Home MLS More MLS Oh, so we’re talking about an MLS winter schedule again? Will it ever go away?

Oh, so we’re talking about an MLS winter schedule again? Will it ever go away?

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Back in 2010, just before MLS Cup kicked off in Toronto, league commissioner Don Garber addressed a packed media gallery.

And he talked about MLS going to a winter schedule.

“We’ve got to take the steps to figure it out,” said Garber. (CLICK HERE FOR THAT STORY)

Being in the media room at the time, and talking to soccer reporters from across North America, this was the gut feeling: That, as the United States was bidding for the World Cup at the time, the offer to go to a winter schedule wasn’t a serious one. The consensus was that Garber’s pre-MLS Cup presser was a bit of a dog-and-pony show in order to show FIFA that MLS was at least thinking about being a good international-calendar lapdog, which would, in turn, help the World Cup bid.

Of course, we all know how well that U.S. World Cup bid turned out. Qatar 2022!

So, when news hit Monday (again, sigh) that MLS might look at a winter schedule (courtesy the New York Daily News), a charge that the league denied in Philly.com, I couldn’t help but feel that this was a lot like November, 2010 all over again.

How so? MLS sees its story get out there about a winter schedule. It gets shouted down by its fans (as was the case last time) and we all go back to our normal March-December soccer lives. Once again, MLS can tell the rest of the world, “hey, we tried.”

Think of it like having to call in sick. In a perfect world, you get the boss’ voicemail, so you don’t have to explain yourself. Same idea, here. MLS wants to leave the message that it might consider a winter schedule.

(But, as my wife will remind me, I have been wrong before.)

For most of the rest of this column, I am going to take on the Canadian perspective on a scheduling change. This is a Canadian site that makes Canadian soccer a priority. But, before I focus on the three Canadian teams, I will mention this. MLS made the decision to start the 2013 season earlier in March than ever before. And, games in places like New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Columbus were hit by bad weather. That shouldn’t be a surprise, because March is a winter month in the northern U.S. and Canada. According to Soccer America “The 2013 season average after Week 4 (was) 18,698, down 8.1 per cent from 20,334 after Week 4 in 2012.” Even though Toronto FC played its opener at Rogers Centre and the Impact opened the season at Olympic Stadium, their averages weren’t enough to stop the downward attendance trend, a drag that was helped by poor crowds in U.S. cold-weather markets.

Now, to the Canadian perspective. Or my Canadian perspective.

Before I go any further, please refer to the top of the article. I find it hard to see the winter-schedule as more than a red herring. But IF…

It’s a bad idea, and will reverse the progress the league has made in three Canadian markets.

Look, anyone who follows what I write knows that I’m also a big opponent of soccer in July, too. I believe NASL has made a good call in not playing games in sweltering heat, during the heart of severe-weather season in the southern U.S. And, by getting away from the dead of summer, you get away from fans not being able to go to weekend games because it’s wedding season/cabin/barbecue weather in the north.

In the NASL. FC Edmonton’s attendance spiked in September. Fans came out in much larger numbers in September than they did in May, June or August.

But, playing in winter isn’t an answer. A July break and loading up the schedule in spring and fall? Sure thing. But, even with a January-February respite, you’d still be playing a lot of November, December and March games. And that’s winter in most of Canada.

I’ve had a lot of Whitecaps fans complain to me via e-mail and Twitter about their mid-afternoon starts. Get used to them. No way would the Whitecaps risk putting their TV broadcasts against Hockey Night in Canada. In Canada, the Saturday night game would become a thing of the past. Before he was removed/left as Toronto FC president, Kevin Payne said his club would have to talk to its TV partners about better kick-off times. And, with a winter schedule, the discussion would be this simple: “Whenever the Leafs aren’t playing.”

Earlier this year, TVA Sports, the official French-language broadcaster of the Montreal Impact, “loaned out” two of its Impact broadcasts to RDS. The reason? Conflicts with Ottawa Senators broadcasts. Official broadcaster of the Impact or not, NHL is king. And when there’s a conflict, MLS loses.

