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How MLS can help North America’s lack of passion for football

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I should start off by explaining why I wrote this piece. Well, mainly because I feel obligated to do a follow-up post after writing this. So here we go.

“Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”

– Bill Shankly

Football is the ethos of life for many supporters of the sport. Despite the intense rivalry, different opinions on how the game should be played, and even the ongoing debate on whether Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo is the world best player, there is one thing that binds and unites all lovers of the sport – passion.

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It is passion that enables two strangers to spark an endless conversation about the latest match, the same passion that spurs someone to dance around the streets at midnight after their club had won the Champions League, and the passion that allows two people from different ends of the earth to share a common emotion, connection and identity.

Without passion, football would be non-existent.

A few weeks ago, an Udinese fan was at the centre of media attention and immediately captured the hearts of many like-minded football supporters, applauding his loyalty and sacrificial love for his club.

Interestingly enough, a similar situation happened to an ardent Vancouver Whitecaps supporter who went out of his way to get tickets and flew to Toronto to attend an away match.

However, unlucky as any fan could be, the match was called off due to extreme weather conditions. The media never picked up on this story and one might believe it is safe to say, it is not something many North American MLS supporters would care nor appreciate.

While questioning the lack of passion in the North American version of a football championship, Major League Soccer, the opportunity of discussing this with several people who are involved in the league has shed much light on this issue.

After much consideration, the following factors are brought forth to hopefully attempt to address and understand briefly why MLS lacks a certain flair when compared to the top European leagues, and how these factors may contribute to the struggles of MLS in reaching their levels.

History

One thing MLS is always at a disadvantage at and will always be is history. Major european leagues such as La Liga (founded in 1929) and Serie A (1898) have been around for around a century and long entrenched themselves in their respective country, creating history and moulding their presence in society.

Loyalty to clubs is passed down from generations to generations, stories of the glory days told and retold to the next generations of football lovers. This is something MLS lacks tremendously and it will certainly require an extended time to build.

Especially with the competitions that encapsulates it, it is going to be tougher for the MLS to emulate these leagues but it is not entirely impossible at the same time.

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Competition

In a country flooded with a plethora of sports that are broadcasted on TV, it is apparent that MLS is experiencing a tough time fighting for a premium spot in the TV schedule. When looking at it from an angle, it is quite a cyclical phenomenon that is at play.

Frankly speaking, the more popular a sport league is, the more precedence is given to it during the broadcasting selection. And when a sport is broadcasted more often, it would then be able to reach out to a wide audience base, hence influencing its popularity amongst the population.

This is of course heavily linked towards the sizeable capital brand marketers would offer for inserting their adverts during selected broadcasts in which they believe captures the target group they are trying to attract.

In contrast, this is not the case with football in Europe. Despite the popularity of other sports, such as tennis, cricket and golf, the dominance of football in Europe is strong and rooted within most if not all European countries.

Furthermore, the existence of a continental association, UEFA that governs and hold annual competitions such as the UEFA Champions League and Europa League and much anticipated quadrennial cup competition, European Championships are giving the sport a solid foundation and structure.

The governance of the UEFA has definitely helped streamlined and enhance the influence of football within Europe as well as the rest of the world.

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The possibility of MLS establishing its dominance over other American sport leagues such as the NBA, NFL, NHL and NLB is relatively unknown at this point with statistics supporting both ends of the argument.

This matter is dependent on various factors, which includes how MLS stakeholders would move forward and pursue a strategy that would help establish and solidify the influence of football in the North American society through grassroots initiatives and effective marketing strategies.

Another “competitor” that MLS faces unwittingly are of course, the European leagues themselves. It is not surprising and rather intuitive for football lovers that resides in North America to be more inclined to follow European leagues than the MLS due to the perceived better quality of play and boundless talents these leagues possess.

However, this issue may be alleviated by something that will be addressed in the following point.

