By J Hutcherson - WASHINGTON, DC (Oct 9, 2012) US Soccer Players – When I was first starting out covering soccer, I had lots of questions. Unfortunately, I was dealing with Major League Soccer where there weren't a lot of easy answers. In fairness to MLS back then, the problems were plentiful and their answers kept the League going through a tough era.
Back in the late 90's, figuring out the fan base was a tough one. Clubs were rebuilding their season ticket lists every offseason in a way that would be the stuff of nightmares for newer MLS teams and their employees. Assumptions counted for very little.
An MLS staffer once told me he was convinced that MLS drew enough disgruntled fans of other pro sports teams to suggest a trend. He described them as tough customers, trying to rekindle something that was lost with higher profile teams in bigger sports.
This was a time when American soccer fans forsook the rest of the pro sports marketplace for their own version of soccer-specificity. Pro soccer fans were different by choice, and that carried with it a critique of the other professional sports. This didn't help soccer in America, something it took a while to figure out. The difference was just that, and it was off putting. With MLS games played in front of tiny crowds and small television audiences, something had to change.
That was over a decade ago, and in most markets things have changed. For one thing, the expectation is no longer 4,000 season ticket holders as a measure of success. For another, there's no longer that insistence that a fan of a soccer team hold that above other affiliations.
At the end of their first season in MLS, the Philadelphia Unions fans were the subject of an article in the British version of GQ. The writer seemed surprised that a trip to Columbus late in the season wasn't attractive to many supporters. The Phillies were in the playoffs, the Union was out of contention, and baseball took precedence. In the mind of most American sports fans, that's exactly what should happen. The sport that's playing games that matter gets the stage, with no hard feelings to the other available games.
That's the next step for MLS in all of its cities, when its games are occasionally the ones taking the highest profile. Yes, Seattle sold out an NFL stadium on Sunday for a regular season game against a struggling club. It's a safe assumption that they won't slump at the gate during the playoffs like other MLS teams. They might be the exception, but we're talking about fans going to the game.
When a team in one of the established sports grabs the local attention, it's not just those willing to pay for the live experience. It's a geographic region as a whole focusing their attention on one club in the moment, a city in support of its team. It's avoiding the old joke told at the expense of hockey towns where the entire fan base shows up for the games.
It's been an interesting week in DC. A well-known sports pundit with a national stage apologized after questioning whether the area really supports its teams. The lead sports columnist in The Washington Post felt the need to explain to the locals what it's like having a baseball team in the postseason. Meanwhile, a tweet from a sports columnist in the Bay Area asked if anybody paid attention to Chris Wondolowski's multiple goal game in the shadow of their own playoff baseball team, college football, and the National Football League.
MLS is still in a transitional moment when it comes to that broader conversation. The instances where an MLS team has grabbed the attention of a city are few, even when the situation favors soccer. Seattle is a city with a moribund baseball team and no arena sports. Portland has the National Basketball Association, but no big league baseball or football. In the bigger media markets, it can still be a fight just to get regular coverage from a dedicated reporter. Though mainstream crossover happens, it's not the expectation.
That changes when the MLS postseason and what it takes to get there matters locally. It's a commitment to a team and its league that's more than building stadiums, signing major sponsors and television deals, and attracting name players. All of those are necessary, but they're not steps that have a specific order. As we see with other teams in other sports, they're also not a guarantee that a city will care enough to make a team their own.
J Hutcherson has been writing about soccer since 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at email@example.com.
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