Point Five

Posted on December 30, 2013 7:21 am

So nobody watched MLS Cup.  How shall we react?

Well, nobody watched on television.  Sporting Park was sold out, and it sure looked like people there had a good time.  In any case, who cares what a bunch of freaking looky-loos think?  A few devoted supporters are better than a bunch of casual gawkers.

Unfortunately, it’s the twenty-first century.  Corporate sponsorships and television ratings are more powerful drivers than gate attendance, or, in a phrase I am about to coin in an attempt to sound hip and futurist, “meatpacking.”  It would be nice to think that a major American sports league could survive simply on attendance, but I’m not sure that’s the case anymore.

Some people say that it was a match between small-market teams.  I tend to look down my nose at this line of thinking, even though (or perhaps because) it’s hardly limited to MLS.  One time I walked into the NBA shop in New York, and found absolutely no items for the league’s reigning champions at the time, the San Antonio Spurs.  Why even have teams in “smaller” markets if there’s a run on fainting couches every time one or two of them actually do well?

It is very unbecoming for MLS fans to talk about small markets, though.  Two of our “big” markets, Seattle and Portland, are very much on the small potatoey side.  Ever since 1996, MLS has relied on small markets for its muscle and sinew – back in the 90′s, it was New York and Los Angeles that bled money while Columbus was building a stadium.

Nor were the two teams who made it this year remarkably unpopular – Salt Lake sold 96% of its tickets, Kansas City 107%.  It’s not like we trotted out Chivas USA against the Gobbledy Gooker.

Some people say there wasn’t a lot of star power in the game.  But, come on, it’s not like Real Salt Lake’s entire motto is how they don’t have any…you know, some people might be on to something here.

But really, how many stars are there in MLS?  I know, they’re all stars to us.  How many would move a rating from 0.5 to, I don’t know, 0.6?  Thierry Henry is extremely famous among soccer fans, and Landon Donovan would get most USMNT fans to watch – you would hope.  But then again, you would hope most USMNT fans would watch Beckerman, Rimando or Besler – and, as we know, every Mexico fan is a Graham Zusi fan for life.  (I have a theory that Zusi by himself accounted for the better Spanish-language TV ratings.  I have no intention of researching this theory, because I cherish it so much.)

Another problem was the televised competition.  I had a very brief twitter discussion about whether the SEC Championship Game would prove terminal to the game’s ratings.  You would think now that I would accept that I lost that argument, but there’s always, always, always going to be other stuff on.  I like the Thanksgiving idea that Jonah Freedman came up with, but the ESPN would still use the game to counter-program against gridiron.  And we’d still have lousy ratings.

Freedman’s point was that down the road it would build a viewing tradition, in much the same way Thanksgiving has for the Detroit Lions.  Which is doable, right?  Come on, we can some day be as big as the Detroit Lions, can’t we?

There was also the fact that it…was a terribly game.

Oh, come on, you know it was.  Anyone who was bored by the SEC Championship – and no one was, because they banned defense that game – would have tuned into MLS Cup to see two very good teams play some very ponderous soccer.  I blame the weather.  If the league doesn’t go back to October to take on regular season NFL and college – or better still, the World Series.  BRING DOWN THE PASTIME! – the odds still favor better weather in a random November weekend than in early December.

There may be a school of thought that says the quality of MLS Cup was low because the quality of MLS is low.  Fine, go watch Hull.

I know, I’m supposed to give lip service to soccer fans who hate soccer.  I still think that there’s simply no short-term way to reach that kind of fan, so it’s pointless to try.  How do you tell the kind of fan I mean?  If their criticisms of MLS either (a) would apply to thousands of teams around the world or, better still, (b) have nothing to do with what’s actually happening on the field?  There’s your bunny.  They won’t be the league’s next fans, they’ll be the league’s last fans.  Stop me if I’ve mentioned that.

In any case, if you did want to win them over, you couldn’t – short of starting an NASL-style bidding war with European superpowers.  You can’t simply start paying existing players more and turn them into better players.  You could expand the salary cap slightly and import a few more players, but I will bet you my 1996 Alexi Lalas New England Revolution keychain that the needle would not move – not among those to whom the words “retirement league” come naturally.

This, by the way, is not meant to be taken as a reason not to expand the salary cap and import a few more players.  It will simply please existing fans, and maybe win over a few passersby.

Then again, I’m someone who thinks that even when an MLS team wins the CONCACAF Cup again, the results will be disappointing at the gate, so we’ll see.

Sorry about that tangent.  MLS Cup 2013 was a lousy game by MLS standards, and it was lousy because Kansas City’s weather in December is what you’d reasonably expect.  There’s no good reason to do such a thing again.

There’s also the hope that TV ratings don’t matter.  Or, should I say, still don’t matter.

I have no idea how the proposed Google-MLS rights package will end up working.  New and unfamiliar things trouble me, so how am I supposed to process the idea of watching live sporting events on a computer?  I only just now figured out how “Arrested Development” on Netflix was supposed to work.

By the way – the critics were way off, that season was funny as all hell.

So I’m not sitting here and saying that the future of sports is in the palm of our hands or nestled gently on our privates, because man, I don’t know.  Neither, it must be pointed out, does Google.  When Disney, Fox, and NBC pay for MLS rights, they have a great deal of experience coming up with the appropriate numbers to offer, or not offer.  And even then they make mistakes – the XFL leaps to mind.

Google, on the other hand, hasn’t bought the rights to a sport or a league before, has never marketed sports league programming, and hasn’t sold any advertising time.  They might be great at it.

Even if they are, it might not help Google.  When BeIn Sports bought road qualifiers for the US national team, who benefited?  I would say that by proving people will sign up for a channel to see US national team soccer, BeIn soccer didn’t do anything except make those rights more expensive for the next cycle.  At some point, Fox, NBC or Disney will go to other CONCACAF federations with Fox, NBC or Disney money.  Maybe it’s worth BeIn’s time to keep making those bids – but then, they’re just delaying the inevitable.  The US national team is someday going to be too popular for a high-tier specialty cable slot.

Why do I bring up the USMNT out of nowhere?  Because of Soccer United Marketing.

I assume all of you have either bought Beau Dure’s Long Range Goals, or made an equally informed decision not to.  For those of you who have, go back and read pages 134 through 136.  That is where it’s explained why we still have an MLS Cup to worry about – and how.  MLS rights were tied to the US national team – and, highly interestingly, the Mexico national team.

At some point it might no longer be convenient for the FMF to subsidize MLS, but that time is not now, has not come in the last decade, and might not come for another decade.  During that time, the USMNT has become popular enough that SUM might conceivably maybe possibly survive without Mexico’s rights, although I think no one in SUM would care to test that theory.

There’s another reason to pay close attention to what will happen to BeIn.  Back in 2001, World Cup rights in the US were drastically undervalued…which was why Don Garber was able to float a plan to become TV rights middlemen to begin with.  That sounds like science fiction now.  SUM doesn’t have World Cup rights anymore, and USMNT and MMNT rights (I know no one anywhere calls it the Mexico Men’s National Team, get off my back) don’t necessarily help NBC Sports or Fox.  Fox ended up buying the World Cup for 2018, so MLS is now divorced from that particular gravy train.

And SUM’s presence on the web these days is, well, Anschutz-like.  Sumworld.com now leads to mlssoccer.com/advertise.  And, once there, it is brief and to the point.

SUM is the preeminent soccer company in North America, exclusively offering access to integrated marketing partnerships with properties such as Major League Soccer, United States Soccer Federation, the Mexican National Team, and more.

That’s, theoretically, a lot of marketing muscle to fit into a sentence.  It’s also a lot of theoretical marketing muscle to bury on an obscure page in a different URL.

But it does show that MLS is still piggybacking on the popular national teams in this country.  And the broadness of that particular pig has only grown during the interregnum of MLS’ presence in Florida.  It might still be enough to carry a league, especially one where player wages are as strictly managed as this one.  MLS probably wouldn’t open its books to me no matter how politely I ask, but I’m pretty sure they did to investors such as Paul Allen, Joey Saputo and Phil Rawlins.  Either Don Garber and the existing MLS owners are among the great con artists on American history, or there’s something there that’s enticing.

(I mean, Bernie Madoff got people to “invest” in the stock market, which, you know, has had a history of paying off for some, especially “insiders.”  Being an insider in American soccer has been, well, less historically profitable.  So if MLS has been a con all this time, it’s been a phenomenal one.)

So as long as MLS and the USSF are on the same page, MLS TV ratings can muddle along.  If the Cup’s ratings go down to 0.3 and 0.1 and 0.0…well, who cares, as long as USMNT ratings go up?

A few years ago, “But what if the US national team stinks up the World Cup again?” would have been a serious issue.  I believe we have passed, forgive the cliche, the tipping point.  The USMNT is an accepted figure on the American sports landscape.  What proved it for me was the enthusiasm that accompanied the Confederations Cup back in 2009.  If the US does well, then millions pay attention.  If the US doesn’t do well, then millions will wait patiently until they do well again.

So, for you, the fan, the practical impact of being part of the 0.5 Nation is effectively nil.  What, you weren’t getting the rights money, were you?  So relax.  See you next year…and the year after that, and the year after that, and the year after that….

[EDITED because typos are for small markets]

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