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Despite the uphill battle, it is encouraging to see how the MLS is slowly moving towards the limelight since its inaugural season in 1996 as more games are televised. What the next decade or so may bring for MLS will certainly be interesting to observe.

Way of life

During a Government & Business course debate, a student posed a question:

“It is obviously great when a club is consistently winning trophies. What happens if a club fails to win titles year after year, wouldn’t the fans be in despair?”

 
[And hence zero out the overall utility of happiness of the population?]

Another person paused for a second and answered:

“I am an Arsenal supporter and it’s been years since we have won any trophies. And yet, the waiting list for securing a season ticket is estimated to be around 40,000 strong.

“Football is not just about winning and being happy, yes our feelings get wounded, but that doesn’t deter us from supporting the club we placed our undying allegiance to.

That is just how things are.”

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There is a lot of criticism from football lovers on the supposedly below-par quality of MLS, and it has grown to be a popular excuse to why many would prefer to spend their time watching Bundesliga or Premier League.

So The million-dollar question is: how can MLS compete against the English Premier League or Bundesliga in attracting and growing its fanbase locally and perhaps internationally? Somehow, it is easy to overlook this simple response to the matter.

Football is a curious thing. One of many things in life where one may try and fully comprehend it – and would be left with more questions than answers. In many cases, it envelopes and dictates how one would lead one’s life or even define to the point where how he or she defines their identity.

Winning is great and losing hurts. And yet thousands and thousands of fans flood the gates of many teams who haven’t seen nor come close to savor the taste of glory and victory. Why?

A lover of the game reminded me that:

“If all football fans were to only support the top ten clubs in the world, football would never have survived.”

Whether it is by fate or by chance you happened to stumble upon a club’s match on television, or that you were born or moved to a city where a certain club is located at, or even that someone close to you planted a seed of interest for that club in you.

Whatever the reason may be, that reason is good enough for you to contemplate pouring your heart for that team. And that’s all you need and that is what MLS need more of.

North American Sports Model vs European Sports Model

The more one digs into the issue and drawing comparison between the MLS and the top European leagues, it becomes apparent that one factor might be the key to what they offer and how the fans’ response differ so much to one another – the underlying sports model.

Briefly speaking, the North American Sports Model and the European Sports Model possess distinct differences which contribute to how the MLS functions differently from most leagues in Europe. The most notable one is certainly how MLS imposes salary caps to ensure player’s wages are strictly monitored.

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However, another aspect of the MLS that strikes as odd to an outsider is how the whole league is operated as a single business entity where all MLS club “owner-operators” are shareholders in the league.  This translates to the fact that the league as a whole deals with players’ contracts and not the respective individual clubs.

This is very different compared to a typical European football league such as the EPL, where even though each club owns an equal number of shares of the Premier League, each club is governed independently and owned by their own shareholders or owners in its entirety.

In the latter situation, a perceived unparalleled identity exist within each individual club, garnished by their unique history, their style of play, their legendary icons that have all helped shaped and mold the club from the first days they are founded.

With this, a natural and instinctive rivalry would spawn between club supporters, some more intense than others, fuelling the determination and passion of the fans to cheer and support their clubs in their journey towards victory. 

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One might speculate that this is probably one of the core reasons why MLS is lacking a sense of attractiveness to football lovers.

To put it simply, MLS seems to be structured like a megalith football club that umbrellas 19 mini football “clubs” that are competing for the top spots and yet at the end of the season, everything goes back to default and each club has a chance of reshuffling their players within the league and get a fresh start each year.

In contrast, clubs in Europe need to bear the consequences, good or bad, on every transfer deal they make. Chelsea, for instance, would not be able to say, “Ooops, I don’t think Fernando Torres suits our club and release him at the end of the season.”

The North American Sports Model is built to be sustainable and financially healthy in the long-term. And in fact, one may choose to believe that the importance of those two objectives have overshadowed the need to create an environment where passion and excitement exist to keep the audience engaged.

To put it bluntly, it may be true that the design of the MLS, like many other American sport leagues is to ultimately generate profit while facilitating a sustainable “competitive” simulation.

