By J Hutcherson - WASHINGTON, DC (July 10, 2012) US Soccer Players – Though it seems like we're suddenly a site devoted to whatever is happening with the Montreal Impact, they're the latest club to get looks of concern from those following the attendance table. Montreal has a rebuilt stadium and not enough willing fans to fill it. Clemente Lisi covered the attempt to increase the appeal by recruiting Italian players, but it's a broader issue that doesn't just concern our friends in Quebec.
Major League Soccer as a whole is very good at sending decidedly mixed messages. Success with one club speaks to the growth of the League as a whole. Problems at another are isolated, particular in nature, and not evidence of anything broader. It's a neat trick repeated just about any time that great Pacific Northwest rivalry is mentioned.
What it leaves out are the clubs in serious trouble. The ones that can't come close to filling their nice new soccer-specific stadiums or even get them built. For now, that includes our new friends in Montreal. An expansion club having trouble at the gate is something MLS hasn't had to deal with in several years. Like with other North American sports, a new team normally brings with it enough enthusiasm to buy time. Yes, Montreal isn't necessarily a new team in the same way the Pacific Northwest contingence previously existed in the lower divisions. In a league without promotion, this is as close as it comes. It worked so well in other places that Montreal becomes an even bigger issue.
'Issue' is used in place of 'disappointment' because it's too soon to load up Montreal's expansion season with that harsh of a critique. Montreal hasn't disappointed. They've gotten a few big wins, they've had huge crowds at their alternative venue, and they've shown indications that they won't end up in the same category as the MLS clubs that are really in trouble. They also still have time.
How much time any club has is an unknown quantity in MLS. In the course of league history, we've had two teams contracted and one relocated. What we haven't had is the wholesale movement of teams normally associated with new leagues. Teams have time in their original market, and only dire economic outlooks or an owner with a specific plan and the support of the League as a whole will change that. Since the League no longer owns teams and the economics seem stable, moving clubs seems like a bit of a reach. Add to that the simple fact that clubs build stadiums. Property owners have a tougher time moving than renters.
Yet there's still an entire category of significantly troubled MLS clubs. Most fans don't even need help coming up with the list. Simply looking at attendances over a few games tells the story. Regardless of payroll, if a team isn't selling enough tickets in this League they're in trouble. It's a simple enough way to draw a line between success, trouble, and potential failure.
For those of you wanting a list, it's simple enough to start. Assume that there are no clubs so flush with sponsorship money that ticket revenue is no longer the primary economic driver. Then look at attendances. From there, pick out press releases where teams are announcing new stadium clubs in place of suites they couldn't sell. Then list teams that don't have venue control. Add to that the clubs that are missing either a shirt or a stadium sponsor. We can take that a step further and analyze those name sponsors for national reach. Last, but more important than any of these to the fans, look at what the clubs are spending on players.
If that sounds like a part-time job, you can roughly categorize most MLS teams by looking at attendance. That remains the primary indicator of success or failure in a League that built soccer-specific stadiums with the intention that the clubs would be playing to capacity and creating demand for tickets.
MLS has a warranted reputation for being the good news League. They don't really do negative, choosing instead to focus on a constantly renewing upside. Replace a coach, and it's good news for a club taking a tough step to move forward. An investor or sponsor pots out and there's always that next opportunity. 'According to league policy' becomes a convenient detour away from topics the League decides aren't worth a public conversation. The exception are media questions at the occasional press conferences involving the Commissioner, but even those rarely get as insightful as we see in other professional sports.
That works in the League's favor. Staying on the favored topic that this is a League moving from strength-to-strength and that any problems are isolated is a good way to manage public image. The average fan watching the occasional game probably isn't interested in what's happening locally with a team they don't follow. Still, enough of those isolated incidents suggest a trend.
For MLS, that's where there's real work to do. We can give the League all the credit they deserve for the success stories, but at some point the focus has to move to the struggling clubs. There are simply too many of them, and they could quickly tilt the scale away from what's going right in Major League Soccer.
Comments, questions, solutions to problems that have yet to present themselves. Please, tell me all about it.
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