I’ve no idea why MLS commissioner Don Garber proclaimed a few months ago that the league was taking a serious look at aligning with the international calendar, only to back off that stance recently.
But a look at attendances so far this season, with rainy and cold weather plaguing many games, reveals one of the rationales for not starting play in August and playing through the winter into May, as many fans and journalists have advocated. Aligning with the international calendar can mean skipping FIFA dates, as most leagues do, and/or starting play in late summer, which some leagues don’t, and MLS shouldn’t.
At the time, Garber denied political motivation: that the original announcement, timed shortly before FIFA was to name its choices for the 2018 and 2022 World Cup, might sway President Sepp Blatter and the Executive Committee. Among his other curious proclamations, Blatter had remarked several times that the sooner MLS aligned with the international calendar, the better. MLS did go dark for two weeks last summer during the World Cup, but elected not to avoid scheduling games this season on certain FIFA dates.
MLS took a lot of criticism last month when league matches, including a glamorous Real Salt Lake-Galaxy showdown at Rio Tinto Stadium, conflicted with FIFA international dates. An expansion of the league schedule to 34 matches and the difficulty of most teams to attract good midweek crowds squeezed available weekend playing dates, and thus MLS played during the late March FIFA dates and will do so again in June, when the USA-Spain friendly at Gillette Stadium falls on a Saturday full of MLS games.
Without a Gold Cup, which will take up the last three weeks of June, MLS might have been able to skip the other FIFA dates. But this league is still dependent on weekend crowds, and the better weather of late spring, summer, and early fall. Citing the harsh, winter conditions endured by fans in other parts of the world -- or by NFL fans in December and January for that matter -- just isn’t relevant. In many cities, MLS games are not important enough to enough fans for them to venture out in bad weather, and so far this season, there have been bad crowds in good conditions.
A few figures, and weather reports, from last weekend: New York (13,664) for its first match with Dwayne DeRosario, clear and 58 degrees; defending champion Colorado (9,857) with snow falling; New England (7,114), cloudy and 48 degrees. Conditions don’t seem to matter in some places; fans in Toronto, Salt Lake City and Seattle have proved their hardiness, Philly’s followers are pretty resilient, but to risk winter weather in many other cities just isn’t wise.
On March 26, the second weekend of the season, the Revs’ home opener, with temperatures of 38 degrees, attracted 12,914. They are coming off a poor 2010 season, and grim economic conditions throughout the country can’t be disregarded. But even with a winter break, the league would need to play in March and April, as well as November and part of December, and in most MLS cities, the league literally can’t afford to do that, and not just because of ticket receipts. Half-full facilities aren’t attractive to TV partners, sponsors, potential investors, etc.
Next year, with the addition of a 19th team (Montreal), MLS will have some hard decisions to make. A balanced schedule would mean 36 games per team and thus less wiggle room for skipping FIFA dates, yet without a Gold Cup to exacerbate congestion, MLS should avoid as many FIFA dates as possible no matter how it re-formats its schedule. This year’s midweek attendance figures will play a major role in those decisions.
The first 2011 midweek game is Wednesday, when Vancouver hosts New England. The ‘Caps have topped 20,000 in their two MLS games to date and will approach that number again. At this early stage, the novelty of a new team and a proud tradition of soccer attendance gives Vancouver the look and feel of teams like Toronto and Seattle and a few other cities. Their fans aren’t deterred by harsh weather or the hassle of getting to a midweek game. But if the Revs were at home Wednesday they’d struggle to match the 7,114 they drew last weekend, and the difference between midweek and weekend crowds for many teams exceeds 5,000 per game.
The league has also scheduled more than a dozen games for Friday nights, which are being televised on Fox Soccer Channel. The Crew drew 14,549 fans for its 2-0 defeat of FC Dallas last Friday, which is a better barometer than the 36,204 that attended the Sounders’ 1-1 tie with Houston March 25. Up next is a Friday rematch of MLS Cup 2010, when FC Dallas hosts defending champion Colorado.
However, Friday games do not relieve schedule congestion, since a Friday date precludes a team from playing again that week. If MLS is to avoid FIFA dates, some of which fall on weekends, it must increase midweek games, which in many cases draw so poorly the cost to the league is significant.
Friday games are yet another factor to be considered when league officials plot their scheduling strategy for 2011. They should strive to accommodate FIFA dates whenever possible, for to do otherwise devalues the league’s credibility, and it’s no secret teams that can’t sell a lot of season tickets flounder at the gate midweek.
But there’s no sane reason for MLS to be a winter game.