The warm weather league - for now

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 markets

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 March 29, 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 Beckham 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.

Different 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 ahead."

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 ever.

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.

4 comments about "The warm weather league - for now".
  1. Manuel Trejo-von Angst, April 4, 2008 at 4:49 p.m.

    such crap. What is the 'European model' exactly?

    Is it the model they use in: Norway, Finland, Sweden, Russia and on and on... AKA the one MLS uses?

    Or is it the England model that plays through the whole winter? Or the German model that takes about 6 weeks off in the heart of winter?

    There is no such thing as a 'European model' when it comes to schedules.

    It will never happen. Even NFL fans don't show up for cold weather games unless it's a playoff game or a playoff spot is on the line unless you are in Chicago or Green Bay.

    I invite anyone to go cop a seat outside with a soccer ball in Toronto or Chicago in late January early February and tell me what they notice. Before their skin is turned to ice in 3 minutes, they'll also notice the ball deflates. You pump more air in and it simply makes the skin of the ball brittle and useless.

    The best we could hope for (if you are a proponent of a fall sked) is the German schedule which makes the most sense since it's the closest weather-wise to the US (though it's still much warmer in winter) Though it's pure Eurosnobbery to suggest that the league is somehow inferior because it doesn't use the same sked as England, Spain et al, since there are plenty of leagues that don't either.

    Oh and sorry folks, but MLS will get even less media time than it does now if it is fall to winter. It will be competing against the NFL and NBA for time and there are a LOT of people who are fans of both leagues who are also fans of MLS. If someone is given a chance to see their NFL team play a game with playoff implications or see an early season MLS game that really doesn't matter (assuming playoffs are still the order of the day in MLS) then you better get used to 5K attendances.

    Finally, Garber suggesting that until they can switch to a fall sked they can't honor international dates it utter bulls***
    MLS has to start getting on the ball with that. Not skedding mid-week games isn't that hard now that most teams have their own stadiums and taking a month off in June/July every year to avoid the World Cup, Copa America, Gold Cup, Euros wouldn't be so horrible and would probably keep the players fresher as that is an absolutely brutal time of year.

  2. , April 4, 2008 at 10:11 p.m.

    But being ready for mid-winter games? Not even close. I don’t envy Mr. Garber’s challenges, and in general think the choices being made are worthy of significant praise. I take issue with Mr. Garber’s commentary that fans needto be that taught anything. That is a dangerous sentiment.

    The real cold-weather issue though is more one of fan experience. In general, and especially when the weather is sour, why physically go to the game? Especially in our Plasma TV reality nowadays.

    I’ve been lucky enough to see games in many countries, in some of the world’s storied stadiums, and many here in this country of very varied atmosphere levels. As much as I love the game, in those international games, I need to remind myself to focus on the field – not the fans. The EXPERIENCE is what makes it worthwhile. Yes, you “see” more of the game, but when it is near freezing and rainy, that’s hardly reason enough for most fans.

    You mention how Toronto inflated the attendence number in Toronto. Guess what . . . those fans (bless them!) have become accustomed to an atmosphere worth braving the weather for. That even carried them to Columbus. Presuming a Revs fan knew there was a game (die hards did . . . but general awareness to it was minimal), what’s the reason to drag yourself out in the cold? Quiet stadium, yelling at tarped-over-seats across from you. A fan section that has trouble 'infecting' the rest of the stadium with its energy becuase you feel a zipcode away. Brave the cold for that? Hmmm. Fans don’t need to be taught, they need to be delighted.

  3. Harry Castleman, April 5, 2008 at 4:36 p.m.

    Garber's got a lot of nerve, scolding MLS fans and saying "we've got to teach our fans" that soccer is played in cold weather in Europe and that we need to go to games in cold weather as fans do in Europe. There are two reasons that contribute to any relatively higher turnout in Europe in the winter compared to the US: the talent on the team is among the best in the world, and/or there are no other sports at that time of year competing seriously for fans' attention. Neither of those things apply to MLS and the US where the salary cap severely limits the talent level and where we have plenty of other truly major league sports to entice us away from soccer in a freezing cold stadium.

  4. Jeff Butler, April 6, 2008 at 6:44 p.m.

    First paragraph "poor crowd in Chicago" ? It was a rainy cold night. If the Cubs or Sox were playing they wouldn't have drawn any better.

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