Monthly Archives: January 2012

Franchise vs Clubs – The Future of Pro Soccer in the U.S.

When speaking with a colleague recently about the future of the MLS and what that might look like come 2025, we made a few observations that clarify the unique environment that the sport has to operate within here in America.

The one that really stuck a chord was that of the franchise vs club structure and how this could be one of the biggest impediments to sustainable growth for clubs and the ongoing issue of promotion and relegation.

With the MLS/WPS going down the NFL inspired franchise system the real power resides with the League itself and teams are (sometimes) created solely to be an MLS franchise with no history or links to the community.

The MLS has its critics in this department but until the sport is rooted in Americas sporting culture we must all work together off the pitch (clubs/MLS/WPS/US Soccer & supporters) to create enough support so that soccer can become self-sufficient and potentially move away from this model in the future.

Promotion and relegation under the current model is doomed to failure as protecting the integrity and value of franchises will be paramount. Only when the clubs have the power can this truly work. We will expand upon this issue at a later date.

It is important that we start to have a grassroots discussion about the merits of franchises vs club owned structures and the prevailing issues that will help us answer them in the future.

  • Should the MLS go through a phase of consolidating its structure once it hits 20 teams?
  • Should the MLS/WPS begin to identify future expansion areas with already established clubs and help them grow into future MLS/WPS teams?
  • Should our pro leagues invest more time into possible expansion teams that already have a local history and established links within their community rather than a perceived potential (e.g Las Vegas)?
  • Should there be a future planning document/policy produced for the MLS (and made public)?

The final point is the most interesting suggestion we had. If this was to occur it would provide not only transparency but also a clear vision for the sport to follow. Saying the MLS will be a world class league in 2020 is too vague. Also, any document of this nature has opportunities for clubs, supporters etc to provide feedback which will provide confidence and accountability to the future directions of the sport.

Soccer will always be a part of the sporting mix due to the framework of corporate sports, but if it is to realize its potential and form a competitive stance to really challenge the dominant positions of the ‘big four’ then looking at established clubs who can prove to the MLS/WPS that they are ready for the transition to the elite is the most logical step forward.

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Excuse Me MLS – Women Can Play Too!

When people talk about growing the game in the U.S. there is the common misperception that the only issue we need to address is that of MLS. Fans need to realize that for soccer to grow we must also acknowledge the challenges and potential of the women’s side of the game.

“I like that soccer is growing in this country, it’s a beautiful thing. We’re part of something that’s much bigger than ourselves. And that in itself is inspiring.

“It makes you want to continue to work. It makes all those sacrifices worth it.”

Abby Wambach on the state of the game in the US while speaking at FIFA’s annual awards gala in Zurich recently.

The beauty of soccer is its inclusiveness and simplicity. It provides an even playing field for both sexes -which is no more evident than when they first start playing as juniors – taking to the field and learning the fundamentals of the game together.

Obviously growing up this situation changes, but the pathways for women in soccer should ultimately remain the same – creating opportunities for the best players in the country to perform on a national stage. Right?

The answer should be a no-brainer, but there are many things that are not being realized by the wider soccer fraternity here in the U.S. While the women’s team continues to be one of the most successful US sporting teams ever, the state of the domestic league is one of uncertainty and concern which (in an ironic twist) could be a direct result of being overshadowed by the ongoing achievements of the national team.

It’s a classic duck in water scenario. The duck looks the picture of calmness on the top, assuredly gliding across the water with confidence and poise. But take a look below the surface and that very same duck is frantically moving its legs just to keep afloat.

The U.S. are the current number one ranked women’s team in the world, two time winners of the World Cup, current and three time Olympic gold medalists . Players like Hope Solo are even appearing on top rating TV shows such as Dancing with the Stars.

So why is the domestic side of the game floundering? The WPS (Women’s Professional Soccer), the top-tier pro league that has featured stars such as Marta, Kelly Smith, Abby Wambach and part-time dancer, full-time goalkeeper Solo – starts its fourth season with just five teams.

It’s scary to think that the 2012 season nearly didn’t happen. The U.S. Soccer Federation approved a special waiver at the last minute to let WPS operate this year, on the condition it expands to at least six teams in 2013 and eight in 2014.

