The Generative Spark of the MLS is Back Tournament

The following comes directly from the department of silver linings: I want to propose that Major League Soccer can learn a thing or two from how they’ve handled the game during the pandemic.  

Against my expectations, I have found myself immensely enjoying the “MLS is Back” tournament. I was skeptical of the whole idea to begin with, what with the ethics of throwing people together during the pandemic, the idea of tournament games counting toward standings, the lack of a live audience and, then, the biggest blow, the “withdrawal” of Nashville SC from the tournament itself.  

Nonetheless, I’m loving it. And I’ve been trying to put my finger on what it is I like about it.

Part of it, of course, is that I’m simply emotionally invested in the league.  Part of it is the excitement of a game or several games every single day.  Part of it is watching the teams redevelop form (I swear there is a visible difference already, which does not bode well for Dallas and Nashville later).  Regardless of why, I am indeed enjoying it. I look forward each day to the games ahead in a way that I normally do not unless the game involves NSC.  I know others are enjoying it as well, as I chatter with friends about games each night.

One of the issues MLS faces (along with a number of other leagues) is creating enthusiasm for the league on its own terms (rather than as a pale imitation of something else).  Garnering excitement in MLS in specific, rather than in just soccer or just the local is important as the global soccer scene is showing us currently with the slow decline of some national leagues.

In his recent, The Age of Football:  Soccer and the 21st Century, David Goldblatt discusses the odd way that the global popularity of the Premier League is sometimes (often) damaging to soccer at the local league level.  For example, in a chapter looking into the popularity of soccer across Africa, Goldblatt concludes that “African domestic football has been marginalized culturally and reduced to penury by the arrival of satellite television and the mass export of fans’ affections and custom to European football in general and the English Premier League in particular” (31).   Indeed, Goldblatt provides evidence that with the rise in popularity of the Premier League (and the predicted popularity of the “big 6 teams”), there has been an almost equal drop in the popularity of domestic football, both in terms of attendance at domestic games and in terms of who Africans claim as their favorite teams.  In most nations, the Premier League, rather than domestic leagues, are what people watch. When Goldblatt does a tour of football in Africa, what he sees are the jerseys and flags of the Premier League, not of the local leagues.

Why am I raising this? Because I’m thinking about it in terms of the U.S. context.  In Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism, Andrei Markovitz and Steven L. Hellerman discuss the hand wringing that has gone on seemingly forever about how to make soccer popular in the U.S.  In short, they tell us that perhaps it never needed saving, not through the MLS route anyway:  “It was therefore wrong to imagine Beckham could save American soccer by playing for the Galaxy.  American soccer is alive and well and lying on the sofa watching Manchester United on NBC” (27).  

While there are ways to say MLS is more popular than ever (franchise fees keep going up), overall numbers of slightly up, average attendance at games is showing no appreciable growth and ratings, prior to this year, were either steady or dropping for MLS, while there is a growth in demand for Premier League games (not to mention that fact Liga MX remains the most popular league in terms of television ratings in the US). 

It’s important, however, for the growth of soccer as a US sport (and for our national team) that the league become not just viable but strong.  Having our young athletes see—in their own backyard—that one can have a successful and exciting career as an athlete in soccer opens the possibilities for many athletes.

Now, when the league was founded, the attempts to make it popular were based on playing around a bit with the rules (the old school MLS shootouts were my favorite bit). Clearly, that was the wrong approach.  Fans want the soccer they see elsewhere in the world.  However, playing around with the configuration of the league schedule might just be an interesting way to focus on the league itself.

While I also hope to see the US Open Cup be taken a bit more seriously and promoted more prominently (it should have a LOT of potential as spectacle), why not try doing something similar to the MLS is Back tournament annually? I’m not sure how it would work, but if you could hold a tournament in a single location and have fans attend in World Cup fashion, wouldn’t that be spectacular?  Robert, a friend of mine, thinks it might be a good idea to do this every four years, sorta like a World Cup of MLS, or to hold the playoffs in one location every four years. I don’t know exactly how it would work, but this is the type of unique thinking that I believe MLS needs to be engaged in.  Honestly, it’s the type of unique thinking a lot of leagues around the world need to be engaged in. Philadelphia Union head coach Jim Curtin agrees:

Again, this idea may be loony. I don’t know. What I do know is it was a creative solution to relaunching the season, and it seems to have worked.  As a result, it’s evidence of where the focus of creative thinking should be.

Again, this is not a question of competing with the Premier League or other European leagues; it’s more a question of how to develop a quality product with some unique spectacles.  And perhaps, in the midst of a crisis, MLS has created a spark that can be reimagined for the future.

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