Now that the 2015 Major League Soccer season has officially begun—to almost no fanfare—today we’re going to take a look at some key ways to improve the MLS…or at least make it suck less.
Yes, that is a harsh title, and it might give you the idea that I don’t like the MLS. But I actually do. They’ve faced an uphill climb for the last 20 years, and although there have been a couple of pretty big setbacks, overall they’ve done a fantastic job. Here, I’ll list some of the good things:
There are now 20 stable teams in the league, and 12 of them have soccer-specific stadiums—which is impressive when you consider the Oakland A’s don’t even have a baseball-specific stadium.
Many teams have rabid fans who make their stadiums ROCK on game-day, and that makes MLS games really fun to go to.
The New York Yankees and Manchester City are co-owners of New York City FC, which adds a lot of sports cred (and financial stability) to the league.
Unfortunately, there are still a couple of major problems. Namely, the TV viewership SUCKS, and the quality of the players is still way behind other leagues around the world. And unfortunately, it’s impossible to solve one problem without the other.
The MLS’s TV ratings suck because the product isn’t as compelling as the EPL. However, they can’t sign the world’s best players because they don’t have enough money. And they don’t have enough money because not enough people watch the games on TV. It’s a vicious cycle.
Still, there are there are some simple ways to improve the MLS right now. They wouldn’t fix everything, but they’d get the league pointed in the right direction. And today I’m going to point them out to you.
So let’s get started…
More and more, MLS teams and fans are adopting the terminology used in other parts of the soccer-loving world. Five teams have "FC" in their title. One has "Real" for some stupid reason. Another "Sporting."
This is partly an attempt to seem legit to outsiders, and partly the result of an inferiority complex. But in the interest of the MLS fitting into the North American sports landscape, this needs to stop.
Yes, the rest of the world calls it "football." Good for them. Here in North America, "football" means something else, so we call it soccer.
That's really all that needs to be said, but I'll go on anyway. You see, soccer some stupid name we unsophisticated Americans invented. Soccer is actually an old English name for the sport. Back in the 1800s, the English referred to the sport as "association football" to distinguish it from the other popular forms of football, such as rugby. Over the years, the "asSOCiation" turned into SOCcer.
Now, when association football became the predominant form of football in England, they dropped the "association" modifier and just called it "football," so "soccer" died out. However, in America gridiron football became the predominant form of football, so we dropped "gridiron" modifier and that became "football." Meanwhile, we kept calling the other football "soccer."
My point? We don't have to feel bad about calling it soccer. It's part of the history of the game in North America. Own it.
As for all the other terminology, like fixtures (games), kits (uniforms), and tables (standing)...good grief, just stop it. What's next? Are we going to call elevators "lifts" and french fries "chips"? It's off-putting and confusing to people who might be somewhat unfamiliar to the sport—the people the sport so desperately needs if it's going to thrive.
9. Stop Using Foreign Terminology
For the most part, the rules and regulations of MLS soccer should be the same as the rules and regulations in the rest of the world. You don't want to alter the basic strategy of the game in such a way that Americans are disadvantaged when they play in international competitions.
That said, you can spice things up here and there in ways that won't alter the fundamentals of the game. And one of those ways would be to switch to sudden death overtime, a la the NHL. Because sudden death overtime and IS F*%&ING AWESOME.
Also, while we're on the topic of extra time—make this 8b, I guess—the MLS could also try other gimmicks to prevent tie games like the NHL did when they made overtime four-on-four. Ties are stupid.
8. Sudden. Death. Overtime.
No one except the most devoted MLS fans ever knows when the season actually starts. (FYI, the 2015 season got underway on Friday, March 6. Who knew?) This is a problem that needs to be rectified.
Granted, that's not an easy task. The MLS can't just will people to pay attention to them. However, they surely could do something to draw attention to the start of their season.
Like what? I don't know. I'm not a PR person. Contests? Twitter campaigns? Preseason celebrity all-star games at Dodger Stadium? Wardrobe malfunctions? Anything that might capture some attention.
7. Hype the Start of the Season
The MLS should go nuts with technology. Mimic MLB Advanced Media with blogs and videos. Hire a bunch of people from Buzzfeed or Funny or Die or wherever to implement a social media/viral marketing master plan. Use every possible piece of replay and goal line technology there is. Put hundreds of sensors underneath the field—oh, I'm sorry, the pitch—to track player movements and send the data to people's iPhones. Partner with Spotify or Tinder or whatever cool app the kids are using to engage with young people. Replace referees with remote-controlled drone helicopters—really, everything imaginable.
Basically, the MLS needs to be the technology leader—the hippest, most tech-savvy sports league on the planet. They need to be the Apple of sports.
