So, Where’s The League Going Now?By: Ben | December 5th, 2012
Another season has come and gone, and LA, who underachieved famously throughout 2012, has taken the cake. So, with MLS entering the offseason, the Beckham Experiment at its close, and the future wide open before us, it seems appropriate to discuss our league’s direction.
To begin, I’d direct everyone to this fascinating article from ESPN Soccernet. Consider these bits;
“This is not your older brother’s MLS. As the buzz descends on Wednesday’s All-Star Game against Chelsea, America’s oft-maligned domestic soccer league has gamely garnered an average attendance of 18,732, witnessed the construction of 14 purpose-built stadia nationwide and become a fixture (albeit an erratic one) across multiple broadcast networks…. Despite this steady growth, the MLS’ 17th season has been one of quiet though dramatic behind-the-scenes transformation. The league has emerged from six months spent painstakingly examining its marketing strategies. For the first time it has concluded that it must begin to define itself as a national brand across North America.”
“On Trends/ESPN revealed the startling statistic that “pro soccer” trailed only the NFL as the most popular sport for Americans aged 12-24. Handler followed up with the pollsters and was relieved to learn “if you pull out MLS alone, it still ranks No. 4, ahead of Major League Baseball and NCAA football/basketball.”
“Television viewing patterns … uncovered an 80 percent overlap between avid Champions League viewers and those who watched MLS, and a 50 percent overlap with English Premier League aficionados. The conclusion Handler drew was simple. “So much is written about the rise and relevance of global soccer in North America but a true supporters’ movement has emerged here in the United States that has not been covered in the national media because our positioning has barely changed since kickoff in 1996 [when the league started],” he said.”
“MLS is at an inflection point where it has the potential to take off exponentially if it can conjure a way to make the patchwork of localized fan frenzy spill over and follow the game league-wide… Driving national ratings for live-game broadcasts remains the league’s top priority”
Okay, I know that was a lot to be quoting, but really I could have copy pasted the entire article. It’s worth reading. I’m impressed by how frank and self-aware MLS’s brass seems; as much as we like to imagine them as distant, stupid, and generally useless, they seem to know the league and be aware of both it’s weaknesses and routes to improvement. Clearly, as we see in both their analysis and in our own as fans, MLS has made strides. We’ve added 14 stadia, grown in TV ratings, and surpassed both the NBA and NHL in attendance. Plus, as indicated above, Eurosnobbery may not be quite as severe an issue as previously thought. It may be that fans are leaning toward a multi-team solution, where a person follows Chelsea or Barca online and on TV but still attends their local MLS side’s matches, takes them for what they are, respects the fact of the growing league, and remains hopeful that we could one day match our cousins abroad. As I’ve said before, fandom for European and American clubs aren’t mutually exclusive; it may well be that others’ are starting to live in that notion.
Still, as the article points out, what we’ve arrived at is a sort of network of passionate, but wholly localized groups of supporters. We have the Sons of Ben, the Emerald City Supporters, and the Empire Supporters Club (to name a few), each chock full of die-hard members, but continue to lack attention by those in between. The average Joe still considers MLS a marginal league. It’s something we have to face, and it seems in the above article that the men on top are fully aware. The challenge will be to connect the dots and generate a more “league” feel, where people care about the league as a whole, and where the league is taken seriously as an entity. There’s no reason it shouldn’t be; our attendance numbers really say something. But we truly are at a turning point where we can plateau at localized utra-support or expand into the mainstream.
A more interesting question, thought, is the role that American players will have in the future of MLS. I direct you to these two articles, (1 and 2) the first a discussion of the decrease in playing time by Americans and the second a look into Landon Donovan’s inevitable retirement.
Like every other soccer player ever, Landon Donovan will retire one day. It will be a sad day, one accompanied by countless retrospectives and well-deserved moments of thanks, but, as much as we’d like it not to, it is coming. Within the context of the first article, I can’t help but wonder if his leaving will signal the end of MLS’s era as a league focused on American development. Yes, I know it sounds like a stretch; Americans still get the majority of time on the field, developmental academies are expanding, roster slots are reserved for homegrowns, and the league works closely with the national team. But consider this quote from Coach Klinsmann:
“[American underrepresentation on the field is] definitely a topic that we want to bring up with Don Garber and MLS because we want to make sure that, especially the younger group of players, that they get as much exposure as possible coming through the developmental stage. I know that an 18-, 19-, 20-year-old is not at the same level as an experienced player … but we have to make sure they get the chance to break through. They need the chance to get their minutes in … It’s definitely worth a discussion going forward.”
He makes an important point. When we talk about developing American players, we are, for the most part, referring to the nurturing and growth of young Americans. The fact is, though, that, as MLS develops and becomes more competitive, there’s less incentive for coaches to actively use less experienced players. Heck, when your job depends on your ability to win, why spend you time “developing” youth talent if you have experienced players, foreign or not, on the bench? There’s simply less incentive.
I don’t mean to say that MLS doens’t do a lot to protect the growth of Americans as a goal; it’s obvious that it does a lot. I propose, though, that it should go even further. We run the risk of every young club becoming a Vancouver, who allocates barely more than a quarter of its aggregate field time to Americans and Canadians, if we aren’t careful. I’m not xenophobic, and I’d love for MLS to stay diverse. But I think that, as America’s domestic league, player development needs to remain paramount.
Where do you think the league is headed? Where would you like it to go? Sound off below.