By Jason Davis - WASHINGTON, DC (Jan 3, 2014) US Soccer Players - Between Boxing Day and New Year’s Day, the English Premier League schedule churns out matches at an insane rate that taxes rosters, plays a major role in determining the final table, and turns over narratives at lightning speed. England’s “festive season” is a sprint of games that exhausts nearly everyone involved. That includes the fans.
Whatever the tiring aspects of the festive period, the run of game on top of one another right in the middle of the Premier League campaigns serves as a hook for soccer observers around the world. As something of a double whammy, England continues to play through the last week of December and into the New Year while the rest of Europe’s major leagues are off. The stage belongs to the Premier League and the Premier League alone, compounding the intensity of the schedule congestion.
Such a hook is something Major League Soccer has always lacked. In England, the stage centers around a pair of holidays, perfectly placed so that they can serve as the midway point of the season. The problem for MLS isn’t that a similar possibility doesn’t exist. The Fourth of July falls about mid-season for the domestic campaign, to pick just one example. It’s that the league lacks the leverage, interest, or both, to create it. Copying the festive season to a tee - meaning several matches in a short time span over the course of a holiday period - doesn’t sound like a recipe for success. MLS still strives to avoid midweek matches whenever possible for a reason.
The hook doesn't have to be a series of games jammed into a too-short window that would unnecessarily stretch MLS rosters. The richest Premier League teams barely get by, after all, and their payrolls dwarf those of MLS clubs by powers of ten. The level of play in a run of MLS games that saw teams play four times in two weeks would do little to help the League’s image. No, aping the “festive period” in a bid to drive up interest isn’t the way to go.
However, there is something to the idea of a tradition like the packed festive period and the attention it brings to the league. Those anchor points MLS does have either fall short (the Fourth of July again) or come at the tail end of the season when competition for eyeballs is fierce and fewer teams are left standing (the playoffs). Independence Day has long been something of a selling point for MLS teams, but more often than not it’s the fireworks after the game serving as the big draw. The game preceding the airborne pyrotechnics is simply a preamble to the family-friendly activity. Relegating soccer to the sidelines hardly makes for a longstanding tradition around which MLS can grow.
As of now, there’s nothing notable about MLS games that fall on the Fourth, no additional marketing push for televised games, no “owning” of the holiday the way the NBA has come to “own” Christmas. If the league’s hook is going to be the Fourth of July, it needs better bait.
If not a day of games from across the league as a showpiece, perhaps a singular event makes more sense.
Consider the way the NHL created a high-profile showpiece event. The Winter Classic trades on tradition. The pond hockey familiar to its core fan base in Canada and the northern U.S, thick with nostalgia and spectacle. The large crowds gather in outdoor venues where it’s almost impossible to spot the puck from most of the seats. It hardly matters. They create a unique, and therefore highly anticipated, moment in the spotlight.
With an added backdrop of occasional picturesque weather, an outdoor professional hockey game takes on a mythic feel. With their annual curiosity, the NHL even managed to carve out interest on one of the most difficult days on the sports calendar, the traditional college football domain of New Year’s Day. That’s not easy. It speaks to the sweet spot of sport and wonder struck by the Winter Classic.
MLS faces an issue of time and impact to create anything similar. If the league were to consider making a holiday a centerpiece of the season, or attempt a one-off regular season event like the Winter Classic, it would need to find exactly the right mix of competitive soccer and truly special happening to merit attention beyond its usual support. Friendlies occasionally grab interest, but don’t mean anything in the end. For the same reason, the MLS All-Star Game, the league’s one true attempt to create an anchor in the middle of the season, falls flat. The hard edge between winning and losing is completely absent. The event itself is a copying of baseball’s tradition.
Generally speaking, tradition can’t be conjured overnight. The NHL achieved it, via a variety of impossible-to-copy reasons, but only time and repetition can typically turn a particular experience into a beloved institution. For an 18-year-old league, tradition is almost impossible. If it hasn’t been happening since the mid-90s, it can hardly live up to the word. At the same time, MLS and its clubs benefit from a fan base anxious to create their own traditions in a sports environment thick with century-old examples. The bar isn’t all that high, but that doesn’t make the task particularly simple.
MLS needs to mine the essence of the Winter Classic and the sudden importance of Seattle’s March to the Match (one of a handful of partisan “traditions”) but on a national scale. If only they knew where to dig.
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