Thursday, January 11, 2007

Memo to MLS: Beckham signing alone won't make league a success

Ok, judging by the title it probably seems as if I'm about to start bashing the sport of soccer. On the contrary, I'm a big fan of the much so in fact, I've even caught myself calling it football instead of soccer (the international folks would be proud). I would love to see MLS become a huge, long-standing success.

The problem is that although Beckham coming to MLS will definitely bring some great publicity to the league, it's just one small step forward in the overall scheme of things. You see, MLS will only have the spotlight temporarily. Beckham's first game with the L.A. Galaxy won't be until August (hopefully he won't get injured in the meantime), and while his first game definitely will capture the spotlight, unless he starts scoring hat-tricks every game, the spotlight will fade very quickly (in America anyway). The number one reason?...the almighty NFL will be gearing up for their regular season opener as September begins, and "that other football" will soon revert back to the shadows.

If MLS think that the signing of Beckham alone will automatically have a NASCAR-esque effect on its popularity, they're sadly mistaken. They need to use this temporary spotlight wisely and kickoff revolutionary changes for their league and the sport of soccer in America!

In my opinion, MLS needs improvement on three fronts: Marketing, Infrastructure, and League Dynamics. I'm only going to detail some Marketing ideas, otherwise this will be the longest blog post in history.

Reader's Digest format for the other two:
Infrastructure = soccer specific stadiums for all teams; build up NCAA soccer programs so that they rival football and basketball - high profile college stars going to MLS will keep interest in MLS (similar to football and basketball)
League Dynamics = expanding MLS to enough cities (maybe 30 or so) so that two divisions of 15 teams could be created and conducted similar to other soccer leagues around the world (see English Premiership & English Championship)that feature relegation and promotion between the two divisions - i.e. the regular season needs to mean something; join with Mexican and South American leagues to create Cup competitions similar to those in Europe. (UPDATE: 1-14-07...Found out about a Superliga tournament between MLS and Mexican teams this July - ok, MLS, good start...but we need our own Champions League type tournament as well.)

Marketing MLS and soccer correctly to the American audience would benefit the sport more than 20 Beckham signings ever could. Soccer in America is widely seen as a sport for kids. If grown men are playing it, they are seen as wimpy sissy-men. Now, this is not my personal view as, like I stated earlier, I'm a big fan of the sport. However, I do prefer watching the English Premier League because it's more gritty, intense, and here's the big factor - diving is seen as dishonorable.

The average American male does not want to be thought of as weak or dishonorable, so as such, we do not even want to be associated with anything that is weak or dishonorable (unless of course women think those things are cool and thus would increase our chances of getting laid). When most American males think of soccer (those who don't follow the sport), they think of some foreigner (sad, but true) falling to the ground as if he's been shot though he's hardly been touched (aka diving), writhing around on the ground in "pain" for what seems like an eternity, only to pop back onto the field a few moments later as if nothing happened. That type of display is both weak and dishonorable in the eyes of the American male - and more importantly - the American male sportsfan.

Also, the average American male does not like a "prettyboy" - "prettyboys" get all the hot chicks while either looking or doing things that aren't entirely masculine (I think you know what I mean by that) - which gives the average male 2 big reasons not to like them. Though anyone who has watched soccer from around the world knows that the majority of soccer players do not look or act like "prettyboys" - poll the average American male sportsfan and he will more than likely tell you otherwise. Signing Beckham, perhaps the ultimate "prettyboy" in the eyes of many American male sportsfans, will definitely NOT help to squash that stigma. Chicks will dig him of course, but screaming teeny-bopper girls will not turn the MLS into a respected and hugely successful sports league. However, market MLS players in a way so that they come across just as cool, tough, and brave as top NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB players and NASCAR drivers - the "prettyboy" stigma will largely disappear.

Additionally, when most American sportsfans think of soccer they think of scores that end 0-0, 1-0, 1-1. Games that end in a tie are a bad enough concept to deal with, but 0-0?! Why would the American viewer sit and watch (or pay hard earned money to go see) something that will most likely not feature much scoring, if any, and/or result with no winner and no loser?

Soccer is a sport that is largely not respected and/or not understood (and to some extent each being the cause of the other). Fix those two things, and soccer could rise like Nascar has in recent years; like the NBA did in the early 80's; and like the NFL (yes, even the NFL wasn't always "Mr. Popular") did in the early 70's. Baseball is pretty much the only sport that has always been rather consistent - long called "America's Pastime" its history is rooted as deep here as soccer is in the rest of the world.

Because of this, MLS will need to create a new public image for their league and soccer. Soccer players need to be presented as noble warriors who won't fall to the ground and whimper at the slightest touch like a 3-year old who doesn't want to take a nap; MLS players will fight and claw their way on the field of battle as they march toward the ultimate goal - a, um, GOAL!!! They will fight on though in pain, though bleeding, though tired - they will battle for the pride of their club and the city that club represents. They play as honorable men, playing to become champions!

If marketed correctly, the average male sportsfan will come to respect the players and the sport, even if the score ends 0-0 (well, ok, a 0-0 scoreline is still a tough proposition to sell).

Presentation and atmosphere could help overcome the above scoreline problem though. NFL games in America have a similar crowd atmosphere as soccer does in the rest of the world - it's one big rockin' party where most people also understand and appreciate the game. People need some reason to go to the game - they need a reason to be excited (this is where Beckham will initially help); people watching at home will have to feel this excitement as well - this is where smart presentation comes into play.

One of the biggest gripes about soccer (as a sport, players not factored) in America is that it is slow and boring. Well, people griped about baseball being slow and NASCAR being boring, but FOX Sports helped to change that with quick-cut editing, unique camera angles, numerous replays, and other flash. MLS should try a little of this to see if it will change the "slow and boring" perception, as well as enhance the excitment of the stadium atmosphere.

I've got some other Marketing ideas, but I'm too damn tired of writing right now so I'll just leave with this - signing Beckham was an exciting first step, but it has to be seen within MLS as just that - a first step. Create a league that is competitive at a high-level comparable to Europe and South America; infuse what is considered a foreign sport with classic American ideals and philosophies to make it feel more American; players that are widely known and respected and well-paid in line with the other major league sports...then "primetime" players will be more likely to come from all over the world to play in the MLS (and more importantly, young American males will aspire to become MLS stars in the same numbers as the other major sports).

Who knows, someday even MLS Fantasy leagues could compete in popularity with NFL Fantasy leagues - that's when you'll really know soccer and MLS have succeeded in America!

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