Friday, January 3, 2014

RNO: 2014 New Years Address

2014 a milestone, but also reminder
of more progress needed, for soccer in North America
Canadian Men's National Team

Posted by Aaron Nielsen,
January 2, 2014
Aaron Nielsen

Read this on your iPhone/iPad or Android device 
2013 has been a very interesting year for myself. It was the first one where I had the freedom to work on projects of my liking, and a year that I put increased emphasis on soccer in North America both at a league and national team level. Previously, I've been working directly for, or contracted to, a company for many years in the betting industry producing and collecting data for odds, match-up reports and QAing the final statistics making sure everything was on the up and up. I also worked in the sports content media industry, again making sure most sports data we see online was correct and produced in a timely fashion.
Unfortunately, in many ways soccer in North America has always been a fringe sport and when you work in the sports industry you naturally get pulled to where the interest is. This is mostly hockey in Canada, NFL, MLB and NBA in the United States and even with soccer related opportunities you tend to do more work regarding the English Premier League, Italian Serie A, and Spanish La Liga than Major League Soccer. As Major League Soccer continues to grow the hope is that people involved at all levels of the game from a front office position, coach, referee, player and supporter will become a more mainstream ambition and a legitimate alternative to other leagues.
This is an ongoing theme in many of my articles on RedNation Online - what we now have available to us and we should do whatever we can to not screw it up. Before 2014 even starts, it should be a significant year for the main reason that it's 20 years since the 1994 USA World Cup, a monumental event for everybody in North America regarding Soccer. First, the event was attended by 3,587,538 people, which is a record that still remains and over 200,000 more than 2006 World Cup in Germany despite 12 less games. This proved there was an interest in the game and the American culture of attending sports events was and continues to be a market that soccer needs to exploit. Second, as part of getting the World Cup, the US Soccer Federation promised FIFA the start of a new top tier domestic league and dedicated a large amount of the revenue from the 1994 World Cup for this effort.
I started following soccer closely a few years prior to the 1994 World Cup, although the World Cup gave me my first media job regarding a sporting event. Even as a fan, if I was going to list my greatest soccer games it would include the Ireland victory over Italy to begin the tournament. Despite my Irish roots, ahead of that I would put Eddy Berdusco's goal in Edmonton a few weeks earlier as Canada tied the great Brazil and future 1994 World Cup winners 1-1 in front of 50,000 people. The lasting memories of these events and an awareness by myself that the sport was under appreciated in North America, and aspects of sports business ignored in Europe, led me down to a twenty year career with the primary title as a Soccer Statistician.
Major League Soccer itself started in 1996 with the total attendance that season near 2.8 million in 160 games - far less than the World Cup 65,000 average, although its own average of 17,406 still made it in the top 20 leagues in the World. The league had ups and downs, the worst around 2002 when they had to fold to two Florida teams in Tampa Bay and Miami. For the most part, since then the league's product, management and interest has slowly improved each year and in the 2013 the league had an attendance of over 6 million, 18,608 a game, which makes it the eighth best attended league in the World and the league has a higher average attendance per game than both the NHL and NBA.
Despite all the well deserved pats on the back, the league is no way competitive or generates the revenue compared to other global soccer leagues with similar attendances, and pales in comparison in terms of NHL and NBA revenue. The big issue being corporate support and revenue through television, which is partly understandable based on how competitive the market is, however, I feel the league and soccer industry should take some of the responsibility as well. What makes soccer fringe, or the dreaded term "a minor league", is an idea branded by the soccer community first in fear that the league would fold in a similar fashion to the old NASL, and now by soccer snobs who watch a couple European games midweek and on weekend mornings thinking they know everything about the game and dismiss MLS based on low quality of play.
My counter argument is that in many ways the NASL theory was more about not letting the league grow properly than anything else. Yes the league spent too much money and the Cosmos dominance made the league less competitive, but in context, at the time all sports were struggling. The NBA was also close to bankruptcy, the NHL was a mom and pop league, and the NFL interest doesn't compare to what it is today. So the reality is, if managed correctly by restricting foreign players, eliminating wacky rules, and letting the league develop on its own naturally, I believe the NASL could have survived, and like the other leagues, would of benefited once advertising and television became the business it is today.
In terms of soccer snobs, my answer has always been to tell them to take a trip to Derby, Swansea, or Hull and first they will ask themselves why am I standing in a smaller, run down, and worse off version of Hamilton and then you will get a better picture of the hype of television. Despite the poor environment, weather and stadiums in these "dirty old towns", the soccer is compelling to an outsider not because of quality of play but because of a passion those people have for their local product and the excitement that generates.
This passion needs to be developed here if MLS is going to ultimately succeed, and like my view on the demise of the NASL, this needs to be accomplished by less league control and a greater relationship between the supporters and their clubs. The league and clubs have to be more honest and open regarding their objectives and goals, why players are brought in or released, and coaches and head office staff need to held more accountable. The soccer community also has a responsibility to develop players and sell the dream to children that one day they can be professional soccer players. Finally, the supporters need to make the soccer club, their team, not second to a NFL, NHL or foreign club, because all sports products exist and grow based on the audience who loves and supports it.
Most likely even for me as a business, soccer in 2014 will be dominated by the World Cup, which is understandable since it's an event that can get the attention of everybody, even those who don't normally follow the game. I will make people aware in my work that the World Cup will be influenced by players developed by MLS clubs and as a Canadian if we wish to be part of the event, rather than an outsider, it's the ongoing development of MLS that is going to produce us the players to get there.

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