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The parity paradox

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For years, Major League Soccer has seen more parity than most other first divisions you’ll find anywhere in the world. But do close playoff races and the lack of super-teams make for a larger fan base?

Professional soccer in North America straddles a fine line. There is the pull to try and re-create the traditions and cultures of clubs from Europe and South America. But, there’s also an understanding that sporting culture on this continent is unique; we crown champions not after a regular-season schedule, but after these teams have proved themselves in the playoffs.

MLS muddies this with its format; it awards a Supporters’ Shield to the regular-season winner, and that team also assures itself of a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League. But, the, ahem, “real” winner of the league is crowned after 12 of the 20 teams embark on a playoff tournament.

And, the winner of that playoff tournament — the MLS playoffs — is rarely the team with the best regular-season record.

Let’s review: The Portland Timbers won their first-ever MLS Cup in 2015. But, if you went back a little further in time, to the one-third-mark of that season, you’d have found a Timbers team in disarray. Through the team’s first 12 regular-season matches, the Timbers Army could only celebrate victory drinks on three occasions.

The Timbers surged later in the season and ended up third in the West. And, the team continued that hot streak all the way through the post-season and claimed that gleaming silver trophy.

The Portland story would be a great underdog story, if only it was a rarity in MLS. But it isn’t. The truth is, mid-seeded teams are more likely to win MLS Cups than the top seeds. In 2014, the Los Angeles Galaxy won MLS Cup, despite winning just two of its first eight games.

Since 2001, only three teams that have won the Supporters’ Shield have gone on to win MLS Cup. Three. That’s low enough for any statistician to conclude that being the league’s best team in the regular season actually hurts a club’s chance to win it all in the end. The Supporters’ Shield should be melted down and re-made into a poisoned chalice.

So, if the Portland Timbers’ run to the final wasn’t really so remarkable after all, what does it say about MLS? That, despite the additions of Designated Players, Targeted Allocation Money and other mechanisms designed to help teams in the league attract bigger talents, Major League Soccer remains a place where parity reigns.

Need more proof? In most major international leagues, a team has to average more than two points a game to win a league. This past season in Spain, three teams — Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid — broke the two-point-per-game barrier. So did Leicester City en route to winning the English Premier League. In Italy, Juventus, Napoli and AS Roma all went over two points a match. Two teams in Germany, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, did it as well. Point being, to win a league, you’ve got to really rise above the average.

But, in MLS, there hasn’t been a two-point-per-game team since 2005, when the San Jose Earthquakes did it. FC Dallas and the New York Red Bulls led MLS in 2015 with 1.76 points per game in 2015. At the two-thirds mark of the 2016 season, the Colorado Rapids led the way with a 1.86-points-per-game average. So, to win top spot in MLS’s regular season, you don’t need to rise very high above the norm — and if you do win, your chances to follow through in the playoffs and claim MLS Cup are, well, small.

Despite all of the signings – from Beckham to Henry to Gerrard to Giovinco — MLS is a lottery league. It is a league where, currently, 60 per cent of the teams make the playoffs. It is a league where, at the start of the season, any fan of any team can honestly believe there’s a shot at winning the title.

Peter Yannopoulos is a professor in the Department of Sport Management at Brock University. He believes that, because of longstanding soccer traditions that have been created by the European and South American clubs, parity will be a hard sell for MLS. That’s because the majority of MLS fans also follow other leagues, where parity, well, doesn’t exist.

“In my view, and based on the experience of countries around the world with a long tradition of soccer, it would be more desirable to have a few powerful teams that dominate the soccer scene of the country,” says Yannapoulos. “Strong, powerful teams create more interest among soccer fans of all stripes, i.e. regardless of team affiliation. Also, in my view, soccer teams, in order to win a league, teams have to be strong and dominant. For example, in the major European football leagues, dominant teams such as Barcelona, Real Madrid, Chelsea, Manchester United, Bayern Munich, tend to win the Championship year after year. Having a super-team would probably attract more interest not just among its supporters, but among fans of smaller teams. That would increase TV attendance.”

This story originally appeared in PLASTIC PITCH #10.

The salary cap — even with allowances for Designated Players — makes it difficult for teams to separate themselves. There are two schools of thought that have emerged; there are teams that go all-in on maximum salary-cap hits on Designated Players; teams like the Los Angeles Galaxy and Toronto FC go very top-heavy on their rosters, knowing that there isn’t a lot of money left to spread on depth. Or, there are clubs like FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake, which choose to shy away from the marquee signings and spread the salary around to build deeper squads — albeit with no true superstars at the top end.