WPS was founded in 2007 and began as a seven-team league in 2009, yet higher than expected losses and decreasing attendance has seen five franchises fold over the first three seasons. To this moment, star players such as Solo and Wambach remain free agents and with confidence in the league at an all-time low it is difficult to see how the league will meet the new demands imposed on it by U.S. Soccer in time for season 5.

While we cannot point a finger, or single out a reason as to why the league has declined in such a short space of time, we can look overseas for comparisons and possible answers.

The Australian W-League which was founded in 2008, is in a similar position to WPS. Formed to provide the women’s game with a top tier competition, this 7 team league sees all franchises linked to its equivalent team in the men’s A-League competition. These partnerships together with similar ones established with the relevant state institute (for junior development) and the state’s soccer association provide a stronger structure for women’s clubs and more developmental pathways for its juniors.

Having a women’s team linked with MLS clubs (but not wholly owned by those franchises) can lead to shared marketing, shared resources and with the possibility of WPS teams playing as the curtain raiser to MLS games – we will begin to see more exposure for the WPS and most importantly the local teams.

So where do we draw a line in the sand? At the international level, women’s soccer has never been stronger. The 2011 Women’s World Cup in Germany attracted about 850,000 fans to 32 matches, for an average attendance of more than 26,400, and the tournament will expand from 16 national teams to 24 teams when it’s held in Canada in 2015.

With this in mind – shouldn’t we be focusing on helping the WPS and Women’s soccer in the U.S. head to the 2015 World Cup on the foundations of a successful tier-one association? We have no doubt that the WPS (or whatever form it takes in the future) can be an unheralded success and the best women’s professional league in the world.

With 90 days until WPS version 4 kicks off, we are encouraging fans to spread the message about the league, the current teams and professional women’s soccer in general. Women’s soccer shouldn’t be the elephant in the room – it should be front and center of growing the game in the U.S.

Line drawn – game on!

Helping Soccer Grow Nationally, One Tweet at a Time with #growthegame

Help #growthegame with @soccersupport

Fans are encouraged to promote grassroots initiatives, suggest ideas on how to grow the

game and share best practices to help develop a new online paradigm.

A number of soccer fans (through our Twitter account @SoccerSupport) have been asking about our new hashtag #growthegame and how they can use it effectively to help voice their own ideas and share best practices with other like-minded users online.

When we first started using Twitter we discovered an underlying need for something to bridge that gap between tweeting, being heard and creating a strong online hub for soccer information. That’s why we have introduced a hashtag on Twitter to make connecting with fans & sharing content a much easier process.

Having the grassroots of US soccer coin the phrase #growthegame is more a reflection of where we believe the sport can make the biggest gains in our quest to help it realize its potential. Growing the game will lead to more exposure for clubs and players and a greater pool of resources to share and distribute.

So why a hashtag? Not only can an optimized hashtag and keyword strategy help to extend the reach of the game but it will also allow us to more accurately monitor the #growthegame campaign’s performance.

Using hashtags can expand the reach of your tweets far beyond the scope of those who follow you. It’s also a good way to add twitter followers with similar interests through the exposure of your words to fans interested in the beautiful game.

Empowering fans through a simple 10 letter hashtag can yield some pretty amazing statistics. For example if we search through the discover tool on Twitter we see that the last five people to use #growthegame in their tweets saw soccer related posts reach a total of 3422 followers. A couple of retweets later and you will see its reach grow exponentially.

While #growthegame has the ability to bring the soccer fraternity together, clubs and fans need to be active and engage with each other to gain optimal results. Twitter is about those two-way conversations that you have with others. If you only post links to your own work or advertise only your services without retweeting, @mentioning or conversing with other clubs etc, you’ll likely turn people off from following you. So share your passions openly, don’t be selfish with your content and see the whole game benefit.

Keep an eye on #growthegame  – not only will we be driving debate on various hot button issues in the game but we have a number of exciting projects being rolled out over the first quarter of the year to spark interest in our new movement.

The MLS Name Game is No Laughing Matter

Mattocks, Wenger, Rowe – the names aren’t familiar now and sadly they probably never will be given the current marketing of homegrown soccer players in the U.S.

The three players we just mentioned have been flagged as future superstars of U.S. Soccer and are likely to be in the top few picks of this season’s SuperDraft due to be held in Kansas this Thursday.

If it were any other sport there is no doubt they would be household names within their first season, selling jerseys and signing lucrative endorsement deals. However the reality for MLS players is that they are playing in a totally different sporting environment.

Before we continue, let’s have a quick straw poll (and be honest!). Can you name three players from the NBA? We are sure you can name three in the NFL and MLB too. Now name three players from the EPL, La Liga and Serie A. That was pretty easy, right? Now name three American MLS players. It’s a lot harder, I’m sure you would agree.

In most professional sports, teams have a franchise player. A franchise player is someone who is not simply the best player on their team, but a player that the team can build their “franchise” (team) around for the foreseeable future.

So what’s in a name? In America it’s everything, and it’s much more than that. Players are their own brand and help grow the sport in unparalleled ways.

In the MLS we currently have the designated player rule. A rule brought in predominantly to sign David Beckham from Real Madrid 5 years ago. The ‘Beckham Rule’ – as it is commonly referred to – is in many ways flawed. It rewards players past their prime looking for that final pay check. Name a designated player outside of LA and New York – and our point is proven.

If we were responsible for anything soccer related in the MLS we would look to rectify this situation as soon as possible to save millions of dollars currently being wasted on players that were world class ten years ago. We should be looking at a holistic plan to achieve cultural change in the U.S., not a quick fix to lock in the next networks television rights.

So how about we start with identifying marketable players that personify everything good with the game. Let’s provide them with a comprehensive induction program to professional sport, help them with media and PR, assist them to develop their own personal brand and the confidence to go and sell the sport across the country. Increase their exposure to the fans and the community and watch it play dividends.

Fans can do their part too. They are undeniably the biggest untapped resource in soccer today and many would have a wealth of knowledge about the game with genuine stories to tell about players whether they be established stars or upcoming talent.

We should all commit to sharing our knowledge about the players in a bid to have them become recognizable superstars of the game. Did you go to school with them? Did they come to a charity event you were organizing? Did you meet them at a coffee shop? Tell everyone about that experience.

Let’s start a true grassroots conversation about our homegrown players, so that when you are next asked to name three players in the MLS, you can then say Mattocks, Wenger and Rowe and add that they were drafted to the MLS in 2012.

Proper branding can change the perception about the game and help it realize its potential. Let’s hope it’s acknowledged sooner rather than later so we can take soccer to that next level.

What are your thoughts? Join the conversation now on Twitter with @soccersupport and use the hashtag #growthegame

This Week 5 Events Might Have Changed the Perception of US Soccer across the Globe.

US Soccer and the overall credibility of the MLS has been boosted over the past week due to five significant events which have pushed soccer from the back pages of the sports section to positive discussions about the game across the country, if not the world.

1.       Donovan’s second spell at Everton.

The sport got a welcome boost this week with Landon Donovan’s first game for Everton since returning for his second spell with the Merseyside club. The US soccer community was abuzz with expectations for the countries all-time leading scorer.

2.       That goal.

While all eyes on Donovan for the Premier League game vs Bolton, it was US compatriot Tim Howard who scored from 95 yards out and became only the 4th ever goalkeeper to score in the EPL. Replayed over and over again as a true play of the day!

3.       Dempsey hits a Hat-Trick.

The FA Cup is a knockout cup competition in England and is the oldest soccer competition in the world. Currently sponsored by Budweiser, USMNT player Clint Dempsey was sure to have had one to celebrate his hat-trick against Charlton Athletic. The U.S. star now has seven goals in his last nine outings.

4.       Beckham rejects Paris move.

When the final whistle was blown at this year’s MLS Cup Final commentators almost immediately signaled this was the end of the Beckham era of US soccer. With rumors swirling about a big money move to Paris St Germain, the MLS was resigned to losing one of its biggest assets. However a month later and Beckham has rejected the move and looks set to sign a new contract with the LA Galaxy.

