By Dario Camacho - MIAMI, FL (Aug 17, 2012) US Soccer Players -- There is a gap that Major League Soccer is trying to bridge. Consider the nineteen existing teams as satellites floating on the vast landscape of North America. Each team is a self sufficient, independent identity, part of a set of niche markets that have entrenched soccer followers, groups, fans.
They work as anchors. They work to create a relevant framework that MLS can use to grow the League. Grow them in these markets, small or marquee, and get them into the television national spotlight in hopes of giving the League a broader appeal. Use the leverage of regional rivalries and the odd summer friendly to show off the passion personified by fans waving flags, screaming chants, and berating opponents.
Passion. It’s a marketable quality, one that, as MLS chief marketing officer Howard Handler alluded to in an ESPN interview, is capable of transcending the local markets and creating North American appeal.
"In working with the NFL, I thought I had encountered rabid fans at Green Bay or Chicago, but mingling with these (Seattle) fans I realized their support was an expression of their own identities -- a reflection of who they are and what it means to be 20- and 30-year-olds in Seattle," Handler told ESPN.
Seattle is a microcosm. How that translates to a whole league could be interpreted differently. Yet, regardless of how many fans show up locally, that passion still lies within the fans that do show up week in and week out. The big push then is to transform that passion for a single team, to one that encompasses the League as a whole. The jump from ‘my team’ to ‘my league’ within the lexicon of fan infatuation.
This is nothing new for MLS. Though talk of a 'footprint' has decreased as expansion teams are added, there's still regions of the country underrepresented by Major League Soccer. The clubs are outposts, if you will, tasked with spreading the appeal. With that in mind, the lack of any team in the Southeast or central Canada becomes a problem of minding the gap. As Handler said, "if we can build out the ways fans can connect to the league, we can ensure a local conversation becomes a national one."
Those connections can come from a different element than just a national television broadcast. Even though the deal with NBC Sports has changed the public dialogue of how good production values can elevate public perception of the game, it isn’t the only form of exposure available. Digital distribution through mobile apps, online game broadcasts through different hardware spaces and an improvement of their social media and games can be an alternative network to change their national landscape.
It’s access to MLS anywhere and anytime.
This year, MLS has invested into their digital space which includes mobile apps, MLS Live and their fantasy games. As Jason Davis described earlier in the year, MLS Live has seen a grand expansion, and one that has improved by moving its accessibility to different avenues. Allowing you to view streaming games through mlssoccer.com, iPad and iPhone apps and online streaming players like Roku, MLS Live has enabled fans to catch all the action, on demand and through a portable and diverse field of gadgets. That ease of access is a huge asset in theory, but there's still that challenge of truly national appeal.
MLs is hardly alone in this space, and they're competing against entrenched properties with the existing fan base and financing to make things extremely difficult. That's not just the inroads made by the likes of Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association, adding platforms like video game systems to make sure their subscription content is easily available. It's other brands of soccer making access as easy as possible for fans that don't even live on the same continent, much less the same region.
If online broadcasts and national televised matches are the muscle that do the heavy lifting, the connective tissues and sinew between them are the other digital options at a fan's disposal to build that connection. MLS has developed apps for several platforms from iOS to Android to Windows Phone. Each app is an information treasure trove, taking the bits and parts of MLS’s online site that matter to fans: the video highlights, team stats and important news stories. Even on a platform as small as the Windows Phone ecosystem (which I use) the visual presentation and overall quality of the app is impressive. On iPhone and iPad, it’s even better.
Fantasy games help as well. MLSoccer.com has revamped its online games in an effort to match that of ESPN.com and Yahoo.com’s offerings. The new system has a sleek look and, more importantly, bigger prize packages, something to entice players to come back from week to week. It’s also a good way to engage players. Who’s hurt? Who’s scoring in bunches? Who’s hot this week? Never mind the nifty jersey you might win.
Still, none of this is done in isolation. At this point, creating those bridges is almost taken for granted. This is a crowded marketplace filled with options. It's not just about availability, it's about a strong link to a North American professional soccer league.
More from Dario Camacho: