By Ridge Mahoney
A story in The Oregonian newspaper Wednesday detailing all the naming sponsorships sold by the Timbers, including a new stadium-rights deal, typifies how dramatically has changed the perception of professional soccer.
Fans entering Providence Park this season can gaze upon the KeyBank Club Deck, Sunset Porsche Audi Suites, Budweiser Balcony, Widmer Brothers Southern Front, and a recent addition, the Daimler Deck, sponsored by Daimler Trucks North America.
Some might see this as overkill, a disturbing over-commercialization of America’s top-tier league. Not so. Instead, it’s a clear sign American pro soccer is finally heading in the right direction. A sport gaunt and undernourished for much of its life is at last putting on a few pounds.
Suffice to say, never before has so much money flowed into the domestic game, and while the beauties and nuances of the sport are what we all cherish and remember most fondly, much of soccer’s troubles in this country are rooted in its terrible credit score. As good as was the original North American Soccer League between the lines, it failed miserably at the bottom line.
The glamorous, relatively rich Cosmos didn’t kill the NASL by overspending. Keeping up with the Cosmos doomed many teams, but only because any semblance of business sense went out the window as competitive juices ran amuck. Teams moving or disbanding after one or two or three years of hemorrhaging money fed perfectly into media perceptions that this money-burning, foreign sport should go back where it came from and stay there.
Variations on the theme, “It’s not our game,” played for decades in print and on the air. There’s much more to professional sport than the business side, but as the old NASL proved, you can present an attractive level of play and parade stars around the field and still go bankrupt. Stunning spectacles such as the World Cup were literally a world away as critics relished the struggles of American pro soccer; for them, the domestic game’s failure to gain financial footing proved the sport itself was inferior and “we” knew best when it came to the games people play.
It is a measure of the success attained by Major League Soccer that it, as well as the Timbers and many other teams, has all but eradicated the prejudicial stance that an American professional soccer league could never find enough suckers to sustain it long-term. In bygone days, the criticism about low-scoring, restricted use of the hands, etc., etc., boiled down to a sense that since pro soccer couldn’t lure enough customers and sponsors to pay the bills, it didn’t deserve to survive. Maybe foreigners would pay up but “we” won’t.
The naming frenzy for Portland games is how things work nowadays. For example, as a long-time San Francisco Giants fan, I can attest that every radio broadcast includes a reference to the “Hawaiian Airlines Broadcast Booth.” Now I doubt seriously if the home radio booth at AT&T Park is decorated with pineapples and palm trees and fire pits -- though the announcers might well be working the game in flip-flops, baggy shorts and flowered shirts, how would we know? --- and I’m pretty sure said booth is not hauled around to the away ballparks in which the Giants play one-half of their games. Whichever booth is chosen for the away team is officially christened.
Yet somebody at some level decided that paying to thusly adorn the Giants’ radio broadcasts, regardless of how strange or silly such a naming attachment might sound, is worth the money. MLS is not MLB but it’s definitely plowing deep furrows in the business world.
To an extent never attained by the old NASL, MLS has a value that extends far beyond that of the individual teams. Losing Honda as a major sponsor a few years ago surely hurt, but soon enough Volkswagen came along. The business world is not only paying attention to MLS, it is paying, period.
One can question whether Anthony Precourt overspent by paying $68 million for the Crew and its stadium. Surely, he sees those properties as undervalued assets, but he must also believe the league as an entity is escalating in worth as well. The old Cosmos and Sounders and Whitecaps and Rowdies and Kicks and others all had their halcyon days, but the league’s good times were flimsy and fleeting.
The trickle-down effect can be a lengthy one. D.C. United has released a list of more than 30 Official Bar Partners, which probably pay little or nothing for their affiliation with the worst team in the league last year. So tradition must count for something, yet so does the aggressive outlay by which another straggler, Toronto FC, has acquired Michael Bradley, Jermain Defoe and Gilberto at great cost.
“The people who run MLS should really hold their heads up high,” says Toronto FC head coach Ryan Nelsen, a member of United’s last championship team in 2004 who is astounded by the changes he sees after nine years in England. “I know they get criticized here and there, but it’s not until you actually go away and come back that you realize the progression. I was one of the lowest-paid players when I was an MLS player. I know how it feels when guys are making that amount of money but that’s what someone is willing to pay them. You can either sit there and have a moan or have a cry about it, or you actually go and do something about it and try to get better every single day and prove yourself. When you get to the highest level, the market will dictate money.”
The MLS market may have gone a bit wacky and once again the league is taking body blows from critics for its byzantine ways of doing business, but past performance suggest it knows what it’s doing.