More Musings on the Eve of MLS' 17th Season

COLOMBO, SRI LANKA - MARCH 29: People crowd around the television sets to watch the action as Sri Lanka play New Zealand in the ICC World Cup Semi Final match on March 29, 2011 in Colombo, Sri Lanka. (Photo by Tom Shaw/Getty Images)

Since publishing a 1,000 word essay on the similarities between MLS, MLB, and the EFL as they entered their 17th year, the peer feedback has largely been on the validity of comparing a league launching in 1996 with one that launched in 1876. Clearly the pitfalls such a modern league would face are not the same as one launching 100+ years ago. In Part II of this compare and contrast essay, there will be an attempt to work through the challenges MLS faced from the get-go that other leagues did not.

Travel

The most significant difference between MLS and the other major sports leagues in America is only MLS was launched as a transcontinental league. From the moment the league kicked off in 1996, the LA-NY trip has been a financial and logistical reality. The Galaxy's first MLS match on April 13th, 1996 was against the NY/NJ Metrostars.

By contrast, MLB didn't have to contemplate traversing the continent until 1958 when the Dodgers moved out west. That's 80 years of existence where the longest trip was from Boston to St. Louis. I say contemplate because with the Boston Braves having already left for Milwaukee, the two New York NL teams meant Philadelphia was the furthest east NL franchise. The Pirates and Phillies came out to California together that year, doing a series in LA and SF respectively then flipping.

With the Angels in '61 and the Mets in 62', both the AL and NL had to make the cross country trip.

Pro Football, more similar to MLS in travel, first dealt with the cross country trip in 1946. The Cleveland Rams moved to Los Angeles that year. A second pro league the AAFC launched that same year, with teams in New York and the Los Angeles Dons.

It makes sense that pro football would come west sooner than baseball. Like MLS, with a week between games there was more time to make the long trip and adjust physically. In the case of both the Dons and the Rams, east coast trips were maximized for effeciency: Boston and New York back to back in the Rams' case, Brookly, NY, and Miami in the Dons'.

MLS has handled the situation similarly. The entire month of June for the LA Galaxy was spent on the road, at Tampa Bay, at New England, and at New York. The Galaxy played in Seattle to kick off the season, but did at Portland and at Vancouver as one road trip. Similarly, when faced with a mid-week Champions League game in Costa Rica, the Galaxy went from there straight to Columbus for the weekend game.

Verdict: 50 year old problem with a tried and true solution? Not a big deal.

Television Contracts

When MLS launched in 1996, it did so with English and Spanish language TV contracts already signed. While sporting events and television seem to go hand in hand these days, the other major sports leagues didn't have to deal with television broadcast concerns until in 1940s and 50s. And there were only a handfull of national broadcasters at that point.

Baseball was the first to dabble in broadcasting, back when both television broadcasting and watching television was experimental. In New York, the station that would become WNBC broadcast a Brooklyn Dodger doubleheader on August 26, 1939. On March 30th, 1940 the Hollywood Stars (a Pacific Coast League team in Los Angeles) broadcast their home opener on what would become KCBS.

By 1947, TV sets were becoming a common household appliance, and NBC broadcast the World Series between the New York Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers to all of New York. In a sign of things to come, the broadcast was sponsored by Gillette and Ford.

The 50s saw the genesis of the Game of the Week program. As affiliates for NBC, CBS, ABC, and DuMont grew across the country, a national game of the week became a weekend regularity. The main resistance to the broadcasts came from the owners, who feared TV would cut into attendance figures. So despite the fact that TV is an excellent marketing tool and in all cases grows a team's fan base, blackout rules were adopted.

MLS faces a television at once both completely different and quite similar. As evidenced by the big networks scrambling to build sports broadcast divisions in the 50s, when TV became a hot consumer product there was a need to fill the airwaves with content.

Cable TV has infinitely increased the need for content. HD television and DVRs came together at the same time to make sports the leader in live television watching, something advertisers drool over.

Yet, while MLS at one time had it's final broadcast on ABC, now most of it's content goes out on the network we grew up watching the World's Strongest Man Competition. 1.0 ratings on ESPN2 aren't growing the sport the way broadcasting the Super Bowl on NBC grew the NFL.

Going from Fox Soccer Channel, which made no effort to put MLS on Big Fox, to NBC Sports Network with a handfull of matches on NBC is a step forward in the right direction. Now that Fox Soccer is putting English Premier League matches on FOX, soccer may begin to mainstream but the question is will MLS ride that coattail.

The other licensing area MLS concerns itself with is the Spanish speaking community. Spanish language broadcasts for sports in the US are very common, but Soccer United Marketing (which controls MLS and USNT broadcast rights) takes it a step further controlling licensing rights for CD Guadalajara and the Mexican NT in the US.

Which is all to say, while MLS is unlikely to face a situation like the NFL-AFL battles on TV in the 60s, it does face a battle in growing out from the niche it's carved. Soccer's unique international structure, combined with the US' international makeup, means the competition is for the hearts and minds of America's soccer loving citizens.

Verdict: Soccer is an established sport in the American television landscape, but MLS may be the third most popular league amongst American soccer fans. Terribly complicated.

So that's my take. MLS may face different challenges than Major League Baseball or the Football League did at age 17, but they aren't insurmountable. Both the physical difference (area covered by league) between MLS and those other leagues at this age, and the mental difference (occupation of hearts and minds) are not new issues though the nature of the issues has changed. Travel has only gotten easier, while television has gotten more complicated.

Which makes TV the lynchpin issue. Attendance, season ticket holders are a byproduct of MLS getting it's message out there. Generations of kids playing AYSO and club soccer means the fanbase is here, so long word gets out that MLS is here too.

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