Home MLS More MLS Why a home-game MLS Cup is a bad, bad idea

Why a home-game MLS Cup is a bad, bad idea

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Judging by the message boards, commentaries and blogs we have seen, fans have strong opinions about the radical redesigns being made to the MLS schedule and playoff format for 2012.

A lot of scorn has been aimed at the league office for a conference heavy schedule that cuts down on travel. And a lot of kudos are being aimed at the league office for approving a format which ensures that the highest remaining seed will host the MLS Cup, rather than have the game played at a neutral site.

Being the contrarians we are at The 11, we’ll take a different stand.

We don’t mind the new schedule. We understand that comparing MLS to tiny countries like England, Italy and the Netherlands (geography-wise) is even more extreme than apples to oranges. In England, Arsenal leaving London to head to Newcastle is long road trip.

Going between Montreal and Toronto — which is considered a puddle jump in North American terms — is about 15 km longer than a London-Newcastle trip.

So, one of Toronto FC’s shortest road trips would be pretty well equal to one of the longest road trips for Arsenal, Chelsea or Tottenham.

MLS needs to be compared with the so-called Big Four leagues in North America, and all use geography-based scheduling. Even the NFL is divided up into geographic chunks, even if the games happen just once a week.

Travel, folks, is expensive. And the more you travel, the more it costs. Teams can spend millions a year in travel. In the EPL, you don’t need to book good hotels for your teams. That’s a fact of life for North American teams. You don’t need to fly two time zones away for a road game in La Liga. That’s a fact of life for North American teams.

Yes, there are tweaks MLS can make to the schedule. If, as Commissiopner Don Garber stated, the schedule is to be “rivalry-based,” why the heck will FC Dallas and Houston only play each other once a season? Why will Vancouver play Toronto FC once a year and Montreal once a year? The Galaxy and Red Bulls have developed a healthy dislike for each other. They should play each other twice a year. If there is a way that MLS could find a game or two to protect traditional non-geographic rivalries, great. But an extra Montreal-Toronto date or two or an extra Real Salt Lake-Colorado date? Fine.

But, in a league where most teams still lose money, cutting down on travel is a prudent financial move. And that’s the thing about going onto message boards; it’s easy to criticize a plan when it’s someone else’s money. It’s easy to try and tell the league that it should spend hundreds of thousands more in travel expenses (travel costs are pooled) so the Whitecaps can be ensured to play the New England Revolution the same amount of times as it plays the Seattle Sounders.

Now, to MLS Cup. Los Angeles just won the title at home and everyone is feeling warm and fuzzy. In 2010, Colorado and FC Dallas contested the title game in Toronto in front of many empty seats on a cold night filled with indifference. But, Toronto was a rarity —and the indifference had more to do with how the tickets were marketed than about Toronto fans’ passion for the game. Had they been offered the tickets as a buy-in option (“being a season ticket holder allows you to jump to the front of the line for MLS Cup tickets!”) rather than having them forced on them, there’s no doubt they would have been more vocal in their support of the game.

Attendance has generally been solid at neutral-site MLS Cup finals. And, thanks to the thousands of passionate supporters who turned up on a cold, rainy night in Seattle to watch Real Salt Lake beat the Galaxy in 2009, MLS delayed moving away from the neutral-site MLS Cup for a few years.

This Sunday’s MLS Cup was badly outrated not only by the NFL, but by a rerun of the EPL’s Liverpool-Chelsea match on Fox. And, media indifference will get worse, not better, when the MLS Cup goes to the highest seed.

There are some excellent observers on how the North American media treats the game of soccer. I enjoy reading Richard Whittall at Canadian Soccer News (even though, as a former sports page editor in a national news chain, I don’t always agree with him). But one thing that always seems to get missed is how much the soccer community sabotages itself when it comes to the North American mainstream media.

MLS Cup is prime example. For three years, prime time on a Sunday, with a game that wraps well after many papers have gone to bed in the Eastern time zone. And no paper is going to the extra expense of holding a late page for MLS. The league has to understand that.

With NBC in the mix and Sunday Night Football established on the network, thankfully, the Sunday 9 p.m. ET kickoff is likely done.

So, now what? An MLS Cup home game?

What does this mean? It means that visiting fans and sports media now have one or two weeks, depending on the cushion between the Conference finals and the big game, to book flights, hotels, etc.

For sports editors and accounting departments, this means more expenses and more hassles. And, it most certainly means more editors saying “no” to doing anything more than using wire copy for MLS Cup. When you are a sports editor, you are given a budget, and you need to plan for it. You need to find dough to send someone to the Olympics and writers on the next Maple Leafs road trip. And, somewhere in there, you have a floater for MLS Cup? You aren’t sure if you need to send someone to Vancouver, New York or Columbus?

And, what if the Sounders get the right to host MLS Cup, on the same weekend as the Seahawks are at home? Or the Revs get the game when the Patriots are at home? Is a week or two of advance sales enough to pack a frigid stadium in Colorado, or a stadium way out in the Dallas suburbs?

A big game needs hype. It needs months of ticket pushes and effort. Now, it’s a home playoff game. And that only works when there is a series of games, like the Stanley Cup or the NBA Finals, whenever we’ll see those again.

So, in exchange for local interest, MLS will likely lose a hell of a lot in interest across Canada and the United States. MLS Cup should be a spectacle; we should be counting down to the big game. The NFL awards the Super Bowls years in advance. In soccer’s smaller circle, MLS should be doing the same.

If you cover the NHL, when it comes near playoff time, you get a complicated chart to fill in. Each line of boxes corresponds to a potential Stanley Cup final match-up — and you put the Xs in any of the spots that corresponds to a potential series that you would cover. But, at least in the case of the Stanley Cup finals, the series generates at least a week or two’s worth of front-page material (for the Canadian scribes at least). It’s not a one-day affair.

Now, MLS has to come up with a similar chart, for a one-off game.

MLS is still in a place where hardly any papers send their reporters on the road to cover their teams, where it is shown on sports networks with the suffix “2” after the name. It is a league that needs to grow — and be accessible to both media and fans. Leaving the MLS Cup location a mystery until a few days before the big game doesn’t help.

So, when you aren’t happy with the coverage MLS Cup gets next season, don’t blame the media.

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