Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Yes Virginia, MLS Can Play in the Winter: But, Does It Really Matter?

The abnormally cold and snowy winter in the United States and England have given some MLS fans ammunition, really just blanks, for their favorite off-season argument: "MLS can't change it's season to a fall-winter-spring schedule, it's too cold!" As I'll point out, once or twice in this column, I really don't care about the MLS schedule, there's lots of bigger issues the league needs to deal with first, but I am sick and tired of the schedule argument and I need to vent.

Face it folks, if MLS wants to change the schedule so that the season starts in the fall and ends in the spring, winter is not going to be a problem. From heated pitches to heated benches to cold weather gear, the game can go on without trouble during cold, snowy conditions. More importantly, all of the MLS cities where snow is a regular occurrence are cities that are properly equipped with snow removal equipment. Remember, the snow related problems in England haven't been about the pitches, it's been about the fact that most of the cities there aren't properly equipped to remove snow from its streets, sidewalks, railroads, etc.

Yes, there will be the occasional time when blizzard conditions will make it difficult for fans to get to certain stadiums and once and awhile snow and ice might impact a more southern MLS city, like Dallas, that isn't as used to such weather, but let's admit it folks, this will be the anomaly, not the norm. Kind of like the rare occasions when severe thunderstorms or hurricanes create problems for MLS matches held in the summer months.

Some people are concerned that since MLS is still trying to establish a solid fanbase changing its schedule so that more matches are played in winter weather would result in lower attendance. This might be a small concern, but considering some of these cities have trouble getting good attendance numbers in summer . . . yes, I'm looking at you New England, Columbus, and Colorado. Maybe the MLS marketing folks can take advantage of the winter conditions for promotions. As one person stated on twitter, they can turn the unused side of Gillette Stadium into a bunny slope for skiing and sledding.

Finally, I'm a bit disappointed in the hardcore MLS/soccer fans who moan and whine about the prospect of changing the MLS schedule. I thought soccer fans were the most hardcore, crazy fans in the US. At least that's the image many want to project. If NFL fans can handle these conditions for games that take over three hours, I think MLS fans can survive two hour matches in the same winter conditions. Come on soccer fans, you're not gonna let NFL fans prove they're crazier and tougher then you, are you?

Despite my comments about attendance above, I do believe that if MLS is seriously considering shifting its season so that it starts in the fall and ends in the spring MLS needs to take a serious look at the economics. I'm not a finance or business guy, but my gut instinct tells me it could be a bad financial move for MLS to do away with its current schedule.

The biggest problem for MLS if its change to a fall-winter-spring schedule is that it will be competing directly against professional and college football from August through February. American football will get priority when it comes to television and radio broadcasts as well as priority when it comes to scheduling matches at shared stadiums. Face it US soccer fans, EPL matches on ESPN do well rating wise cause their only sports competition is hunting and fishing or sports news programing, meanwhile MLS would be going head to head with American football for at least 6 months. After the Super Bowl, there might be a couple weeks where MLS can attract some attention, but the sports focus in America will quickly shift to college basketball and March Madness.

MLS cannot avoid competing with other American sports. Under the current schedule, MLS goes head to head with the start of the baseball season, NBA playoffs, NHL playoffs, and the start of the American football seasons, but it does have some big chunks of the summer when it's only competition is the bloated slog that baseball is from May to mid-August. In many places, it is cheaper for a family of four to catch an MLS match than it is to go see a movie, and I suspect seeing an MLS match as a family creates more long term memories than seeing a movie as a family.

Speaking of family, and I know some MLS fans aren't keen on MLS teams being overly family friendly, the current schedule makes the league more accessible to families looking for cheap, fun things to do when school is out for the summer. I'm not sure what it's like in other MLS cities, but you can notice an attendance decline here in Houston when the Dynamo play on school nights.

Finally, we have to admit that with its current schedule, MLS fills a void in the soccer world, if only for a few months during the heart of summer. While he might not admit it publicly, even the most adamant EuroSnob will tune into MLS during the summer to get his soccer fix. Changing the MLS schedule would mean the loss of the EuroSnobs who secretly watch MLS during Europe's silly season.

Like I said at the beginning of this column, I really don't care if MLS changes its schedule or not. There's pluses and minuses to both changing the season and leaving the season alone. But I am tired of people tossing out silly and inaccurate arguments about the weather or FIFA when it comes to the MLS schedule.

I know, I know, some people think MLS needs to change the schedule to make FIFA happy. But face it, if the decision to give the 2022 World Cup finals to Qatar didn't make you realize that FIFA, under the leadership of Sepp Blatter, has no interest in giving the World Cup finals to the United States, then nothing will.

Let's face it folks, Don Garber and the other MLS suits probably prefer MLS fans to focus their attention on silly arguments like when the MLS season should take place. These kind of arguments district MLS fans from real problems like youth development, salaries, the convoluted designation player system, and the utter silliness that is the SuperDraft.

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