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How to make MLS Cup a really big deal

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In North America, interest in soccer is at an all-time high. But the championship game for Major League Soccer doesn’t attract major media attention or viewership numbers. Here are some suggestions on how the league can turn around the fortunes of its marquee event…

It was a cold and blustery Sunday evening on the Toronto lakefront — as is often the case in late November — so you could hardly blame the steady stream of fans for filing out of BMO Field just as extra time kicked off in the 2010 MLS Cup final.

FC Dallas defender George John’s owngoal in the 107th minute ended up deciding the game, but there was no huge roar from the crowd. That’s because there were huge swaths of empty seats in the terraces. By the time Commissioner Don Garber presented the Colorado Rapids the MLS Cup trophy at centre field, there were even fewer supporters in the stands. With the game being carried live on ESPN, it made for a disastrous piece of television, and did not reflect well on Major League Soccer.

Even in the buildup to the 2010 championship game, Garber talked openly about tinkering with the MLS Cup final and the league’s playoff format. The spectacle of fans exiting BMO Field en masse on that chilly Toronto night, played out live on national television, was the last straw. Changes had to be made.

And so it began the following year, with the introduction of two first-round, “wild card” games, instead of going directly into the conference semifinals. In 2012, more change came when MLS decided to abandon the neutral-site concept for the MLS Cup, and instead have the higher seed host the final. Last year, the conference finals became two-legged affairs.

All this change, and for what? Has it made any difference? Not in the slightest. The MLS Cup and, to a larger degree, the playoffs as a whole still fail to capture the imagination of the general sports fans and live up to the excitement that a post-season promises. Last year’s final between hometown Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake had an average American viewing audience of 505,000 — down 44 per cent from 2012 —making it the least-viewed MLS Cup ever on English-language television.

In Canada, the ratings for the game were terrible. According to Yahoo’s Chris Zelkovich, in a report he did back on Dec. 11, 2013 about poor viewership for the NBA’s Raptors, he wrote that at least the 111,000 viewers Toronto’s basketball team earned “was 62,000 more than the MLS Cup final on TSN2.”

Do the math, and that’s a viewership of 49,000 in Canada for MLS Cup. So what can be done? What can MLS do to make its championship game more popular?

For starters, a neutral site for the MLS Cup isn’t a bad idea, so long as you pick the right city. The Seattle Sounders are averaging just under 43,000 in attendance this season. Seattle has long been a vibrant soccer market, with the passion for the sport there running very deep. It’s also a major metropolis with so much to offer culturally and socially, and is listed at No. 8 on TripAdvisor’s top U.S. cities to visit in 2014. The fan experience inside CenturyLink Field is incredible, rivalled only by Portland.

A year before Toronto hosted the MLS Cup, Seattle drew just over 46,000 fans on a rainy evening for the final between the LA Galaxy and Real Salt Lake, the game’s largest attendance in seven years. In the four years since, that mark hasn’t even come close to be equalled.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN PLASTIC PITCH #3.

Let Seattle serve as the permanent host for the next couple of years. You’re ensured of a big crowd and a fantastic atmosphere inside the stadium. MLS Cup would be the talk of the town — unlike in recent years, when it was staged at the SubHub Center and you could walk the streets of Los Angeles without having the faintest club that the city’s metro area was staging MLS’s championship game.

Major League Soccer also has to do a much better job of turning its playoff games, including the MLS Cup, into “appointment television.” Putting the league’s championship game on a Sunday, when it’s up against the NFL, is suicide. But Saturday is just as bad due to the competition from college football. To put last year’s MLS Cup ratings into perspective: The SEC Championship Game between Auburn and Missouri airing at the same time on CBS drew an estimated 14.4 million viewers—roughly 29 times the audience of MLS’s marquee event.

Make Friday night “MLS night.” Put every playoff game on a Friday night, and run an aggressive advertising campaign that promotes Fridays as “Friday Night Football.” Friday should be the night to watch all of the MLS rivalries renewed, all of the best players squaring off against one another, and all of the playoffs unfold.

And while we’re on the subject of schedules, MLS didn’t do itself any favours last year by scheduling so many games so close together.

From the “wild card” round to the first leg of the Conference finals, the Houston Dynamo had to play four games in a gruelling 10-day span. Sporting Kansas City played three times in seven days. No wonder both sides played to a dire 0-0 draw in the first leg of their Eastern Conference final — the players were exhausted. Then, inexplicably, there was a two-week wait for the second leg, killing any sense of continuation and build-up to the drama of the MLS playoffs. Once the Conference finals were over, there was another two-week layover until the MLS Cup, stunting any kind of momentum the league mustered from the Conference finals.

Even with the breaks, it was too much soccer in a short period of time. Space the games out properly so that players aren’t tired and the product on the field doesn’t suffer. Go with single, elimination playoff games like they do in the NFL — it creates far more drama and tension.

Sure, it’s not how the Europeans do it, with their two-legged, home-and-home ties. But so what? European leagues also have relegation and promotion, and award the league title to whoever finishes in first place. Make the regular season and the race of the Community Shield mean more by giving home-field advantage — in the truest form — to the best team. Plus, the promise of upsets is far greater with single knockout games—there’s less margin for error, and stronger teams won’t be able to rely on rescuing the tie in the second leg.

Major League Soccer has a wonderful product. But packaging and presentation matters just as much as what transpires on the field.

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