Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Soccer in a struggling economy

So I've been reading this really, really interesting book called Soccer in a Football World,* which I highly recommend as an excellent account of American soccer history. It's probably one of the best soccer books I've ever read, and I've read a lot of them over the years.

(*Do you ever stumble upon a phrase that COULD have a double-meaning? I think the title is one of those. "Soccer in a football world" could mean soccer in America, where (American) football dominates the landscape. Then again, it COULD also mean, soccer in a (global) football, as if the comparison is made to what Americans call soccer, the rest of the world calls football. If I ever cross paths with David Wangerin, it'll be the first question I ask.)

Anyway, I just finished a chapter on how the American Soccer League, and other lesser pro leagues were just killed by the Depression. Just murdered. Of course, the Depression wasn't the lone gunman - a soccer war, not to mention the close link between factories and clubs, and the relocation of the factories all played as accessories to the crime.

Now, soccer wasn't the only sport that was affected. Other sports were hurt as well. Baseball's attendances nosedived, and while college football sustain its popularity (due to its affluent fanbases) it was certifiable miracle that pro football survived. After all, the credit extended to so many during Roaring Twenties was running out, and bills were past due.

Sound familiar?* Now, I'm not saying that the present economic crisis is another Depression so to speak, but there's no doubt a lot of people are hurting. Over the past year, the NBA and NFL have laid off several employees. NASCAR eliminated offseason testing. The NBA has been forced extended a $200 million credit line to a host of franchises who are especially affected by the crisis. Heck, the NFL Commissioner cut his salary by 20%! And don't think that MLB hasn't felt the purple-nurple pinch as well. MLB has advised that it expects up to a 20% drop in overall attendance in 2009.

(*You know how people say history repeats itself? I agree to an extent, but I think one of my political science professors put it better: "History doesn't always repeat itself, but it often tends to rhyme.")

Meanwhile, MLS finds itself in a very odd position. Americans have less discretionary spending. In cutting personal costs, outrageously priced sports tickets have cut out of many people's budget's, and thus, the NFL, MLB and NBA have paid the price. MLS, however, may boast of two advantages: consumer-friendly prices, and family-oriented atmosphere.*

(*I say this knowing full well that another league with the same virtues - Arena Football League - cancelled its 2009 season despite the fact that it is a much cheaper alternative than the NFL. )

I think there are two schools of thought here. One school says that MLS should begin writing its will and obituary. After all, a league that ranks fifth behind the Big Four in terms of attendance and popularity is likely to feel the same effects as its older brothers.

Then there is the school that believes that the current financial woes will play to MLS's advantage. Sure, there's less discretionary spending available, but Americans love their sports. If they find themselves priced out of one, they'll seek another. Right?

I know I'm biased, but as a fan of many sports, pro soccer in the States is by far the best value for your sports entertainment buck, save for minor league baseball. So, I'm a student of the second school of thought. There's no question that MLS is the torchbearer for best value among top-flight sports, and I think that the league, as well as minor league ball and pro lacrosse, are in the best positions to welcome those suddenly priced out of Big Four tickets.

To its credit, some MLS clubs have already recognized this, and have taken steps to play this card to their advantage. The New England Revolution, for example, have recently launched, a supporter's site where fans can purchase season tickets for $200.00. That's less than HALF of most people's monthly rent. Additionally, the club also offers discounted four-match ticket packages, and - perhaps the most underrated aspect of its value - free parking for every one of its matches.

In my view, right now is a golden opportunity for MLS. It would be remiss to recognize this time as a hurricane-sized window of opportunity. Not only can they easily beat their competitors' prices, but they can also boast of a family-friendly atmosphere.* And heck, the action ain't bad, either.

(*If I were commissioner for a day, I'd decree that every single match ball that flies into the crowd during the 2009 MLS season is no longer the league's. Let the fans keep the ball. Do not understimate the power that type of memory can create. I'm telling you that a kid, who will someday have kids of his/her own, that gets to keep a ball will never forget that. His/her allegiance to MLS will be effectively secured as a result.)


Anonymous said...

I love the idea of letting catchers in the crowd keep the ball. Big deal, small $$$. If Khano was still here, maybe he'd think twice.

BrianTheOC said...

Hahaha, if that were the case, I think Khano would have to start his own fan club. The Khano Smith Fan Club - the only MLS fan club that guarantees a free match ball to its members each and every match.