Welcome to Partially Obstructed View. We are each restrained by the limits of our own perspective, but when we meet to share information a clearer picture of the truth can be revealed. Comments & criticisms are welcome.

Tuesday 25 October 2011

First Person View – MLS: The Next Frontier – From Fans of a Club to Fans of the League

    With the playoff brackets decided and teams either in or out the important question becomes: How many fans of eliminated teams will tune into the playoffs?

    The transition from being a fan of a particular club to becoming fans of the entire league is a difficult one to navigate. The NFL has achieved this; the NHL, NBA, and MLB too - to a lesser extent - have viewers tuning in for out of market games, and generate massive interest in the playoff tournaments. The advent of fantasy sports is a major factor, but so too is the spectacle of the event.

    MLS has done its best to achieve this heightened awareness league-wide come the end of season; it is in part responsible for the much-derided conference system which allows more of those ‘moments’ around which a club to brand itself.

    This year’s playoff matchups are as good as one could hope for. The one-off wildcard play-in ties see two contenders down on their luck - Dallas and New York – and the reigning champions versus those of three years prior – Colorado and Columbus.

    The quarterfinals (Conference semis) also serve up at least two fantastic series as the experience of Houston and the youth of Philadelphia meet in the East, while Seattle and Salt Lake contest the West. Kansas City and Los Angeles await the winners of the wildcard matches, but the possibility of New York taking on either of those clubs is positively mouthwatering to MLS fans.

    I contend that to better understand the machinations of your own club; one must have knowledge about the rest of the league. How else can one fairly assess the shortcomings or successes of a particular organization? Without the required background information, fandom becomes an exercise in futility, expecting the best without knowing the parametres with which to measure success.

    The transition from fans of a particular club, to those of the entire league will be difficult. The history and passion required, comes only with time and there are far more options these days for entertainment than even ten years ago.

    When I was a kid you simply could not watch out of market matches at home, thereby making the playoffs the one chance to see outside of the local bubble and take in these teams you had only heard about or seen fleetingly should they happen to come to town.  Now every single match – be it baseball, American gridiron, hockey, or basketball – is available from the comfort of your own couch.

    Part of the problem for MLS is the nature of the broadcasting rights. It can be difficult without doing your research to find where a match will air, making it difficult to plan ahead and invest the time necessary to catch matches.

    As much as packages such as MatchDay Live and Direct Kick are useful they are a financial commitment not required to follow other major leagues – though similar products are available for the hardcore. The need to blackout some matches to quell the fears of the broadcasting partners is as much an obstacle as a benefit.

    The hosting of MLS Cup in a neutral location suffers from this paradigm as too often fans in one market are ignorant of the wider context of the league. The much-criticized BMO Field final last season between Dallas and Colorado was exemplary of this conundrum. Aside from the chilly weather – which I quite enjoyed – and the less than appetizing tactics, it was the lack of passion that affected the spectacle.

    It is safe to assume that - unlike the other major leagues - fans in a particular market know very little about the rest of the league. That’s why the New York – LA matchup between Thierry Henry and David Beckham would have been better received in Toronto than were the lesser-known teams. Fans simply do not have a lifetime worth of investment – a driving factor for the success of other sports - in their clubs yet. But be patient, it will come.

    Marketing can only do so much. The other sports have the advantage of having the career’s of their stars followed and mapped from such an early age that by the time they take centre stage, we’ve all heard of them and their talent, and must tune in to see.

    Soccer is not like that, yet at least, and it is no coincidence that many of the players who have lit up the league in recent seasons have been those who entered with very little fanfare. Mauro Rosales, David Ferreira, Joel Lindpere, Eric Hassli, and many more were unheralded question marks before they came.

    The sheer vastness of the soccer world and MLS’ place within it makes it impossible to know each player and have those most highly-touted youngsters enter the league.

    The nascent culture growing around the game will fill in these knowledge gaps with time. The academies will bring potential stars into the conscious earlier as teams look to uncover gems. The increasing coverage of college soccer, and the furthering development of the soccer pyramid in the US and Canada will encourage fans to become more aware of what is around them.

    So even if your team has not made it to the postseason, take the time to catch the playoff matches. The wildcard games go midweek, with the next series to begin come the weekend.


  1. Excellent article promoting the value of following MLS playoffs regardless of whether your team is in or not.

    As for last year's MLS final, while the lack of atmosphere can be partially attributed to the weather, lack of glamour of the competitors and the tactics, there were also deeper issues at play surrounding supporters groups and TFC management.

    A great deal of dissatisfaction with the way the team was being run coincided with season ticket renewal and the decision by the club to package MLS Cup tickets with the upcoming season ticket package. The feeling that supporters were required to buy tickets as part of their package after feeling mistreated by the club was very contentious.

  2. I completely agree that the dissatisfaction with the club was - in some way - responsible for the unhappy atmosphere at that final.

    I can't help but wonder if things would have been different had LA and New York - with their big stars - contested the match. Or if fans were more in tune with the teams they were watching.

    I have much more to add to this conversation, but rather than writing a 1000-word comment, I'll write up a whole new post analyzing the confluence of factors that contributed to a less than stellar night.

    Thanks for the inspiration, and for taking the time to comment. Come back soon and I'll have the new piece ready.

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