In Canada, a winter TV contract is less valuable for MLS than a summer one. The NHL is the big dog, and now you go head-to-head with it for not a portion of the season (as it is now), but the vast majority of it.

This year, TSN greatly reduced the number pf MLS games shown during the Stanley Cup playoffs. Under new schedule, those playoffs would go head to head with MLS playoffs. In fact, you could have an MLS Cup going head to head with a Stanley Cup final game.

Weather isn’t the big issue. Toronto FC can play games in Rogers Centre, the Impact can use Olympic Stadium, Vancouver has a covered stadium already. But, in the case of Montreal and Toronto, would more games in multipurpose, concrete giganto-venues be good for soccer?

Honestly (and this me the businessman talking, not Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment), if MLS went to a winter schedule, I’d consider moving TFC to Rogers Centre full-time (especially with the plans to put grass there), give up the BMO management deal and let the city have BMO Field to remodel and give to the Argos. It’s not like BMO Field attracts concerts or other events. If less soccer is played at BMO Field, why keep it?

Look, I don’t believe in absolutes, and neither should you. Hockey participation continues to shrink in Canada so it wouldn’t be crazy to believe that, in a couple of generations or so, the game won’t be as popular in this country as it is now. The popularity of sports in relation to each other tends to move around a lot. A couple of books ago, I had to research early-20th century game reports from hockey games involving Calgary and Edmonton teams. And what did I find? That cricket was just as heavily analyzed and written about as hockey. That changed. There was a time when baseball dwarfed football in America. That changed.

But, for now, hockey remains king in Canada. And for MLS to have its championship in late May or early June — where it could feasibly go head-to-head with a Stanley Cup final — would be a grave folly. In Canada, going up against the Stanley Cup final would be almost as bad as scheduling the MLS Cup against the Super Bowl and hoping to earn a decent U.S. audience share.

On Thanksgiving Monday 2013 (Canadian site, remember!), the idea of MLS in winter is a turkey. Just as it was in November, 2010. And just how it will be when it’s floated again.

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One Comment

  1. TwoSidesToAStory

    October 15, 2013 at 1:54 am

    As much as your arguments make sense, I still believe the European schedule is the right decision for MLS.

    moving to Late Summer to Late Spring schedule, (with a 6-8 week break from mid-December to late January followed by a 3-4 week training camp in February) will inevitably cause short term pain.

    but, over time, fans will adapt, stadiums will get renovated to be more comfortable for cold weather months, the league will be viewed as “more normal” by the rest of the soccer world and whatever initial attendance dip will be reversed and a new normal will set in.

    If the NFL can play crucial games in November, December and January, in front of packed houses, soccer can play in November and March in typically colder weather environs.

    MLS clubs will have to invest in underground heating and take some lessons from the English, the Russians, the Danes, etc…. when it comes to maintaining the grass fields in the more harsh weather months. But it is far from impossible.

    The MLS will never become a top league in the world playing the schedule it currently plays. Being so badly out of synch with the transfer windows of the major leagues around the world puts it a disadvantage that cant be easily overcome by things like money or the promise of ending a career in the relative anonymity afforded to footballers who venture over to North America.

    As for TV schedules, the league could not get worse TV ratings than it does now, when it plays the lion share of its games during those months that the average person wants to be doing anything else but watching soccer on TV or in a stadium. let me watch a game in October, when BBQ season is over, the kids are back in school and killing 2 hrs on a Saturday afternoon in front of the TV or maybe even in stadium is a lot more attractive than it would be in July. During the hot summer months, the LAST place you will catch me is in a soccer stadium, roasting in the unrelenting sun (because MLS seems to think Saturday afternoon games in the Summer is a good idea), watching lethargic soccer.

    Soccer needs to do what is best for soccer. If it competes with other sports, oh well! we need to find a way to lure eyeballs to our game. There is ample evidence that people are loathe to cast their eyeballs over to pro soccer using the current schedule format, especially TV viewers. So what harm is there in trying something new. If it doesn’t work, go back to the mediocrity that exists today

    Reply

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