Again, it must be said that this is written with no intentions to insult the MLS but rather a curious observation on MLS. Thoughts and comments appreciated!


The author of this article is Serena, number-cruncher at work, adventurer at heart, footy + food aficionado, disciple of life, B.Com. Accounting (Hons) 2013. Say hi @serenajht.

Comments (16)

  1. Lol, what an amusing analysis.

    The American sports establishment as a whole is one of the best in the world, and this is apparent in both the innovation and administration of the country’s popular sports–American football,baseball,basketball. In the administrative end even the unpopular sports are better, as it is quite hard to fix matches in pro sports — something European Soccer cannot claim to protect well.

    The salary cap and league shares were put in place precisely so that the MLS doesn’t degrade into a transfer market game like the EPL is, and rather to strive to grow communally like the German league.

    Regardless, it’s silly to believe the practices of a finished product like European Football has much to teach MLS since there is more money and the football culture is less developed in the US. Better examples which would probably result in league growth would be Brazil or Holland, which afford greater flexibility to clubs and players on the rise.

    And in Brazil’s case their teams regularly loan/sell star players. It’s only in Europe that clubs are so competitive that they try to entrap their players and avoid selling to league rivals just because of potential inconvenience. This competitive latency and the lack of salary caps are precisely the reason Europe’s transfer market is so inflated.

    • Interesting comments there.

      I am quite unconvinced about the part where you mentioned that it is quite difficult to fix matches in pro sports because even as someone who doesn’t follow the NHL. It’s obvious to see how they try to make sure all 7 games are played in every round of the playoffs (or it probably just have that system in the final, I don’t know) just to earn more revenue. It’s understandable to a certain degree and in this case, you don’t need an “external” fixer because the natural tendency is there for clubs to do so.

      “The salary cap and league shares were put in place precisely so that the MLS doesn’t degrade into a transfer market game like the EPL is, and rather to strive to grow communally like the German league.” Yes, that would be a good comparison but as you should be aware of is how some German clubs like Borussia Dortmund are having difficulty in retaining players when other leagues can pay a sizeable paycheque.

      “It’s silly to believe the practices of a finished product like European Football has much to teach MLS since there is more money and the football culture is less developed in the US.” It is rather unfortunate if you think that way because honestly, as you’ve noted, European football is a finished product and I believe there’s much to learn from it, both good principles and bad mistakes.

      “And in Brazil’s case their teams regularly loan/sell star players. It’s only in Europe that clubs are so competitive that they try to entrap their players and avoid selling to league rivals just because of potential inconvenience. This competitive latency and the lack of salary caps are precisely the reason Europe’s transfer market is so inflated.”

      I disagree. Permanent deals and loan deals both have their pro and cons like many other employment contracts so I don’t see how one is superior than the other. And it’s not the competitive latency and lack of salary caps that are contributing to the inflated transfer market. Salary and the price a club pays to secure a transfer are related but yet are of different matter. A friend of mine ( Adi-Oula Sebastian who also writes for soccerlens) noted that this phenomenon started roughly when Abramovich came to Chelsea and gave Mourinho limitless capital to buy players that he “needed”. This eventually spurred arrival of multi-millionaire owners that are more than willing to splurge in order to see results. This resulted in clubs being locked in price wars and hence inflating the market.

      “The American sports establishment as a whole is one of the best in the world” My only answer is it depends what you define as objectives/characteristics of being the best.

      • @Serena – You are joking right?!!!

        The NHL is in no way fixed and there has never been a betting scandal around the league and there isn’t a natural tendency for the clubs to play long series. Some series go to Game 7 because the teams are close in talent and coaching. If you watched NHL last year hardly any playoff series went the distance,

        • Look at the amount of revenue they generate for each playoff match and tell me if there’s an incentive for them to do so.

        • It’s a well known secret that the Pittsburgh Penguins “tanked” an entire season in order to draft Mario Lemieux and in retrospect, what a great idea it was.