Back in 2010, Canadian midfielder Will Johnson was part of a Real Salt Lake side that would, later that season, go all the way to CCL final. Despite not having a lot of true superstars, RSL was one of the dominant teams in MLS.

“Not a lot of teams who have had DPs have had a lot of success in this league,”Johnson said back them. “We have a chemistry that’s second to none on this team.”

Six years later, and Johnson plays for big-spending, DP-laden Toronto FC. But his point is well taken. It can be argued that last year’s MLS Cup final — between Columbus and Portland — featured no true superstars.

But, does that attract fans? According to Canadian TV ratings expert Chris Zelkovich’s Great Canadian Ratings Report, MLS Cup drew just 87,000 viewers in Canada — about a fifth of what a regional Winnipeg Jets broadcast draws.

The case for parity

Dave Best teaches a graduate course in sports economics at Ottawa’s Algonquin College — and parity is a topic that he discusses with his students. He says that a dominant team, when it falls from grace, can fall awfully hard. After all, how many fans did Nottingham Forest retain during their fall from European champions to also-rans? Aston Villa?

“Owners and leagues love parity in theory; increased fan interest, eyeballs watching, attendance, viewers, concessions and, the ultimate, value to the franchise,” says Best. “That said, some clubs prosper as dominant — and fall readily when they fail to do so. Check out the Atlanta Braves, in MLB; dominant for years, become blasé, now not so good and attendance, interest, sales, eyeballs, etc. — all dwindling; as is the value of the franchise.”

But Nicholas Burton, an assistant professor and colleague of Yannopoulos at Brock, doesn’t believe North American soccer fans need to see superteams.

“Typically, parity is great for attracting and sustaining fan interest, to a point,” Burton writes in an email. “Sport’s value and real differentiating trait from other entertainment options or alternatives for our attention or disposable income is the uncertainty of outcome that comes with every game, every match, every event. That unknown element drives fan interest and is at the heart of supporters’ emotional attachment and investment in sport. That has its limits – particularly where extreme parity is in place, and matches are more likely to end in draws than in wins — but, especially for a league like the MLS, having that parity and giving fans in almost every city that possible belief or hope that they could see a win is important.”

And Burton believes MLS will have better chance of long-term success if it tries to carve out a uniquely North American brand.

“Major League Soccer is always going to struggle if it tries to keep up with or match the established European and South American leagues, and they’ve done very well in the last 10 to 15 years in carving out their own identity and in laying down roots in cities and communities. For football fans accustomed to the European leagues where dominant clubs are the norm – be it England, Scotland, Germany, Spain or the Netherlands – we have to remember that the comparison isn’t a direct one. The league structures in those countries, and the length of time that clubs in every city and town in those countries have existed, has meant that even those clubs not expected to challenge for titles and trophies every year have a place within their communities that has been there for a century, and have supporters who are passionate about their clubs regardless of their standing in the game.”

Basically, while a fan in Airdrie is not expecting the club to move up the ranks and usurp Celtic for a Scottish League title, the connection between team, community and supporters is strong. It’s been passed down. And this is something the North American promotion-relegation evangelists miss: The structure in Europe isn’t about giving everyone a dream that maybe the teams they support can rise up and challenge the likes of Barcelona or Bayern Munich; no, the biggest part of the social contract is that many fans accept that the provincial teams they support will likely never rise from the lower divisions.

Compare that to North America, where teams that don’t win titles in a generation are lampooned. Think of the Canadians who love to mention “1967” to Maple Leafs fans — using the year of that team’s most recent Stanley Cup triumph as a stark reminder of the team’s failings.

Truth is, most fans of smaller European sides would love to have just one 1967 to commemorate.

