If pro soccer is ever to be taken seriously in the US, Major League Soccer must win over sports fans and the media alike. And, as Eric Arnold finds, this summer's World Cup offers a perfect opportunity to do it.Last Saturday, March 23, Major League Soccer (MLS) kicked off its seventh season. Chances are, the majority of America's sports fans did not notice, what with the NCAA Basketball Championships, the NBA playoff race, an NHL season re-ignited by the drama of the Olympics, and the appetite for baseball that spring training invariably whets.
The challenges facing professional soccer in the US are not new, and gaining acceptance as a major sport is an annual struggle. But the MLS communications team hopes that changes to the league's structure, and continued education of the media - along with a golden opportunity to "piggyback
this summer's World Cup Finals - will help soccer gain national recognition in the US.
There are already some encouraging signs. MLS attendance for 2001 was up 9% over the previous year, while there is evidence that the often-critical media is starting to listen.
Addition by subtraction
A few months ago, the elimination of two of the league's 12 teams - the Miami Fusion and the Tampa Bay Mutiny - hinted at MLS' decline. However, most stories written about the league's contraction were positive, while at the same time sportswriters were screaming bloody murder about the possible dismantling of four Major League Baseball teams. The difference, it would seem, is that soccer's rising popularity forced the media to take a more objective look at MLS' decision.
"People appreciate that it will help us put the most attractive product on the field that we've ever had,
says Trey Fitz-Gerald, senior director of communications for MLS. "This year, there's heavy competition for the 22 player spots on all 10 rosters."
But MLS was thinking about its investors as much as its fans when it opted for contraction - an organizational house-cleaning was only the beginning. MLS is now focused on several strategies it sees as essential to soccer staking its claim as a professional league on par with the NFL, NHL, NBA, and MLB.
Perhaps the most dramatic change is the player rosters of six years ago compared to today. The temptation to draft in highly paid "has-been" players from overseas to increase exposure has been replaced by a desire to nurture homegrown stars. "One of the first things the league did in forming was go out and grab international icons,
says Fitz-Gerald. "I won't say we've had a conscious paradigm shift, but getting aging international superstars isn't the focus anymore."
Of course, soccer is the biggest sport in the world. And by far the biggest tournament in the world takes place this summer in Japan and South Korea - the quadrennial World Cup Finals. The month-long knockout tournament of 32 nations - including team USA - is a golden opportunity for MLS to raise the profile of professional soccer in the US. Nearly half of the US World Cup squad is comprised of MLS-developed players.
"When Brian McBride (of the Columbus Crew) scores a couple goals for the US, the people with ESPN and ABC know to say that he's a Crew player, and that's where you can see him on a regular basis,
Of course, the strategy will only pay dividends if the US manages to put the ball in the back of the net. So the better MLS players perform on the international stage, the better for MLS as a whole.
Regardless of what happens at the World Cup, however, MLS will still have its spot on Saturday TV for at least five seasons to come, thanks to a savvy deal. Three of MLS' major investors - Anschutz Entertainment Group, The Hunt Sports Group, and Dentsu - recently banded together to form Soccer United Marketing (SUM), a company through which they purchased the English-language broadcast rights for the next two men's and women's World Cups. "We packaged them with MLS games, and sold it all back to ABC,
Fitz-Gerald says. So there's the kicker: ABC and its ESPN partners couldn't air World Cup matches unless they also agreed to air MLS games, so it's in their interest to promote the MLS during World Cup broadcasts.
Kicking the media into shape
Putting soccer on TV is a substantial step, but it will only get the league so far. That's why MLS has also invested in educating the media about soccer. And it hasn't been easy.
"It's downright appalling,
says ABC Sports reporter Marc Connolly. "Some of the games the US national team plays, the major dailies don't have a representative there. They may not even print the AP or Reuters recap of the game the next day, even during a very slow season."
That's been changing, however, as The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and Herald, The New York Times, and LA Times have all begun to devote more coverage to soccer. "They have some very accomplished soccer writers and editors who are passionate about the sport.
Fitz-Gerald says, "And we've given them reason to consider soccer one of the five major sports."
Part of that has to do with the work of MLS' senior coordinator of communications Alan Plum. Every day, he e-mails reporters all the articles that appeared in that day's media (print and online) that mention MLS.
"I like it,
says ABC's Connolly. "If I'm writing about Landon Donavan and his most recent game for the San Jose Earthquakes, I want to see if one of the local writers who covers them has come up with the same point. Maybe I'll go in a different direction."
Connolly adds that the individual teams' PR reps - there are two or three per team - frequently help him develop story ideas. "I've called a team looking for a player, and explain a particular story, and they may come back with an alternative. It looks self-serving, but it usually winds up being the better story,
he says. "You never get the runaround."
MLS' straightforwardness was apparent when the league's plan to construct soccer-specific stadiums for each of the 10 teams was recently dealt a serious blow. The city of McKinney, TX voted to construct a $50 million stadium for the Dallas Burn, one of MLS' most popular franchises, then rescinded its offer less than 24 hours later.
"There's not much more you can do but express the truth - the shock and disappointment,
says Alan Rothenberg, former chairman and CEO of the respective 1994 and 1999 men's and women's World Cups, and former president of US Soccer. Sure enough, MLS did not wage any kind of public attack on McKinney or its mayor. "The good news,
Rothenberg says, "is that our game plan for building stadiums is moving apace."
The Dallas situation is indicative of the nearly seven-year uphill climb MLS has endured in bringing soccer to prominence in the US.
"When you're trying to crawl your way up,
Rothenberg explains, "you don't have the media coming to you - you have to go to them, and do it in a way that's not offensive. We've always tried to be straightforward and honest about what's happening, which beats the heck out of trying to spin things. If you're going to be around for the long haul, the media will turn its back on you if you try to pull the wool over their eyes. We've had hard times, but we've faced up to them."