Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Business of Soccer

I originally set out with this site to write about soccer. All soccer. National Teams. MLS teams. NASL teams. USL teams. NWSL teams.College teams. However, it has taken a much more Indy Eleven-centric turn to it, mostly because I only have so many hours in the day and this is nowhere close to being the thing where I need to put my main time and focus. Yet if you're a fan of soccer in America, this past week has been filled with, seemingly, a lot more lows than highs and so I thought I would write down some of my thoughts.

 A week ago, the United States Men's National Team went down to Trinidad and Tobago and needed to get a win to advance to next year's World Cup, but would have likely moved on with a draw. No game is a given and the USMNT isn't exactly a top 10 world team (sitting at 28 at the time of the game), but there's no reason they couldn't get a positive result against the 99th ranked team in the world, playing some of their young guys with the team having already been eliminated from the World Cup. My thoughts on the game were summarized perfectly by Landon Donovan in an interview on the Dan Patrick Show:
"The most disturbing part for me was the lack of urgency displayed," Donovan said. "We all know sports anything can happen, you can lose games, that's all part of it, but the lack of urgency to really understand what was at stake was really disheartening for me, and, candidly, it was really hard to watch."
Unfortunately for me, that's a similar reaction I've had to the Indy Eleven this year. What I saw from the USMNT hit too close to home. The team is full of guys with a significant number of caps, including a starting XI with an average of 56.6 caps. Those are guys that know, or should know, what was at stake and how to approach a game of that magnitude. Not qualifying because of some of the other results in the HEX can be understood, but not qualifying because you don't get a positive result against Trinidad and Tobago is inexcusable.

Which leads us to Bruce Arena. Arena was brought on to get the team qualified for the World Cup after the U.S. lost Mexico in Colombus (we'll get to that topic in a minute) and then Costa Rica by a combined 6-1 score. He didn't get it done and I'm only moderately surprised he didn't stay on as head coach through the year until a permanent replacement was found. Let's get something straight though. This failure should put a tiny chink in his legacy, but Bruce Arena is still a legend in the United States. His teams have won 5 MLS Cups, 3 Supporter's Shields, an Open Cup, and he was MLS Coach of the Year three times. His teams, MLS & USMNT, achieved positive results 71% of the time. For me, the loss to T&T isn't on Arena. It's on the guys who didn't play with any urgency when they needed it most.

As long as I'm talking about U.S. Soccer, how many more lawsuits can it handle? The U.S. Women's National Team sued the U.S. Soccer Federation to be able to get equitable pay. That should never have had to happen. One team has won three World Cups and four Olympic gold medals. Regardless of what you think about men's versus women's soccer and how much more advanced the U.S. is in regards to women's soccer compared to other countries, success should be rewarded and the discrepancy in pay and benefits was embarrassing. It shouldn't have taken a lawsuit to resolve that issue.

Now we have the North American Soccer League suing for, well, I'm still a little unsure on that one. Monopoly practices I guess. Personally, I think the lawsuit is a Hail Mary from the NASL to try and save a failing league. To be honest, I appreciate the business model of the NASL over the MLS/USL, but at some point, you have to realize that it's not a successful business. Teams come and go routinely and the stability of the league is continually in question. At some point, regardless of how much fans love their clubs, a failed business venture is a failed business venture. That doesn't mean, however, that some of the teams in the league are failures. Though, based on attendance numbers, even some of the "successful" teams can't possibly be profitable businesses. All of that turmoil has led the league to its current place in the U.S. soccer landscape; a hot mess. A hot mess that I don't expect to be part of the U.S. soccer landscape next year. Though that's just based on my gut feeling and no inside knowledge of anything.

That's not to say that U.S. soccer's top-tier league hasn't had its own issues this past week. Today's announcement from the owner of the Columbus Crew, in essence, said that without a new stadium the team would likely be relocated to Austin, Texas, a city with which he has been in discussion. U.S. soccer fans, naturally, have been in a tizzy all day about this and in a general uproar against Columbus Crew owner Anthony Precourt. Soccer fans have always felt like they play second or third fiddle to the other major sports in the country; NFL, MLB, & NBA. MLS can't compete with the attendance nor salaries of those leagues. The USMNT has averaged in the low- to mid-30,000 attendance since 2007 and the USWNT has only broken the 20,000 mark twice since 1994 (both World Cup winning years). The soccer-specific stadiums around the country are routinely sized for the 20,000 to 25,000 range. Most Division 1 university football stadiums are twice that size. The Indy Eleven have averaged 8,000 people in a mess of a stadium in a mess of a league based only on the fervor of its fanbase, but I'm convinced that better stadium amenities could raise the attendance level. Regardless of the fact that Mapfre Stadium was the first soccer-specific stadium in the country, the success of the national teams in the stadium through the years, and it's general place in the history of soccer in this country, it's still just an aging stadium that can't compete with the other soccer stadiums throughout the country and Precourt knows this. Precourt may or may not be all the things that people have called him today, but he's also a businessman, the Columbus Crew is a business, and his tactic is not unprecedented.

This type of strong-arm tactics aren't going to help U.S. soccer fan's inferior complex and general attitude of not being respected. I say, welcome to the big leagues. The only way that an owner can make this kind of threat is if an owner thinks there's a chance. I know others will, and probably have, argued that Precourt is moving the team regardless. That may be true, but if he did, he would join a long line of major professional teams that have relocated (below is just a small sample).

  • The Cubs recently played the Washington Nationals in Major League Baseball's National League Divisional Series. The Nationals used to be the Montreal Expos until 2005. 
  • In my lifetime, in the National Basketball Association, the Buffalo Braves moved to San Diego and became the San Diego Clippers, which you now know as the Los Angeles Clippers. The Vancouver Grizzles are now the Memphis Grizzles. The Seattle Supersonics are now Oklahoma Thunder. 
  • The National Football League is full of teams that used to be somewhere else. The Cleveland Rams moved to Los Angeles in 1946, then moved to St. Louis in 1995, and are now back in Los Angeles. The Oakland Raiders moved to Los Angeles in 1982, then back to Oakland in 1995, and are now headed to Las Vegas. The Baltimore Colts became the Indianapolis Colts in the dead of night.
  • In the National Hockey League, the Minnesota North Stars moved to Dallas in 1993. What you know as the Colorado Avalanche used to be Quebec Nordiques prior to 1995 and the Phoenix Coyotes used to be the Winnipeg Jets.
  • Pro soccer isn't immune either. The Houston Dynamo? Used to be the San Jose Earthquakes. This year's National Women's Soccer League's North Carolina Courage were known as the Western New York Flash as recently as last year.
If there's one thing I've learned writing about soccer in America, it's that there is a very distinct difference between the love of the sport and the business of the sport. At its core, professional soccer, like other professional sports, is a business with hundreds of thousands of people employed directly or indirectly by it. However, there are 22 MLS teams, 30 USL teams, 8 NASL teams, and 10 NWSL teams with owners that desire to make a profit from their business and have the ultimate say in what they do with their teams. 

Is that always in the best interest of the fans? No. 

Is that always in the best interest of growing the sport in the country? No.

Is that their prerogative? Yes.

That's the business of soccer.

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