Designated Player Sebastian Giovinco, left, has been arguably the best player in MLS history. But Designated Players have historically not made major impacts on the league standings. PHOTO: JAY SHAW/CANADA SOCCER

“The trade-off, to a large extent, comes from what you want your league and clubs to achieve and to represent,” writes Burton. “The creation of the Premier League in England disrupted the league structure significantly by creating a top-tier of clubs who fit this ‘dominant’ club model, and has experienced extraordinary growth in terms of global appeal and broadcasting rights. Those clubs consistently in the Premier League, and particularly those at the top, are financially as healthy as ever, and boast millions of fans around the world. Is that what MLS sees as the future of LA Galaxy, or New York Red Bulls, or Toronto FC? And what has been the cost? For all of the success Manchester United or Arsenal or Liverpool have had in the Premier League era, on and off the pitch, many clubs further down the leagues have suffered. If you’re from Coventry, why watch League One live when you can watch the Premier League on Sky? That’s the challenge for Major League Soccer: if they want to drive broadcasting revenues and establish the league —and certain clubs — as major players on the international stage, what will that mean for the smaller clubs left behind? Is the level of support in those cities enough that supporters will continue to attend and attendances will thrive? Or will fans attend those matches when the big clubs visit, but otherwise tune out in favour of watching on TV?”

And, because MLS is a young league, just nosing into its third decade of existence, Burton thinks equality is still important. Maybe, when the league has a long history, it can survive having one or two teams perennially dominate — but not now.

“For the short- to medium-term, however, parity and league/club development is essential. What we’ve seen over the past decade or more with Major League Soccer is a push towards more clubs in viable markets, soccer-specific stadia, academy development and, most importantly, the fostering and promotion of fan culture and identity. Today, tomorrow and very likely five years from now, MLS won’t be able to compete with the major European leagues for talent or quality or competitiveness – the reality is that the level and depth of talent here is still growing. So trying to emulate or replicate the model that works in England or Spain is unrealistic. But what makes MLS games appealing to supporters, and has allowed the league to grow, is not pretending to be as high-quality as La Liga or the Premier League, but in being a match or event worth experiencing. The games are family friendly, have passionate fan groups and fan zones, and by and large have kept prices respectable. Offering supporters that experience in the stadium, with competitive, balanced matches on the pitch, will allow the clubs and the league an opportunity to grow their markets and their footprints in their cities and communities such that, down the road, having dominant clubs may be realistic.”

The Road

In MLS, you take your points at home, and get whatever you can get on the road. But, as a whole, no matter how dominant you are at home — no matter how loud the Red Patch Boys or the Timbers Army or the Southsiders sing — the road records will always drag teams down to the pack.

For the most part, MLS teams fly commercial and don’t do extended trips — that is, they don’t get into town days ahead of a road match.

And distances and varying climates are a challenge. A team can go from playing in the punishing Rocky Mountain altitude to then having to deal with the punishing heat and humidity of Houston, with little time to acclimate. Some teams play on pristine grass fields, other play on new artificial surfaces; others play on not-so-new artificial surfaces; and, in some cases, teams play on grass fields that are so patchy and awful you’d wish they’d lay down artificial turf, instead.

The reality of long flights, different climates and wildly different playing surfaces all contribute to one thing, pulling the better teams back to the pack.

And the MLS Collective Bargaining Agreement sort-of restricts each team to just four charter flights in the season; though more can be added for playoff games if warranted. So, for the majority of road trips, the teams fly coach — and that means they’re subject to the same delays and scheduling snafus as all of us regular schmucks.

“Sort-of restricts” is an important definition: In the CBA, it states the league can change the policy, well, whenever it sees fit. It can add charter flights, without that needing to part of a negotiation for the next CBA.

“MLS shall continue its policy of allowing Teams to provide chartered air transportation for four legs of flights per year, and nothing in the CBA shall prohibit MLS, in its sole and absolute discretion, from providing additional chartered air flights.” That’s the language from the agreement

Back in 2010, I covered a Real Salt Lake/Toronto FC match — albeit, a CONCACAF Champions League match. RSL wanted to clinch passage into the next stage, so the team made a plan to get to Toronto as quickly as possible. They planned to fly out Sunday for a midweek game in Toronto. They connected in Atlanta, but a storm there closed the airport and forced the cancellation of many flights. Players were re-booked on multiple flights and arrived in Toronto in dribs and drabs, and the day before the game, then-RSL coach Jason Kreis wasn’t sure if he’d be able to field anything close to the team he wanted.

That’s life in MLS. And, even though the teams are all close in the standings, MLS has created a unique pattern where that parity is created in a system where teams are dominant at home, weak on the road. As of the halfway point of the 2016 season, five teams had yet to win a road game — and six had won just one road game each. Yet, not one of those teams had a sub-.500 record at home. Basically, these weren’t bad teams that were getting killed on the road. These were decent teams at home that couldn’t come close to replicating their performances when they wore their away kits.

(NOTE: Major League Soccer’s headquarters was contacted several times, but did not respond to requests for comment or interviews)

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