By Paul Gardner
So, it's farewell MLS for a couple of weeks. On the assumption that fans will prefer to watch World Cup games -- and might well find MLS games an annoying intrusion -- during the next two weeks, the MLS biggies have decided not to compete.
Their assumption may well be right, even though there is absolutely no convincing proof of a direct connection, either positive or negative, between MLS and the World Cup.
What muddies things is that word “fans.” We ought to be talking about “soccer fans” here -- but it’s not clear that we have too many of those. Yet. We have MLS fans, we see those every week -- each MLS stadium has a pretty lively group of home fans, a raucous nucleus that does it best to get the less-animated fans to join in. This is a comparatively new phenomenon, certainly an encouraging one for MLS.
And, alas, we have the Eurosnobs. How to define them? In a negative sense, it’s easy: they can’t stand MLS, look down in it, won’t go to its games. They have their favorite teams. Their idea of a good time, it seems, is to don a club shirt and sit in a bar watching a TV screen. Their favorite team will be playing -- though in a huge number of cases, the link between the fan and the team seems hopelessly flimsy, as though the fan has stuck in a pin and come up with a team. Any team.
Whatever, they are an important part of the equation. In addition to MLS fans, and Eurosnobs, we have a third group, exemplified by Sam’s Army, those who inject patriotism, and nationalism into their fandom: the followers of the U.S. national team.
One would like to say that there is a substantial overlap between those groups, but it seems unlikely. There would be, if the central interest of each group were the sport itself. But when interest focuses so heavily and so narrowly and, yes, so xenophobically on one team or one country, the sport takes a backseat.
I happen to think that ESPN has made a frightful mess of trying to work out who its World Cup television coverage should be aimed at -- but I’d have to admit that it’s not an easy task. ESPN has decided to go for the Eurosnobs. What makes this rather hilarious, is that ESPN has done this without knowing anything about the Eurosnobs or about the various factions of the U.S. soccer landscape.
All we know is that the man in charge, Jed Drake, is a soccer ignoramus who is in love with British accents. And what will make matters even more hilarious is if this turns out to be the right decision.
Who knows? Because TV has its own way of measuring things.
From the soccer point of view ... well, that needs explaining. What I mean is, from the point of view of growing the game in this country, of encouraging grassroots involvement, of strengthening MLS, of seeing the USA emerge as a major soccer nation that produces world-class players and teams -- in other words, everything that adds up to a robust grounding of the sport, rather than a quick marketing kill -- from that point of view, the ESPN decision is deplorable.
The devotion of British announcers and Eurosnob fans to the glamorous English Premier League will be emphasized. The importance, to say nothing of the intricacies, of the Latin American game, particularly the Brazilian, will no doubt get the usual supercilious Brit treatment. But the EPL will be the yardstick. Again, this is not totally outrageous. A case can be made for the EPL by pointing to the stat that says that the English leagues (EPL plus lower level) account for 16 percent of the World Cup players, more than any other league.
But it is clear that MLS, having deliberately absented itself from the soccer action for two weeks, will not be getting much attention. Does this matter? We’re back to pondering the riddle I mentioned earlier: From the fan point of view, is there any connection between the MLS and the World Cup?
At the moment, I believe the answer to that question is a simple No. In 2002, when the USA had a splendid run in the World Cup, was there any noticeable spike in MLS attendances? Did fans flock to MLS games when the national team stars returned to their MLS teams? In 2006, when the USA flopped badly, did this cause an MLS attendance slump? I’m not aware of any such stats -- and I feel sure that, if they existed, MLS would have let us know about them (well, the positive ones, anyway).
It is generally assumed that anything that gets publicity for soccer is bound to be good for MLS. This World Cup will be getting more publicity than any previous version, but its effect on MLS -- and by that, I have to reduce matters to ticket sales -- is likely to be close to zero.
This past weekend’s eight pre-closure games produced an average attendance of 19,975. After the eight resumption games on the June 25-27 weekend we shall be able to make a comparison of the crowds, and all will be revealed. Well, not quite. That 19,975 figure is a pretty good one, and the resumption figure will not feature the same home teams -- in particular Seattle (which contributed a crowd of 36,344 to this past weekend) will not be playing at home. Even so, if there is to be any World Cup impact on MLS crowds, it should be detectable very quickly.
Past experience suggests there will be no impact. Which may leave things with an ESPN satisfied with its Brit broadcasts, the Eurosnobs smug in their Euro-cocoons, Sam’s Army either elated or depressed, but MLS more or less where it was.
Yes, there may well be a long-term positive effect at work, but MLS could do with the help right now. For MLS this fragmentation of the soccer community -- plus ESPN’s clumsy attempts to exploit it -- add up to a frustrating situation.