Schedule planning may be secret to MLS success
What began as the one of the most questionable decisions during the
formation of Major League Soccer might be the catalyst the league
needs to find its place in the international community.
Many people criticized the MLS' choice to depart from the synchronized schedules of most of Europe to play the bulk of their season during the United States' summer months.
But the choice may allow for a symbiotic relationship between America's domestic league and its counterparts overseas.
Putting aside MLS' other issues (league structure, labyrinthine rules governing eligibility and transfers, contract rights, and ownership problems), the league may have gotten it right as far as season timing is concerned.
Starting, stabilizing, and finding a niche in a saturated American sports market is a difficult, if not impossible, undertaking.
There's an NFL Super Bowl at the end of January/beginning of February, college basketball's March Madness, June playoffs for the NHL and NBA, the World Series in October, and college football throughout the fall. And this is without considering events in the smaller sports, such as the Triple Crown, that runs throughout May.
It doesn't leave a whole lot of room for an American Soccer League.
But MLS was able to slip itself into the American sports landscape at just about the perfect time to milk the most out of its domestic audience, and, perhaps, offer something to the international community.
The season begins March 25, close to the third round of March Madness. For most, the opening will come and go without much fanfare. That's not a bad thing.
The players will be rusty and tentative. They'll need a couple of weeks to reach match-fitness and gain familiarity with their new teammates. It's not time to attract new fans. It's a time for the players and the league to get its collective feet underneath itself.
The finale is the more important date.
The MLS playoffs and the MLS Cup commence in November, right in the middle of the college football season, which is a subtly smart choice.
It avoids the World Series (the only time most casual fans watch baseball) and the beginning and end of college football (when the sport has its highest ratings). It sneaks games in when there's nothing else for the football fan to watch.
Even if a person has no vested interest in a soccer team or the game itself, most sports junkies will watch—or at least turn to a championship game between commercials.
And this past final, with Beckham, Donovan, and a World Cup this summer, plus a penalty shootout (one of the most exciting endings to any sports competition, even if it has little to do with a team's soccer prowess), couldn't have been more entertaining if it were fixed.
This is how domestic fans are won.
However, MLS' strength of schedule isn't its conclusion. The attraction is in the summer months, when little else is available.
Until July, baseball is boring, and, for many, it remains that way until September, when pennant races get close.
It also avoids the beginning and end of most European leagues (for reference, the English Premier League begins in August and ends in May), and thereby can quench the thirst of soccer fans addicted to those leagues, just so long as the observer does not mind the change in skill level between the differing leagues. The MLS can suck the viewer in with such an advantage.
The bonuses keep on coming.
Overseas, MLS gets airtime as, at least for a few months, it doesn't have to compete with the European leagues.
That's not to insinuate that, over time, Europe will be glued to American soccer, but in pubs and bars across that continent, when nothing else plays at 10 in the morning, Kyle Beckerman's dirty hair flops in front of bleary-eyed barflies on small televisions in the corner of a few establishments.
While insulated American sports analysts will criticize MLS for being one choice among many in the international soccer market, real fans can be proud that an American league has the potential to be on a television somewhere outside of America at some point in time, even if it is at six in the morning.
Because the key isn't to be the EPL, or La Liga, or Serie A, it's to be a choice on one of the 20 televisions in an international bar, and MLS's timing ... those bleak summer months ... gives the league its best chance.
Finally, the schedule timing may allow players to move to Europe in a smooth manner. MLS, American media, and American fans must come to accept that the goal is not to be the greatest league in the world.
First, because Europe has already proven that the top league in the world changes constantly based on the movement of money and players.
Secondly, because most Europeans will not come to America to play soccer.
That's not a bad thing either.
MLS is not ready to compete directly with leagues that have had more time, more money, more fans, a stronger reputation, and to some, a geographically more appealing environment.
It's in MLS's best interests to complement these other leagues, rather than compete against them (of course, in the end, all the leagues are competing for a finite number of fans, resources, and money, that's why I used the word "directly" previously).
Creating a beneficial relationship—a partnership—with as many European leagues and teams is in the best interests of MLS.
Strong business relationships encourage players to stay in MLS, knowing that one day, there's a good chance that a European team will come calling. Experienced coaches, scouts, and businessmen are exposed to MLS, players, and teams. The pull of resources does not remain one way.
Eventually, MLS reaps benefits from the successes of its European counterparts. Because, as I mentioned before, soccer is international business.
This is unlike any other sport in America.
Essentially, there is one giant league, and it's played on all the inhabited continents of the world. Almost every country has one domestic player worth a million dollars waiting for just the right contract with just the right club at just the right time.
No one's dreaming of playing soccer in America the same way a Cuban baseball player may be lying awake at night planning an escape in a makeshift raft to the shore of Miami in order to play in Major League Baseball.
That's never going to happen, and that's fine.
It's fine because not every player is dreaming of playing in one single league, be it England, Spain, Germany, Italy, or France. These players are dreaming of playing somewhere.
It's different for every one, and while one may dream of Liverpool Red, another of Madrid White, there's some kid somewhere dreaming of starting a career in the gold, blue, and red of Real Salt Lake (I hope).
This is the major difference between soccer and the other American sports, and MLS has to find its place in this international community.
Like a small-time club in baseball, MLS has to use its limited resources to its advantage. It doesn't have the money and reputation of other leagues, but that doesn't mean that it can't survive, let alone thrive.
All it needs to do is make smart choices. Spend money wisely. Create an impeccable reputation. Offer a strong product.
Its scheduling is one example of this approach.
Hopefully, there will be more smart choices made in the future.
Ben Triana is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, the open source sports network.