No sign of World Cup boost for MLS

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.

13 comments about " No sign of World Cup boost for MLS".
  1. Matthew Reber, June 7, 2010 at 8:45 a.m.

    I guess the point of writing a piece for a magazine or blog is to assert an opinion and elicit reaction, but I find it incredible that we love to judge things soooo quickly. In a country where soccer is in its infancy, should we not let the pieces grow and cultivate them to the best of our ability ? Yes, we are influenced by "University soccer", which will result in poor World Cup performances. Yes, our fans do pale in comparison to the ones who sing "You Will Never Walk Alone" at the top of their lungs. But they have been doing that long before we had our 8 year olds out on the pitch in some public park down some country road. Youth soccer has its own set of problems, but it is getting better. There are some phenominal youth club coaches, who are having a positive effect on players in the U.S. We ARE getting it. Slowly, but surely. I like British announcers. I like their intelligent insights into the game. We can learn a thing or two from them. ...But, no, we don't want to learn from other countries, because we are America ! We would rather have the info-mercial types screaming to us enthusiastically, with no knowledge of the sport they are announcing. Let's just relax, observe, learn from others, who do soccer better than we do. Then we can take the best of what we learn and add some things from our own soccer minds (who do exist, by the way).

  2. Jim Hougan, June 7, 2010 at 10:07 a.m.

    Matthew's right. English accents don't bother me at all, and least of all when it's soccer commentary. They've been at it for a long time, and I appreciate the knowledgeable and low-key way they do the play-by-play. They've grown up playing "football" and are immersed in a football culture, so their commentary is relaxed, informative and unobtrusive. Wynalda and Lalas are just as knowledgeable - and even more so about MLS - but I don't know what they're running commentary would like during a game that's in progress. (It would probably be pretty good, actually.) Harkes suffers from a kind of candorphobia: he's unwilling to be critical of anyone who might help him somewhere down the line. Thus, not a word out of him when Jose Torres was left out of the side in the friendly with Australia last week. Surely, that deserved a comment of some kind. ("I.e., where's Torres?" The question was an obvious one, but went unasked lest it be seen as critical of Bob Bradley.) The Brits may not be so timid.

  3. Denis Lage, June 7, 2010 at 11:23 a.m.

    The move by ESPN to bring in more experienced British announcers is brilliant. The US does not yet have a seasoned, quality soccer announcer or commentator and it hurts the overall experience of watching a match - especially to casual fans. Our professional league is in its infancy and so are all involved with it - including the media that covers it. World Cup coverage deserves the best that ESPN can provide.

  4. James Froehlich, June 7, 2010 at 11:45 a.m.

    Paul, Paul!! I love ya but again you've let your otherwise great insights overrule your common sense. I am a rabid Chicago Fire fan, not a Euro-snob and I applaud the selection of the Brit announcers. If you have no problems with bringing in selected skillful players from outside the US, (from Brazil, Argentina, Mexico) why is it so awful to bring in the best announcers? Also to assume that these announcers will automatically flavor their commentary with laudatory EPL comments is quite presumptuous. I watch a good number of la Liga and EPL games and with some notable exceptions, the commentary is often very complimentary to non English players. The Brit announcing the Liga games is so complimentary of Barca that it almost becomes embarrassing. I trust that Martin Tyler's announcing of the US-Australia game was exemplary so why not do what you (Paul) have constantly exhorted the rest of us to do --- enjoy the work of the foreign experts.

  5. Gus Keri, June 7, 2010 at 12:40 p.m.

    I like the idea of having British annouocers for the World Cup. But when it comes to the US games, especially against England, ESPN should have an all-American crew. Having a British man commenting on US games is not a wise idea.

  6. jim mcdougle, June 7, 2010 at 1:01 p.m.

    As a Brit, we will always see American 'soccer' as a joke. For a start you cannot even call it by the right name. As someone who has taken an intrest in the MLS it has to aspire to the EPL as it is the finest league in the world. Full stadiums and passionate fans based on tradition is what the MLS lacks and if it can survive for a couple of decades then maybe it will become more credible. The US national has some very good players but the MLS has to retain them and not lose them to the top or even lower European leagues. Good luck in the world cup. As a Scot/Welshman it would make my day for you lot to be the English, they would never live it down

  7. Loren C. Klein, June 7, 2010 at 2:38 p.m.

    Wah, those big mean Eurosnobs have hijacked ESPN's coverage of the World Cup and as a result we won't get tons of coverage from Dave O' Brian or JP Dellacamera for a month. Oh the humanity! *sniffle*

    In all seriousness, for all of your sniveling about Eurosnobs looking down on MLS and their supporters, this sure is a pretty poor hatchet job on Eurosnobs and their expectations. Your bandwagon hipsters know zilch about the English Premier League anyway, so who cares about them? Anyway, for all of your boasting of MLS' superiority because MLS supporters don't "don a club shirt and sit in a bar watching a TV screen" you completely ignore the fact that *this* MLS fan has to do this every week because there isn't even a USL side that's over 200 miles from him, so the only way he can follow the game at all is to do so in front of a TV. Seriously, if you're going to try to throw rocks at Eurosnobs, you're going to have to do better than kindergarten logic.