5.       Henry scores on his return to Arsenal

New York Red Bulls striker Thierry Henry will always be remembered as an Arsenal legend – but a few eyebrows were raised when he made a short term loan move back to the Emirates during the MLS off-season. Fans were worried he would ruin his own legacy left at the club, yet this was put to bed within 10 minutes of him coming on as a substitute and scoring the winner vs Leeds United in the FA Cup.

The Henry and Beckham stories have more of an impact on the MLS than people realize.

Henry’s classy finish and 14 goals in the 2011 MLS season will have many thinking that the MLS is of a higher standard than they give it credit for and that players are not moving to the US for that one last pay check. Henry went to Arsenal with so much to lose and today’s cameo just goes to show the ambition and drive he has left to play at the highest level.

Beckham’s decision to remain in LA may have jeopardized his personal ambition of representing his country in an Olympics but has shown his overwhelming support of the games potential in the U.S. Seemingly a family/slash business decision, turning down a return to Europe shows the great lifestyle options that can be offered to players and the post-career earning potential of world class players (Beckham has long been rumored to have options to buy an MLS franchise in the future).

We mentioned our previous post that two measures establish a country’s place in world soccer: strong national team programs & strong professional game, starting with a robust, tier-one association. But what reflects a tier one association? Does recruiting high profile world superstars to the MLS have a positive impact on the growth of the game?

With rumors of Ronaldinho, Rivaldo and Michael Ballack wanting to move to the MLS we are interested to hear your thoughts.  Join the discussion today by interacting with us on Twitter @soccersupport or by tweeting with #growthegame

If 2012 is the Year of the Dragon Then Fans Must be Asking When it is Going to be the Year of the Eagle?

They are the two biggest world economies and according to the last FIFA Big Count, the two largest playing nations of soccer. So why is it that we continue to see the US and China playing the continued role of sleeping giants within the world game?

The good news is this might be about to change with both nations signaling a change of direction after disappointing zone championships (yes coming second is a disappointment given the Gold Cup is traditionally a Mexico vs US affair) and China being eliminated from World Cup 2014 qualifying. With an obvious eye on the future both countries have appointed high profile (and more importantly proven international) coaches in Jurgen Klinsmann and Jose Antonio Camacho from Spain.

But one nation has gone that step further, has drawn a line in the sand and is putting in motion an audacious bid to be a force on the world scene as well. Sadly that nation is not the US, it’s our rivals in the East, and it relates directly to the state of their domestic competition.

After reading a great article by Fox Soccer’s John Duerden on the state of the game in China – titled ‘Investment increasing soccer’s profile in China’ – the question that immediately sprung to mind was ‘why isn’t this approach being replicated in the US’?

Before we continue – some insights into the Chinese game by way of Duerden’s article:

  • 2011 ended with Shanghai Shenhua making Nicolas Anelka one of the highest paid players in the world
  • A genuine and committed fight against corruption was a pre-requisite to allow the right kind of money to enter the game.
  • For a number of years, Chinese clubs have been outspending those in Korea and Japan. Now though, they are outspending even those in the oil-rich west of the continent and compared to UAE and Qatar
  • China has an established football infrastructure with a massive population that likes the game. 45,000 regularly watched Guangzhou take the title and in 2012 the Chinese Super League will become undisputedly Asia’s most-watched league
  • The long-term benefit of attracting the likes of Anelka and anybody else to comes to China, may really lie – in helping to make the local game exciting and glamorous

While we acknowledge that players such as David Beckham and Robbie Keane probably did not come cheap it still leaves obvious questions about the long term investment strategies of the game here in the US.  In the short term, there is no doubt these players help promote the game but is this kind of growth sustainable?

And that’s not the only obvious questions that fans will be asking. So let’s begin an honest debate on the following;

  • Does the league invest in big international names to help grow the exposure of the MLS?
  • Does attracting world class players deliver significant ROI?
  • How is the credibility of a league calculated?
  • Do superstars have an impact on the grassroots of the game?
  • Do they help keep young talent in the country? Help with mentoring our rising stars?

And the list can go on and on.

The most important element to the article however was the realization by Chinese officials that ‘years of sustained investment and patience at the grassroots level’ was the most important element to any future growth of the game. This revelation was also backed up by former players and sponsors. Former great Hao Haidong has urged the FA to follow Japan’s youth development system, sports companies such as Adidas have been desperate for some consistent and long-term youth programs for years and is ready to invest at the grass-roots and most encouragingly of all, league sponsors Dalian Wanda have stumped up $77 million to be invested in youth football and coaching. The government too has promised to encourage more children to take up the sport continued Duerden.

In the end two measures essentially establish a country’s place in the global soccer order: strong national team programs and a strong professional game, starting with a robust, tier-one association. China is now adopting this theory while at the same time acknowledging the grassroots are the real key to unlocking its potential.

Maybe a few things might be learnt from the blueprint our friends in the east are developing because at the end of the day, like China, the potential for American soccer is unlimited given the size of the country, given the wealth of the country, given the demographics of the country. Only time will tell.

What do you think? Email us at info@soccersupport.us and we will post the best comments on our Twitter page @soccersupport

FAST FACTS:

Country GDP:

China: Approx 7 trillion

USA: Approx 15 trillion

Soccer Players:

China: 26.1 million (711k registered)

USA: 24.4 million (4.2 million registered)

FIFA World Rankings:

China: 71

USA: 34

US Soccer Fans Encouraged to Write and Tweet to Personalize the Message and #Growthegame

“It doesn’t matter how you try to sell it to us, it doesn’t matter how many celebrities you get, it doesn’t matter how many bars open early, it doesn’t matter how many beer commercials they run, we don’t want the World Cup, we don’t like the World Cup, we don’t like soccer, we want nothing to do with it.” Glenn Beck

Some of the most ardent of soccer supporters are of the thinking that the US media is against soccer. This is no more different to the right of politics saying the New York Times is left wing propaganda or the left attacking Fox News for spreading conservative gospel.

So let’s debunk some quick myths before we continue – soccer not getting the media attention it deserves is not that the country is scared of soccer, is not because it will take away the fan base of traditional American sports or that it will lose advertising revenue because soccer is continuous play, without constant breaks for commercials.

Ok – now we have that out of our system…

Let’s get this straight – there is nothing more the networks want than for soccer to be successful in the US. They see the popularity of the game worldwide and the enormous revenue possibility it could generate in a nation that has an insatiable thirst for sport.

But the media (and soccer fans for that matter) need to be patient. The growth of the game will continue its steady ascent up the sporting ladder, but for it to realize its full potential it will take a significant cultural shift over the next few decades.

But in the meantime we have a number of soccer ambassadors to start this shift. The fans.

If we can’t beat them, join them, should be the catch cry – and the good news is that we have a number of tools at our disposal that we didn’t have 5 years ago. Social media, blogging et al are avenues we should be promoting in our bid to have soccer heard nationwide. Sadly we can’t rely anymore on the papers to bump up a soccer related story from page 38 to page 14 in the sports section.

Create your own media, promote it on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to drive more traffic towards your content. The beauty of this is that you will be contributing to growing the game by providing more diversified and personalized content of which has already been proven to work.

In July alone, the MLSsoccer.com staff posted close to 700 original stories, a 33 percent increase from July 2010. And in response to the content, the website recorded just over 3 million unique visitors. The flagship website, MLSsoccer.com, also increased its video production by 33% in July, and reached 1 million videos viewed, which doubled numbers from 2010 (source: Forbes.com)

Just take a look at the current statistics for the game here. Get a retweet from one of these clubs for example and then you have your content spreading to tens of thousands of people!

Twitter (followers): Portland 20k, Columbus 17k, NY Red Bulls 30k, NY Cosmos 10,500.

Facebook (likes): LA Galaxy 281,500, FC Dallas 38k, Seattle 22k, San Diego Flash 3,500.

The potential is there – we just need to be vigilant in our quest to #growthegame. Take inspiration from the women’s World Cup Final for example, which saw a new record for ‘tweets’ per second and eclipsing the Royal wedding and death of Osama bin Laden.

The exciting climax between Japan and the US drew 7,196 tweets per second, according to Twitter. The previous record of 6,939 was set just after midnight in Japan on New Year’s Day. Other spikes include Bin Laden’s death (5,106 per second) and the Super Bowl in February (4,064).

