Monday, August 3, 2009

Soccer in the US

Glenn Davis, at the Chronicle, talks about style in the MLS.

He says that fans should have a say in a team's style, essentially saying that teams should have flashier plays and tactics, eventhough they're not necessarily conducive to winning more games, in order to bring in more fans. He's right to say that winning alone doesn't bring in more fans, but I think he's missing the crux of the problem. After all, looking like "lower-table English soccer" doesn't explain the problem when lower-table English soccer is more popular in England than the MLS is here.

The problem, essentially, is marketing. Davis points out that the MLS competes with football, baseball, and basketball. Very true, but think about those sports for a second. When you think of football, what do you think of? Maybe you think of big guys pounding into each other off the line of scrimmage, or a running back weaving between linesmen, or a really cool catch in the endzone. When you think of baseball, you may think of the pitcher looking down from the mound, or a batter hitting a homerun, or a double play from the infielders. When you think of basketball, you may think of a variety of shots or slam dunks, or a hook shot, or a block. Indeed, even hockey brings to mind a variety of scenes, and even golf gets more air time than soccer.

So, what does soccer bring to mind? Not much. Maybe Brandi Chastain. Soccer needs a marketing gimmick. Basketball had the Harlem Globetrotters in the early days, and now rely on a huge fan base to support amazing players showing off amazing skill. Baseball's All-Star game might be the most famous, because it shows off some pretty impressive skill--the home run spectacle always brings in a big crowd to see their favorite players hit baseballs really far.

The MLS just needs to a better job with marketing. We have some very talented players, but has any non-soccer fan really heard of Stuart Holden? Landon Donovan's great, but he's really only known on the west coast. How about getting some retired and amateur players (or, wait until Donovan's retired) and putting together some kind of Globetrotter-type team, that goes around doing tricks? We need something cool to get people excited about. There's been some commercial success at that. Soccer commercials overseas show some pretty neat abilities from top players. Why can't we have more commercials like that? Everyone remembers the Michael Jordan versus Larry Bird trick shot commercials. For the most part, these aren't tricks you see players displaying during games, but they get people excited without having them watch an actual game. That, I think, is key to improving the product both on and off the field.

Of course, this takes money, and the MLS is a relatively new league. But, signs are that the MLS is doing well, is growing, and will be able to afford better/more marketing in the future. They've already made deals for more coverage with ESPN, so hopefully they're well on their way.

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