    Anyway, you're complaining about not getting the intricacies of Latin- and South American styles by bringing in an English Premier League-driven team is nothing but a strawman because (1) Unless you're Dutch or Italian, or to a lesser extent German, no one anywhere's going to get the level of "intricate" [sic] discussion of the teams like you're expecting because no one does it apart from those nations. (2) If you are going to buck the trend and somehow get experts on all of these styles, the only place you're going to find Anglophones with that knowledge is *gasp* England. I know it might be a shock to some, but just because Christian Miles and Max Bretos can mangle surnames in ways that only they can doesn't mean they're experts on exotic playing styles.

    In the end, Martin Tyler is going to be great for the World Cup--far better than bringing in that fat toad Andy Gray for Euro 2008. His commentating style is dipped in magnanimity and he knows how to call the game that is in rhythm with the ebb and flow of the match, allowing the viewer to watch the game at face value, as opposed to US broadcasters that are used to the stop-start nature of North American sports.

  8. Chaz Worthy, June 7, 2010 at 2:51 p.m.

    Ever since Paul brought up the Brit announcers issue Ive been considering it and my conclusion is that, in general, I PREFER the Brit announcers. I like them better NOT for their insights or accents, they simply speak English better than American announcers.

    They hit the right chord with me. I’m exposed to so many soccer announcers on ESPN 3/ITV/Ch Five (UK) and it’s rare when an English announcer doesn’t delight me with some interesting turn of phrase or flash of wit.

    This strange pleasure of hearing someone speaking my language creatively and colorfully during a sporting event simply has never happened in my decades of watching the NFL or MLB.

    I work around many gifted and educated American writers and editors…yet I rarely come in contact with anyone who speaks our language with more confidence and flare then, say, Robbie Earle, AN EX-PLAYER FOR CH**TSAKES!!

    This issue goes beyond soccer announcing…But as a new fan just getting into his first NY Red Bulls season, I too am mystified as to why the MLS is taking off for the WC. I look forward to Bulls matches and have been out to the RB Arena five times…Perhaps, the MLS teams might’ve shown the US v England match on giant screens at their stadiums and then played their games (perhaps that would have been too much soccer for most sane Americans!).

  9. Elliott Tomes, June 7, 2010 at 3:04 p.m.

    Well, Paul, if these comments are any indication, it seems like most of Soccer America's readership is missing the point of your article. It's not that an English perspective on the game is inferior to an American one (or even that an American one is preferable for ESPN's ratings). He's suggesting that the development of a unique soccer culture and style (like every other soccer-power enjoys) in this country is stunted by this subservience to English sensibilities.

    As Paul wrote in a previous column: "Much more damaging is the corrosive influence of the Americans themselves, the insiders, the soccer people who are influenced by all that snobbery, and feel ashamed of their American approach..."

    I'm worried that these comments ARE a representative sample of what American soccer fans in this country want, and that this line from this essay might prove to be rather prescient:

    "And what will make matters even more hilarious is if this turns out to be the right decision."

    I think Paul is right, though. It's clear ESPN is marketing to those who watch club matches from the EPL, La Liga, and Serie A exclusively. I think it will ultimately be the right decision ratings-wise for ESPN, but I'm not so sure it's the right decision for the sport in this country.

    Despite all its obvious advantages and power, I don't want to be the EPL and I don't want to the game here to be a carbon copy of the English approach. Let's develop our own history. Our own narratives. Our own style of play.

  10. Seth Weisend, June 8, 2010 at 7:39 a.m.

    Wow, you people are obsessed with "Eurosnobs".

    This is why I have trouble following MLS. Simply because I choose to support Reading first and foremost, MLS fans conduct a witchhunt and deem me a "Eurosnob" for not being patriotic enough. I've tried to get into MLS the past two years, but I'm just about to stop with attitudes like this.

    (BTW, "Eurosnob" is an incredibly thick-headed slur dripping in xenophobia. Seems to me Jim Rome and MLS fans should get along great...)

    I actually do agree with a comment above that the USA games should have all-American commentators to gain the public's interest. Otherwise, ESPN has got it exactly right.

  11. Vince Galloro, June 8, 2010 at 12:58 p.m.

    "This strange pleasure of hearing someone speaking my language creatively and colorfully during a sporting event simply has never happened in my decades of watching the NFL or MLB."

    Chaz, I take it that you have never heard a baseball game called by the incomparable Vin Scully.

  12. beautiful game, June 8, 2010 at 1:31 p.m.

    I don't care about any accent as long as the commentator in question is realistic, honest and laconic; without going into the extremities of analyzing or going off the tangent about a topic that has nothing to do with the action on the pitch. There is a significant stigma in MLS announcers, they tend to suffocate the game at every opportunity with small talk or irrelavent chatter...on the other hand, a few well chosen words lets the game breathe in its own recital..who are the performers? Is it the players or the commentators...when the commentator overshadows the game, he/she is worthless.

  13. C p Talley, June 8, 2010 at 3:30 p.m.

    Hey Paul,

    Since you gone to trouble of writing an article about the subject of MLS attendance, why don't try researching and including the facts pertinent to your argument?

    "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)."

    Let me see if I understand: You don't have the attendance numbers and you haven't tried to obtain them, but you are sure that they support your argument.

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