      • My last comment may have been a bit facetious but I still think you’re wrong.

        I don’t follow the NHL but let’s assume it’s fixed…Still doesn’t detract from the main point that all the major sports in the US are well regulated, while Europe’s most popular sport is rampant with fixing scandals.

        On Dortmund, you bring up another irrelevant point. MLS, as you already acknowledged, is a developing league. In nations with this profile the nation’s soccer fans and the USSF both prioritize the development of domestic talent over the expansion of it’s league, since league expansion requires bringing talent to clubs and even with money involved a strong base of domestic talent is needed to attract talented foreign players. Killing the salary cap would maybe enable clubs to compete better continentally, but it would hurt the development of domestic talent, as exemplified by the EPL.

        Also, there are more potential sugar daddies in the US than in England, so it would be easier for the US to bubble up player value quickly and endanger both the financial sustainability of clubs and the competitiveness of the league. This too, has been exemplified by the EPL, and the resultant FFP regulations introduced in Europe to curb this behavior.

        You bring up a good point on ‘best’. The most important criteria for best to me is that sport and the matches are administered fairly, and on this front soccer disappoints terribly when you compare it to American football.

        Aside from match fixing, there is no smart consistent criteria for carding or correcting ref mistakes. In England there’s much baying about people diving now, but I’m regularly shocked by how many leg-breaker challenges are allowed and only punished if they do damage. I’m also amazed that subtle decisions like the offside trap and crossing the goal-line don’t use the proper technology to make those decisions much more accurate. When a ref makes a game-ruining mistake, the FA/UEFA/FIFA doesn’t have an appellate process to rectify it, and often punish coaches for recognizing them. Kaka’s red card v Ivory Coast, Muller’s disqualification from the Spain match, the phantom Liverpool goal, the scandal at Stamford Bridge…These sort of scandals are enabled by the poor administration of the game, and put into question the greatest competitions in both Europe and the world.

  2. “Ooops, I don’t think Fernando Torres suits our club and release him at the end of the season.”

    Yeah i dont think they financially care that they ‘wasted’ 50 million pounds on him. they can take monetary loss on a bad deal.

  3. Do your homework…. It’s not “The MLS”, it’s MLS. Also, The term “Soccer” evolved in England as a variation on “Association Football” and the sport was called that even there until “Football” became more popular.

    Here in the states, obviously we have and have had another sport called Football. So, it makes perfect sense that “Football” never became associated with Soccer here. You seem to have some ignorance in that area, which -in turn- seems to be giving you some bias on the matter.

    Also, MLS is only 18 years old, if that. How can passion, matching that of England be present on only 18 years? You’ve had over 100 years and not many other distractions in the sporting world to develop the passion.

    • It is just a term and you’re making it a big deal out of it? Ha

      And to your last point I believe I pointed it out on my first point about history so it would be great if you read it first before offering feedback! Thanks

  4. First, let me echo the statement that it isn’t “the MLS.” If you wouldn’t refer to it as “the Major League Soccer,” calling it “the MLS” makes no sense whatsoever.

    Second, the answer to the implied question is easy to identify but difficult to implement: Simply, MLS needs to find a way to make more people care about the results of their local (or, any single) MLS team. Most people don’t watch or root for or care passionately about leagues, they do all those things about individual teams. Fans of those teams, in turn, debate the relative merits of the leagues in which their teams play as an extension of their favorite teams, but they don’t start there. Neither should we.

    The issue of how a league is structured is irrelevant to this discussion, and is usually used as an excuse (as opposed to a reason) by Americans for ignoring the MLS team in their city in favor of glory-hunting some top foreign club. Note how few of them glom onto Wigan Athletic or Sunderland, which more of them would if their zeal was directed at the Premier League as a whole.

    • I disagree completely as I think the how the league is structured affects a lot of things and also is a reflection on how the local society view sports or deem how sport leagues should operate.

