With March Madness, MLB spring training, and the NBA and NHL seasons in full swing, Major League Soccer needs to find a way to get fans interested in soccer.
There’s nothing like a little controversy to let the rest of the world know that professional soccer is starting up again in the United States and Canada.
Otherwise, MLS, which finished with a bang last year, starts this weekend without much fanfare.
Beginning a season this month will always be a tough sell for MLS Commissioner Don Garber. Plopped right into the middle March Madness, the NBA, baseball spring training, anything and everything NFL and, of course, soccer abroad, MLS is up against it when it comes to generating buzz.
But what is a proper alternative? February is traditionally a slow sports month but that’s far too early for the league to kick off. Adopting the European schedule, which would mean starting in August and ending in May, won’t work. Too many cold weather cities and eliminating a summer schedule would compromise attendance.
The NHL has a similar identity problem. Hockey drops the puck just as Major League Baseball playoffs are beginning and with pro and college football in full swing. Most people I know don’t even pay attention to the NHL until they play that one New Year’s Day game outdoors.
A labor dispute pushed the start of the NBA season to Christmas Day and that stroke of good luck – some would say it was planned that way for months – resulted in record television ratings. Also, the condensed NBA season – 66 games in four months – may be great for the fans but it is dangerous to the health of the players.
In a normal year, the NBA tips off right around Halloween and despite an initial bump it tends to disappear until Dec. 25. Give NBA Commissioner David Stern some credit. He has successfully hijacked the day from Santa Claus.
But let’s also remember that the NBA and NHL have something the MLS is trying to establish – tradition, a long standing fan base and, yes, preseason games. Nationally televised preseason games that is.
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The MLS season concludes with the MLS Cup and then just starts up again out of nowhere. The Red Bulls are here on Sunday to face FC Dallas in a match that will be shown by a new television partner, NBC Sports Network. That's great. But there's little build up, not enough media coverage in the weeks prior to the season opener and hardly any televised preseason matches.
I’m not sure the networks believe there are enough soccer junkies to start spending money on televising a preseason game between Chivas USA and the Colorado Rapids. I get that. How about a pseudo All-Star Game featuring the defending champions, the Los Angeles Galaxy, against a team of stars from around the league? You get David Beckham and Thierry Henry on the same field. Throw in Brek Shea, Juan Agudelo and Landon Donovan and you have good mixture of legendary names and home-grown talent.
The telecast would serve as preview for the upcoming season. MLS wisely uses professional leagues, particularly in Europe, to market its players during the offseason. Donovan and Henry spent time with Everton and Arsenal, respectively. Shea, who is making a name for himself on the U.S. national team, trained with Arsenal in January.
So why not reintroduce those same players to MLS fans a week before the regular season with a light friendly?
The league has a lot to be proud of. It is adding a 19th franchise, the Montreal Impact, this year. There are already discussions of possibly making Orlando home to another franchise (even though New York, for obvious reasons, should still be first on the list). Houston is moving into a soccer-specific stadium.
The league is strong. There are quality players. Real soccer is back.
I’m just not sure enough people know it.