Hello my fellow Americans. Or, because this is a soccer blog: hello my fellow Americans, expats, green card holders and Eurotrash. Last week, MLS Commissioner Don Garber held a lengthy discussion — a “state of the league” conversation — in Columbus, Ohio. It was a tour de force performance, “tour de force” being a French term meaning “measured and technical.” In the speech, Garber covered expansion, calendar adjustment and television contracts. Now, I’m not Garber’s opposition — in fact, I think he’s doing a pretty good job — but questioning and analyzing our leaders is an important function of the media. And doing that while being snarky and linking to funny YouTube videos is an important function of the Internet. So let’s get started.
Garber’s ambition to have MLS considered among the best leagues in the world was undercut by the Columbus Crew’s announcement of Barbasol as its new shirt sponsor. No offense to Barbasol — actually, yes, offense to Barbasol, what is it going to do to me? — but it is not a big-time brand. Most big clubs are sponsored by huge international conglomerates, the kind of companies that seem like a front for a Bond villain. You will know MLS has gotten big when the teams have big-time shirt sponsors. You will never hear this sentence: “We are excited to bring the captain of the World Cup champions to [insert MLS team], and so is our shirt sponsor, the Ronco Compact Rotisserie Oven.”
On the other hand, there’s going to be some great comic value in seeing Eddie Gaven’s gnarly hippie beard above a shirt that says “Barbasol”.
Garber alluded once again to aligning the MLS calendar to the international calendar, although he didn’t give a timetable. The obvious problem with moving to the international calendar is playing games in New England in January. Personally, I would not attend a game in New England in January. I would not attend my hypothetical daughter’s wedding in New England in January. I would not attend a Free Pizza and Back Rubs party with the Swedish Bikini Team in New England in January. So I am not as eager as some to move to the international calendar. But if MLS delays the decision long enough, then global warming will make switching to the international calendar a lot more practical.
Garber said MLS is still looking to add a 20th franchise, possibly in New York. Before I lived in New York, I didn’t understand the logic behind a second New York franchise; after all, the Red Bulls have never been a big draw, so why split the market in half? But now I understand the one simple fact that makes a second New York franchise viable: Manhattanites are the biggest travel sissies in the world. Most people who live in Manhattan seem to think the Hudson River is made of lava and don’t like to cross it. Red Bull Arena is in Harrison, N.J., which might as well be Bhutan. A team located in, say, Brooklyn would draw more fans . . . more pretentious, artsy, hipster fans. Picture it: a stadium packed with 25-year-old photojournalists with white belts and ironic glasses. Supporters chants sung to the tune of Modest Mouse b-sides. A second team in New York could work.
A lot of the conversation was about TV. “MLS in high-def is an amazing product,” said Garber, apparently forgetting that games on the MLS Direct Kick package look like you’re watching them through a shower door. He also reminded everyone that some MLS games this year will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network, formerly Versus, better known as the program that has to count poker and birding as “sports” in order to fill 24 hours of programming a day. Garber also cited an ESPN study that found that pro soccer is the second-most popular sport among people between 12 and 20 years old. That’s an amazing number no matter how you look at it, but I wonder: Was that study conducted during the Women’s World Cup? Still, the fact remains that the league’s popularity is growing. Garber even admitted, “We don’t have to manufacture fans with concerts and doubleheaders like we had to do years ago.” Cool: no more throwing a Black Eyed Peas concert, sneaking into an MLS match during the costume changes and then claiming the entire crowd toward MLS’s attendance numbers. I think we can all agree: Anything that results in fewer Black Eyed Peas concerts is a good thing.