Winter soccer just won't work in MLS

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.

13 comments about "Winter soccer just won't work in MLS".
  1. lorenzo murillo, April 6, 2011 at 8:49 a.m.

    MLS is not the only league that plays out of sync. In Ecuador the League starts in Feb, ends in Dec.

  2. Joe Hosack, April 6, 2011 at 9:28 a.m.

    Agree 100% . MLS is building momentum with every season . Let's not throw a monkey into that wrench.
    Seriously - how do we (all) let D. Garber know what we are thinking?

    Maybe...., maybe, this could be thought-about years in the future, when our soccer specific stadiums are filled with 'covered' fans and look like those in England and Germany. That is a long way off. It's not fixed, but we don't need to break it!

  3. Joe Musser, April 6, 2011 at 9:40 a.m.

    New England attendance is awful moreso due to the location of the venue than anything. Put the Revs in a 20,000 seat venue in Boston proper rather than 50 miles out of town and I bet you would see a marked increase in attendance.

  4. Alan Peace, April 6, 2011 at 10:59 a.m.

    Agreed. One thing MLS has going for it is that is doesn't conflict with EPL or other leagues, in the Summer months. US tv ratings show that people prefer to watch EPL matches over MLS. In the Summer, MLS is the only option, so soccer fans will watch. Put it head-to-head against EPL, La Liga, etc. and MLS will suffer, especially in climates where "fans" will have to battle awful weather to attend. Leave it the way it is, but add relegation and promotion, please (I know, it will never happen)!

  5. Dick Burns, April 6, 2011 at 12:28 p.m.

    Very few countries span 6 time zones - Maine to Hawaii and climates from Arizona to Alaska - Florida to Maine. The NFL has gotten greedy with games in late January. I just can't accept that a night game in Lambert Field in January is very fair to the fans. In Colorado, we shut down in early November and resume in early March. Very often here on the front range we can play during the winter but as soon as we think spring is here, we are in for the harsh reality that winter is just around the corner. Witness last weekend - 80 degrees f on Saturday and snow on Sunday. The mountains are for skiing until late April at least. We have four different seasons at one time in Colorado alone.

  6. David Sirias, April 6, 2011 at 12:39 p.m.

    I think the existing MLS break is too long for teams that dont make the playoffs or exit early ( more than four months). Out of sight out of mind. A fall- spring schedule works here in the States if you assume late may-June Playoffs and a very early August start and a winter break that is longer than the summer break. That's the thing that bothers most people. But so what. Having your off season signings at the get go of the season or for playoff push + exclusive focus on the national team in summer competitions + a lot less pre-season B side Euro Club visits (which I think slows the growth of brand MLS) has larger benefits which outweigh the the whole offseason break issue. We would get used to it. And effectively, most cold weather teams would only be losing anywhere from 3 to 6 supposedly "ideal" weather games, depending on playoff status. I think Garber wants to make the USA a soccer nation. This plus better stadia is part of his equation. Get NE and DC, into proper facilities with roofs and put roofs on in Tor and CBUS would help a lot. I think it will happen. But not for another decade at least. By then I think the entire West of the Mississippi will already be a soccer nation. Jason K is doing it almost by himself in Utah.

  7. Joe d. Shaw, April 6, 2011 at 1:26 p.m.

    If MLS goes to an even number of teams, say 24, it could go to an EAST - WEST two division format in which a team plays divisional foes twice and non-division teams once for a total of 34 games. Sorry, I haven't figured out how the post-season works in this setup but this would help with travel costs and weather constraints.

  8. Mark Johnston, April 6, 2011 at 1:39 p.m.

    We would not need winter and still have room for FIFA dates if we: 1/ Got rid of Stupidliga. 2/ Got rid of MLS Cup and simply have the regular season Supporters Shield like most countries in the world. 3/ Use the US OPEN CUp in place of the MLS CUP.This is really the true national champion 4/ Stop having exhibitions in the middle of the regular season. 5/ Move regular season games to Wednesday instead of Thursday and Friday, so a Wednesday team then could still play Sunday. Then they would be off for a week. 6/ The Supporters Shield Winner and the US OPEN CUP winner are our seeded teams to Champions League. The runner ups to both become our play-in teams. How hard is this ?

