As poor crowds in Chicago, New England and Columbus for their opening games indicated, MLS isn't anywhere near ready to move toward a schedule modeled along European lines.
Commissioner Don Garber
realizes this, though he is confident that some day, MLS fans will be as hardy as their NFL counterparts and turn out regardless in all but the bitterest
weather. Yet he says the league is at least a decade away from that, which is about a decade longer than the strident proponents of starting in August and finishing in June would like. The middle
four months of that period, even with a break of a month or two -- which is impractical for other reasons - would be bleak and barren and absolute anathema for a league still struggling in many
But until the league can add more warm-weather cities to accommodate early spring matches while it also markets its product aggressively, it will have to make do with
perhaps three or four cities whose fans are tough enough and passionate enough and numerous enough to get to the games en masse more often than not.
"We've got to teach our fans
that this is not just something you come out on a nice sunny afternoon or a warm summer night," says Garber. "It's a sport that in England and in Germany, they play when its cold. We've got to get
our fans to support us even when it's not optimal weather or we're never going to be able to abide by that international schedule."
An early start date of
, as some MLS executives had feared, yielded frigid weather in several league cities and attendances of 11,116 (New England) and 13,843 (Columbus), and
the Crew figure was bolstered by the approximately 2,300 Toronto fans who made the trip, so those attendances were about the same.
The weather was harsh in both places, yes, but
should a team that has reached three straight MLS Cups draw the same crowd as a team that hasn't qualified for the playoffs in the same span?
There are clearly marketing issues in
New England, where cold-weather attendance at sporting events is hardly nouveau and a good team often draws mediocre crowds. Weather doesn't deter fans in Toronto, bless their souls, and Seattle
wouldn't have already sold 13,000 season tickets if rain forced people to stay home.
Bad weather will be a factor in Philadelphia, and it's a given that suburban locations are
convenient for the local youth leagues but that's a fan base most unlikely to venture out in rain or cold.
Chicago fans braved the cold and rain to produce a solid attendance of
15,553 Thursday night and were rewarded when the Fire hammered New England, 4-0. Still, it wasn't a sellout.
Temperatures were low in Colorado but with David
and the Galaxy in town, the fans not only filled Dick's Sporting Goods Park, they set an attendance record of 18,713, and they, too, saw a 4-0 thrashing.
teams face different problems in their particular markets, and surely MLS executives know conflicts with international dates and playing through the heat of summer isn't an ideal situation.
One of the functions of the league's new Team Services Department is to help teams with marketing issues, including boosting attendances for games that have traditionally been hard sells:
midweek, and in poor weather.
"It's not an optimum thing," said Garber, "but it's something we're faced with and I think we're going to have even further challenges in the years
Regardless of what those challenges are, copying the European model, though it would help eliminate conflicts with international dates, won't happen for a long time, if
For the time being MLS is to be conducted on a hybrid schedule, which pleases no one but is the only plan that makes for the game in this country.