6. Embrace Technology
There are a lot of ideas about how to make the MLS suck less, and two of the most often repeated ones are these: (1) introduce a system of promotion and relegation like the European leagues, and (2) align the MLS calendar with FIFA's calendar.
These are stupid ideas, and I'll tell you why.
Promotion and relegation will create a two-tiered system of haves and have nots just like in Europe. And that sucks. You might think it won't happen here because the MLS has very strict restrictions on salaries, player movement, and revenue sharing that are designed to maintain parity, but you're wrong. The teams that spend more time in the top tier will get more TV revenue and enjoy greater ticket sales because they've have more brand value. Meanwhile, the teams that get relegated will see their brands decrease in the eyes of broadcasters. More importantly, fan interest fall off—because this isn't f#%&ing England. People barely take the best teams in the MLS seriously. How will they treat a second tier?
As for scheduling, yes, I admit that aligning the MLS calendar with the rest of the world—where they play their soccer from August to May—makes all kinds of sense. But the MLS can't do it, because you can't play soccer outside from December to January in cities like New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and Toronto. It's just too damn cold.
The only way to pull this off would be to lighten the schedule in the middle three months of the season and have teams in cold weather markets play on the road. But that's really, really stupid for too many reasons to list. So sadly, if we want pro soccer in North American, it's going to have to be March to November.
5. Things the MLS Should NOT Do
The MLS should take a page out of the NFL's book and fill up dead spots on the sports calendar with their events.
The biggest hole that needs filling? The two days after the MLB All-Star Game in July. Those two days are so dead that EPSN invented a stupid awards show just so they'd have something to talk about besides the stages 11 and 12 of the Tour de France.
Major League Soccer can help fill this hole. How about mini-tournament with European club teams?
4. Plug Gaps in the Sports Landscape
The NFL owns Thanksgiving. The NBA owns Christmas. College football used to owns New Year's Day, then they gave it up and the NHL took it.
The MLS needs to own the Fourth of July.
Now, I know what you're saying. "Um, doesn't MLB already own the Fourth of July?" And the answer is no, not really. They sorta kinda have a hold on it because nobody else is there. But they don't really maximize the potential the way the other leagues do. Everybody pretty much plays a regular game, only they wear some stupid hats and some guy in a military uniform sings "God Bless America" during the 7th inning stretch. Big whoop.
The MLS should swoop in and make Fourth of July the biggest soccer party of the year. I'm talking four games across the whole day featuring teams from the biggest markets. Get players to talk sh*t about each other on social media. Have a "Halftime show" between games starring Katy Perry and a bunch of bald eagles. Get the President to come. Have an apple pie eating contest. Then top it all off with an epic fireworks show broadcast on television.
It would be pretty sweet.
3. Own the Fourth
I'm all for bringing soccer stuperstars to the MLS. That's what top leagues do. They bring in the best players.
However, MLS teams don't sign soccer superstars. They sign old soccer superstars. And at non-market rates.
Does having players with genuine name recognition help get fans excited? A little, sure. But these days, with the likes of Kaka, David Villa, and Frank Lampard roaming the turf, the league has become soccer Valhalla—the place great careers go when they die.
The MLS's collection of old-timers is more sad than impressive. Bringing in genuine stars in their prime isn't possible, but bringing guys in past their prime is not the solution.
2. Stop Importing Old Superstars
Every football fan knows the NFL is on Monday, Thursday, and Sunday, with Sunday games at 1:00, 4:00, and 8:30. Every basketball fan knows the NBA is on Sunday and Wednesday on TNT. Every baseball fan knows MLB is on Sunday nights on ESPN and Saturdays at 4:00 on Fox. Every EPL fan knows games are at 7:30 a.m., 10:00 a.m., and 12:30 p.m. on Saturdays.
MLS fans, by contrast, have no f--king clue when or where games will be on. Might be ESPN, might be NBCSN. Might be Saturday, might be Sunday. Might be 1:00, might be 1:15...or 3:00...or 5:00...or 9:00...or 11:00.
This is insane. The MLS needs to do three things.
1. Standardize start times: afternoon games at 1PM or 3PM, evening games at 7PM or 9PM.
2. Claim Friday. Don't get me wrong, Friday shouldn't be their only day of the week. They should also do Mondays because the NFL isn't a factor most of the MLS season. But establishing a brand on Friday—"Friday Night Footy" or some such nonsense—would do wonders for viewership.
3. Flex Scheduling. Right now, the MLS's "national games" are all determine in advance of the season, which is crazy because, come October, you could be watching two last place teams duke it out. The NBA, NHL, and MLB—not to mention college football—all use flex scheduling, so that the most compelling game(s) gets national coverage each week.
All of these things would help casual soccer fans know when and where to find MLS games. And it's the biggest change the league needs to make.