We here at Soccer Support encourage all fans to write about the game they love. Report on your recent indoor team, comment on the Beckham to PSG to LA again story, and give ideas and personal insight into how you believe the game can grow in this country. Tweet to your friends and family, broadcast it far and wide and help us, help soccer, to reach its potential.

Soccer Speak USA as you may or may not know is the pre-launch blog of Soccer Support.

This blog was created to start the conversation about the game today and where we, the fans, would like to see it go forward. If you would like to contribute an article to Soccer Speak please email it to us in a word document to info@soccersupport.us and happy writing!

Bad Boys & Branding – Just What The Game Needs?

Jarkko Varvio, Nemanja Vidic, or Nikola Vucevic? Outside the United States, there’s a high probability that if you asked a stranger which of these three professional athletes was a soccer player, they would immediately answer sir Vidic (Manchester United). Why is it then, we here in the greatest nation, struggle to recognize icons so large in terms of global appeal that they trump almost every significant signing the likes of Major League Baseball, the National Football League and the NBA have inked in the last decade?

So where are our American soccer icons? We will never be able to appreciate the Wayne Rooney’s of the world without first knowing our own national heroes. Why haven’t we plastered the faces of US soccer all over the country? In the last 5 years, you will struggle to recall more than 3 names you can remember as the league’s domestic franchise players? I’m suggesting we are in desperate need of a bad boy, a story line, an interest. Get these players attention, and you will draw America’s attention.

Viewership, crowd attendance and TV ratings are increasing. People are listening; slowly. The time is ripe for brand recognition to explode. America needs to be told to watch. Its culture breeds a longing to be part of the next big thing. Who’s going to step up and tell them this is it?

In September 2010 a media blitz of NBC’s the Event created huge buzz around a manic sci-fi drama without presenting any real information about the prime time show. It became a need to watch more than a desire to watch. 10.88 million viewers tuned in for its premier. 600,000 viewed Major League Soccer’s opening act in 2011. What’s the difference? Major League Soccer is not impacting the nations hunger for drama. Who is there to talk about?

No face is etched into American soccer. There is no lasting impression, no reason to keep following. To the simple American, love of sport will not be born of lackluster plot lines and gradual build up. American’s live in the now, give them that. Create an identity. Create rivals. Start with individual players. American soccer players are not in the spotlight. Get people talking about who said what about who. If you want to establish a larger following, why not take from ideas that have been raking in cash hand over fists for years? The WWE is a great example of the idea that Americans with action and a little bit of script can become long time followers of sport.

Obviously American soccer doesn’t want to be associated with bad cribs selling overly dramatized relationships, but what does American soccer want to be? Has it shown who or exactly what it is? This shouldn’t be a weekly strategy as it is with the WWE, but nothing drives interest as much as an element of danger when it doesn’t involve the viewer.

Allow players to take on figurehead roles. Advise players to talk, to tweet and to openly hit the airwaves. Figure out what American soccer is. Allow the public to choose sides. Maybe then you’ll see further growth opportunities present themselves. Why not?

It isn’t the most natural idea; creating negative attention. But when controlled it can develop interest in an area American soccer may be failing to recognize. Shows like Fear Factor and COPS have been staples in TV viewing. American audiences want some fall out after events. Average Joe, doesn’t hand over 90 minutes without having an active interest in what’s presented to him. Give him what has proven to work. Let them turn on the TV for any reason. You can’t start a following if they don’t.

It starts by building interest in brand name players attached to clubs, attached to the league. Water cooler talk is instigated by ‘the did you hear?’, or the ‘did you see?’. What’s the last thing you heard David Beckham say? What’s the last thing any MLS player did? Let’s change this and what better time than now.

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Soccer Speak USA as you may or may not know is the pre-launch blog of Soccer Support.

This blog was created to start the conversation about the game today and where we, the fans, would like to see it go forward. Today we are pleased to post our first guest article from John Rahmes who lives in San Diego. Follow John @PenaltyHick

If you would like to contribute an article to Soccer Speak please email it to us in a word document to info@soccersupport.us

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