  9. David Sirias, April 6, 2011 at 6 p.m.

    Mark is correct. But the point is, soccer will not be played in Dec-Feb regardless. So the term "winter" soccer is just plain dumb. The issue is one of logistics. Somethings must be terminated with any change to MLS summer start --summer end. If the price is Superliga and less overpriced Europ teams and US open cup, so be it. Or Make US open cup the tournament of reserve teams. I want MORE meaningful soccer--not dead time all Nov--Mid March as it is now for half the teams. Once we have the stadia in place, I'm with Garber. Change it.

  10. Oz LatinAmerican, April 6, 2011 at 11:12 p.m.

    It really doesn't matter when the MLS is being played, summer or winter it is a mediocre soccer league and with so many games on TV to watch from European leagues,champions league, and Brasil/Argentina leagues from February to December how can you watch MLS? there is no one quality player to watch? Now if you have top rated players I will go to watch the MLS I don't care when they play!

  11. Paolo Jacobs, April 7, 2011 at 12:41 a.m.

    I"m with Ridge... the USA is just too cold in the winter months with most teams located in the northern Climes.... Acourse I would want a normal fifa caldender schedule, but in the states, it just can't work.. unless... teams take off 2-3 months.. not goin to happen... I remember MLS cup played in freezzing Toronto... crazy! soccer in the states is a warmer spectator sport... simply put

  12. Kyr-Roger St.-Denis, April 7, 2011 at 9:39 a.m.

    All good comments. I signed in to comment on several aspects of this issue, and see that a couple of my points have already been made, by Joe Musser (stadium too far from town) and Mark Johnston (get rid of MLS Cup, just have the regular season).

    § I don't know that spanning 6 time zones is a great concern, especially since the westernmost two have relatively tiny populations. I see the NBA manages very well with games across 4 time zones, and see no reason why MLS couldn't do the same. They also do reasonably well with mid-week games. If the buzz is there, surrounding the team, the fans will come in sufficient numbers.

    § I agree with Osvaldo Aguero, that MLS is a mediocre league (though improving), and with Alan Pearce that most people will prefer EPL over MLS. But I also think that one of the reasons for that is that (1) tv coverage of the "local" team is too sporadic to build fan loyalty; and (2) the pathetic announcers that ESPN2 and FSC bring to the game make watching a match unbearable -- though this problem has improved some.

    § On the first point, consider the Dallas Cowboys in the early 1960s. They, unusually for the time, made it a point to get their team on television all over parts of the country where there weren't competing teams, and in Mexico. They were seen regularly, and fans quickly began to identify with them. This is what made them "America's team." By contrast, sitting here 250 miles from Dallas and 200 miles from Houston, I might get to see those MLS teams five or six times in a season, combined. (Checking the MLS web site just now, I see that FC Dallas will be on TV twice this year, while Houston Dynamo will be on 4 times.) That's just not enough to build loyalty, and certainly not enough to prompt my family to make the long drive to a match ... which is sad, because we were excited when San Jose moved to Houston. If the league won't pursue regional broadcasts, the individual teams need to do it, even if they have to give the content away (like the Cowboys once did).

    § One last comment: cold weather may be a severe problem in New England and the upper Midwest, but for Houston and Dallas, it's the summer heat that makes match attendance unappealing. I went to one Dallas Burn game in August one year; never again. Even at 7pm it was still well over 100 degrees in the stadium. I ain't a-gonna sit through that again.

  13. Carl Walther, April 7, 2011 at 11:37 a.m.

    Why does 'Goober' do anything? Two reasons. He's want to please FIFA, and he's not that bright.

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