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