By J Hutcherson (Sep 22, 2015) US Soccer Players – On Monday, MLS commissioner Don Garber’s Twitter account let us know that the league has set a new mark for sellouts in a season. The number stands at 137, quite the accomplishment for the league. Of course, this is MLS where “selling out” reduced capacities at larger stadiums doesn’t quite make the same statement that it would in other leagues. Still, fair enough.
Then again, it does raise an old question about MLS. The league normally operates with its own appearance vs reality distinction. Play along, and the league regularly moves from strength to strength. Look past it, and the ongoing saga of a league moving forward to a near future when it will challenge the giants of Europe isn’t as clear. The league might occasionally recognize a problem, but it’s never enough to call the project into doubt. Again, not much to see here. It’s what leagues do.
Then again, MLS continues to be a big ask. The league requires fans of any sport, much less soccer, setting aside a lot. The idea of individual franchises, much less clubs, is out the window from the beginning. So is meaningful free agency, teams competing against each other for players, and even the basic idea that a team owner really owns the team. From there, it’s at least tolerating the mechanisms that add players to the league and move them around. Then it’s not just the unbalanced schedule but the way MLS stacks up home and away games almost at whim.
Overlook, accept, or even justify this league’s peculiarities and it’s still a massive step to compare MLS to what happens in Europe. They’re not playing the same game in a lot of meaningful ways. There’s an old story from pro wrestling, something not normally hauled in when discussing professional soccer, but it makes sense here. As the story goes, back when Ted Turner’s network bought into wrestling he called rival owner Vince McMahon to tell him he was now in the “wrestling business”. McMahon countered that he wasn’t. Instead, McMahon was in the “sports entertainment business”. The distinction ended up being clear by how the two circuits operated.
It’s worth asking what business MLS is actually in. Early on, it was creating a system for investor-operators where they didn’t have to compete in an open market for players. Later, it was real estate investment as MLS-specific venues started popping up in the suburbs. Now, it’s a combination of expansion fees and stadium deals similar to what we see in other North American pro sports leagues.
What MLS does is keep something from each of these stages while they adapt their business model. What MLS risks is the enthusiasm of the fans that not only got them to this point, but are crucial for taking the next step.
Focusing solely on the obvious success stories is another MLS move. Similar to how FIFA puts its problems on individual bad actors rather than looking at the organization as a whole, MLS has bad clubs. They’re not bad franchises where MLS itself owns 51%. They’re bad traditional pro sports teams where it’s on the investor/operator – redefined as traditional pro sports owner – to solve the problems.
That happens any time MLS doesn’t work locally. Chivas USA is the latest example, but it’s one of many. MLS is very good at sharing in a local outlet’s success, but doesn’t seem all that committed to helping avoid difficulties or help with the work once the problems are public. Where that leaves local fans is, as always with this league, an MLS-specific question.
We’ve seen fans protesting investor/operators in Chicago this season, questioning management in Philadelphia, and wondering what’s happening in Colorado. Though the locales and reasoning changes, none of this is new. Neither is the MLS non-response where these stay local issues.
For a league where rebuilding sizeable portions of the fan base in multiple markets is also nothing new, it’s a good question where the fans really fit in.
That’s going to take more than MLS videos celebrating fan culture or comparisons to what it’s like overseas. It’s going to take figuring out that ultimately, the fans might think of themselves as more than customers but that’s their relationship to MLS. As a business, MLS isn’t customer driven. As we saw with some of the complaints about the latest collective bargaining agreement, it’s not even necessarily investor/operator driven. It’s league driven, using an MLS-specific definition.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him firstname.lastname@example.org.
More from J Hutcherson: