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The Big Pitcher - Video Killed the Designated Player

Editor's Note: Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but It bends toward justice”. Sometimes we American soccer fans get wrapped up in the day-to-day, Monday morning quarterbacking (or centerbacking), knee-jerk reactions and miss out on the big picture. This weekly column will focus on picking out the larger themes and issues of Major League Soccer and the American game.

By Eric BettsSenior Crystal Ball Correspondent

In the evolution of modern sport a league’s success was no longer defined by the quality of its play or by the size of its live attendance, but by how the networks–or more accurately the great national advertisers–saw it. For in American sports in 1980 there was no God but Madison Avenue and A.C. Nielsen was His prophet.
-David Halberstam, The Breaks of the Game

I’ve lost count of which numerical iteration we’ve all agreed that MLS has just entered (MLS 2000!), but I agree with the sentiment. Once again the league feels like it’s reached a threshold, readying itself to boldly go where...well, every other major American sport has gone before. More than thirty years ago Halberstam captured the moment in basketball history that American soccer, and specifically MLS, is preparing to embark upon now: Convincing a statistically significant percentage of the population to devote two to eight hours a week for 35 straight weeks (plus playoffs) to watching this particular sport on television.

If you spent any time on Twitter in the week before the season’s openers this past weekend then you likely saw at least some fragments of this discussion. This is the growth area now that attendance is becoming less of a worry across the league as a whole. (Though not, perhaps, for certain specific teams. I’d provide a link here, but I bet you’ve seen the pictures already.) To reach its manifest destiny by 2022, the league is going to have to start drawing more viewers, and thus more money, from television.

But if everyone agrees on the destination, then it seems very few can agree on the route to get there. Are higher ratings an inevitable product of continued growth, something that will come with time and sunlight and the continued TLC of hardcore fans spreading their interests to the masses? Or is there some kind of catalyst that can accelerate this growth, such as a marquee name coming over to one of the league’s biggest markets and...never mind.

To brainstorm the likely, or at least the most often-suggested framework for how this increase in viewers will come about is to take your brain for a ride into some kind of circular-logic Magic Roundabout of doom. In brief: More people will watch as the games get better, resulting in more money from television revenues, allowing the league to purchase or retain or grow in a secret lab (nestled high in the Cascade Range) a better quality of player, which in turn will make the games better, leading more people to watch. And so on and so forth; right round baby right round.

The trouble for the league, and those people who think that more can be done to improve it, is where exactly do you break this loop in order to inject your catalyst?

Do you raise the talent level over time by diverting a sustainable amount of money into development, allowing teams to bring in a higher quality of young, cheap players? Or do you encourage teams to spend first by raising the salary cap, bringing in (hopefully) better players and hoping that the resulting Quality → more viewers → more money, which will help some of the smaller market or more apathetic teams teams catch up either financially or competitively, depending on how quickly they started spending. 

Or is there something that can be done on one of the other nodes? It makes sense that Quality would be the single biggest factor driving watchability, but it isn’t the only one. Some of those people who hike their big-boy britches up before asking “Why would I bother with the MLS when I can watch the best teams/players/global marketing conglomerates from around the world instead?” also willingly tune in to college basketball or football games that don’t involve their alma mater, which basically means they’re full of it.

Truth is, it doesn’t matter if they don’t watch because their delicate soccer palates can only handle the smooth flavors (like a lobster-mango ceviche) of Lionel Messi or because they’d rather devote their limited available sports-viewing hours to the ever-declining level of play put forth by indentured 20-year-olds being shouted at by men in hairpieces. Both of these are competitors with MLS for a limited number of eyeballs.

If the site you’re reading this on and its proprietors were really committed to growing American soccer, they’d tell you to deliver a six-pack to your buddy’s house an hour before the game, turn all the televisions in their house on to whatever channel it will be airing on, then go home and do the same at your place, perhaps stopping at the neighbor’s if you see a window propped open or a door ajar.

The point is that MLS got more fans into stadiums because some of those fans convinced others that the experience of being in the stadium, the atmosphere and the sense of speed and the copious amounts of beer available made it the best way they could spend their evening. Now MLS has to convince millions of more fans over the course of the season that the game itself is worth consuming, even if it is more double cheeseburger than ceviche.

About Eric

Eric Betts is a freelancer writer who lives in Austin, Texas with his wife and his dog Lando (yup). He is a contributing writer for "The Other 87 Minutes", their brilliance featured every Tuesday on the Free Beer Movement in the form of "the Tuesday 10" or the "Tuesday XI". While attending the Emory University he won "College Jeopardy"

Tags: Big Pitcher, Eric Betts, Major League Soccer

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