    • Comparing North American sports to Europe is difficult at best. For the most part, North American teams are a franchise of the league, rather then a member club as they are in Europe. From a business standpoint the difference is substantial.

      On the matter of fan’s passion for MLS teams compared to European football clubs, I believe the main reasons are history and geography. Most MLS fans were already fans of a European club, MLS just gave them the opportunity to support a home team. Therefore most MLS teams are a “second” love within the sport. Also in most European countries it is reasonable to travel to away games, or have opposing teams close to home (Look how many Premier League clubs are in London, for example). When the Whitecaps are playing in LA it is difficult for Caps fans to pop down to support them on the road. Where away travel is possible there is more passion, like in Cascadia Cup games. Seattle drew 66k fans for a game against Portland last season.

      Of course the NHL, NFL and NBA have good rivalries over long distances but they are built on history that MLS has not had time to build.

      On the NHL and game fixing… I doubt it. Very few series went the distance last year. The Kings v Canucks went 5 games. Vancouver is a skilled team that people outside Vancouver love to hate. They are a team the gets watched and talked about. I don’t think a fixed league would let that happen. Again, just one example but after 30+ years of watching the NHL I can’t believe it is totally fixed. (I have believed individual games have been in the past though.)

      Just my own opinions of course, I have done no research to back any of it up.

  5. I think this image defines another reason why MLS isn’t able to get a stronghold in the States: http://i.imgur.com/P7cpX.png (source: some guy on Reddit)

    • It actually explains alot. Travelling to away games is so much more affordable in Europe than in North America. Making it easier for people to support their teams! I really commend those who actually do so in North America because it definitely requires a lot of sacrifice!

  6. I’m English, watched plenty of MLS, more than most Americans.
    The standard isn’t bad and the SG’s such as they are do their best to rally support and get some atmosphere into the games.
    Unfortunately it is all a little bit foreign to a lot of them and so a lot of it is pale imitation rather than real passion.
    They put a lot more emphasis on tifo than generating atmosphere as well but that said attendance is growing year by year and we can’t expect the same level of passion when it is usually hundreds of miles to your nearest rival.
    It is mazing how far some of them travel TBH and all respect to them but there are rarely enough to be heard at away games which can really get a chanting war going in rivalry matches in Europe.

    As for the league set up, single entity, no thanks.
    I understand it and why it is there and Garber has done a magnificent job but I could never really see my team as “My team” when I know it is just part of a larger cog.
    AS for match fixing, I’m sure it must have happened. Are people in the US saying a baseball player was never paid off to strike out? A football player to fumble or miss that touchdown catch?
    If it has never been reported then it is probably because a single entity can cover these things up much better.
    Anyway as far as MLS is concerned who needs rigged when you have two teams playing a final owned by the same group?

    There is a lot right about MLS and Europe could learn a thing or two from the Americans but to say the US has the best run sports leagues so therefore MLS has nothing to learn from the most successful league in the World is both arrogant and ignorant.
    The EPL almost generates as much cash as NFL and Man Utd are the best supported most recognised and most valued sports franchise in the World (Bar none – in fact they dwarf most NFL franchises in fan support and global brand recognition)
    Not bad for a tiny Island with a population of 60 million and only around 15% of the US GDP. If they were on an even footing NFL would look like an amateur league next to the EPL and if we want to get really silly and reverse the situation can you imagine the disparity between the two leagues? So when Americans say the US does pro sports leagues much better than anyone else in the world they need to get some perspective – preferably from outside their anus.

  7. Dan, the NFL pulled in over $10 billion in revenues. EPL $4 billion. NFL with 32 teams have several valued over a billion dollars. Maybe three or four in EPL. EPL revenues don’t even touch MLB yet at $6 billion. NBA equals it. Three leagues at and above the EPL level in one nation. Also, EPL since 1992 is functionally a corporation that is separate from the FA. And EU labor laws, per the Bosman ruling, has made transfers too easy to inflate wages.