By J Hutcherson - WASHINGTON, DC (Nov 26, 2012) US Soccer Players – Normally, most people accept flattering comparisons. It's human nature to decide that the person making even a decidedly unlikely connection must see something you only notice at the very best moment of your very best day. It has to be true. It's in the other direction that trouble looms. Not only is an unflattering comparison certainly inaccurate regardless of its merit, it's also unhelpful.
The same holds for wonderful institutions like professional sports leagues. Compare established North American circuits to successful examples from the entertainment industry, and of course, it's not only accurate but also worthwhile. It's the same for a not quite as established league compared to its older brothers. Whether or not any of these comparisons are accurate is wholly beside the point. So, of course, I'm going to take things in the other direction when it comes to Major League Soccer.
Spending the weekend in Canada, it was surprisingly hard to avoid the buildup for the 100th Grey Cup, the championship of the Canadian Football Association. Yet, for all the attention, it was a little odd. Alongside the big game in Toronto were questions about the viability of the league, one of the finalists, and whether or not enough people even cared outside of a few markets where the CFL is successful. There was even the old appeal to nationalism bordering on jingoism in favor of a uniquely Canadian league playing in the shadow and with blanket coverage of the best gridiron league in the world to the south. Did I mention some CFL players only make around 40k a season? Should I add the part about expansion efforts and fluctuating sponsorship? Quotas for domestic players on rosters? What about the organized fan groups that talk about how much they appreciate the accessibility of the players compared to other sports? Is any of this beginning to sound like another league we know?
How about the ongoing debate over Canadian football-specific stadiums of around 20k capacity to create ticket scarcity and demand alongside the make-do view of shared stadiums? In the era before soccer-specificity, that was a common sentiment with MLS teams stuck in National Football League venues that took big events to fill. Stage the Grey Cup in Toronto with the other finalist one of the bigger draws and get Justin Bieber to do the halftime show and it's the same result. Suddenly, a market with scant interest in their own football league sells out the big stadium.
I'm not through with the comparisons. After reading several days’ worth of newspaper coverage, there's no avoiding the belief that when the guy who used to own the LA Kings, Wayne Gretzky, and John Candy owned the Argonauts the team and the CFL as a whole were heading towards a newfound celebrity status. That moment in the sun was brief, and hedging a league on celebrity involvement should seem all-too-familiar. So should a league overly reliant on imported players and coaches.
What is there to learn from all of this? For one thing, the CFL has a significant head start on being the other team in major markets across their country. They've been through shifts in appeal, potential breakthroughs, and attempts to push struggling markets into the side of the bracket that contains their successful clubs. The CFL is no joke in Saskatchewan, an admittedly isolated market without competition but one capable of fluctuating the league-wide television ratings.
'Big in Saskatchewan and Calgary' might not be the goal of any pro league, but it is proof that in some places there's demand. Trade out the place names, and MLS is in a similar situation.
No North American League builds on success in Seattle, Portland, and a revival in Kansas City. When looking at the current and future New York teams, it's worth remembering that the Los Angeles Galaxy shuffled their front office in part due to ticket sells. It's an old point that still holds. Major League Soccer remains a league with more problem clubs than successful clubs and low television ratings. Yes, we can argue the list of problem clubs along with what successful TV ratings mean, but the CFL had games this season outdraw playoff baseball in Canada.
Right now, the main difference between the CFL and MLS is even the true believers talk of a league in need of help. They need things to break their way in Toronto and/or Montreal. They need stability in markets where they had prior success. They need new ownership in a league where one owner owns two teams amid rumors he wants out. They need full control of their venues. They need to distinguish themselves in the face of a bigger league that's popular in their markets. They need their regular season games to look more like their once a year showcase. In other words, they're talking about a set of problems that should be familiar to the USA and Canada's first division soccer league.
This isn't the comparison to the existing major leagues or the story MLS likes to tell. That one goes a little different, with MLS closing in on becoming North America's fourth or fifth most popular professional sport or becoming one of the biggest soccer leagues in the world by 2020. The CFL comparison isn't as flattering, but there's value in paying attention to how a similar league works through oddly similar problems.
J Hutcherson has been writing about soccer since 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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