so. David Beckham’s Los Angeles has already shown it’s possible for an MLS team to captivate the sports landscape, and while it’s too much to hope such attention will be the norm in the forseeable future, it’s not too much to expect a couple of highly successful teams to get 5-10 minutes worth of run on Monday’s Mike and Mike in the Morning. MLS just needs something to anchor the Mikes of the world. New super clubs, the first since turn-of-the-century D.C. United and Los Angeles, would (at a minimum) compete for the attentions of the potentially converted.

Throughout the history of organized, professional sport in this country, leagues been able to push forward when there are one or two dominant forces around which coverage can converge, and while it goes against much of the everybody-deserves-a-chance, a-one-team-league-is-a-broken-league ethos we’ve accepted, making the short-term sacrifice of developing a few anchors could hasten the league’s long-term aspirations. We may abhor that the English Premier League is always Manchester United, Arsenal or Chelsea, but that hegemony may also help fuel the league’s success.

While it’s paradoxical a league built on parity may have to temporarily abandon it to help establish its place in the sporting landscape, it’s hardly novel.