My adopted World Cup team – Croatia – put up a good fight yesterday, but France was the World Cup winner for 2018. When the Croatians tied the game at 1-1 overcoming an “own goal” that had given France the lead, I thought they were going to pull off the upset. It did not happen.
By happenstance, I have some soccer news to comment on today. The first one has to do with MLS here in the US, but before I get to that, I want to offer up a hypothesis regarding MLS and its TV contract.
- For many new sports or niche sports, we tend the see a national TV contract as a measure of the acceptance of the sport and/or as a measure of the viability of the sport as an economic enterprise.
- MLS has a national TV deal with FOX – the same network that carried the World Cup games here in the US. One may normally see this as a huge plus for MLS given the cross-promotion that FOX did and given the juxtaposing of MLS games with World Cup matches.
- My hypothesis is that the FOX national TV deal hurts MLS as much as it helps MLS. The reason is that MLS games are not nearly as well played as the World Cup games.
I can feel the soccer mavens gearing themselves up to hit the comment button at the bottom of this rant about now, but the problem is deeper than that. I will not have to wait 4 years to see another World Cup tournament which will throw shade on MLS games; I only have to wait a short while until the English Premier League and the Bundesliga begin to play because I can see a good number of those games on the same cable package that lets me see the MLS games. I believe that MLS is hurt by the comparisons to the European leagues because even to a novice viewer like me, the difference in the quality of play is evident.
I think this situation is similar to – but not as stark – as the comparison one can make between NBA games and WNBA games. They are both available nationally on TV, but I do not think the WNBA gets very much benefit from their TV deal other than the revenue that it provides. I think another analogy is appropriate here. MLB plays the same game as do Minor League Baseball teams; if a fan checks out the two levels of play close by one another, it will be relatively clear very quickly that MLB demonstrates a higher level of skill in the “same game”. Minor league baseball dodges that comparison because there is no minor league baseball TV contract to show fans that one level is the “good stuff” and the other level is the “not-nearly-as-good-stuff”.
I mention the TV deal because it is a prelude to the opening of a new soccer-only stadium here in DC for the DC United team in MLS. There are more than a dozen of these new soccer-only facilities around the country for MLS squads. The one in DC is Audi Field and it frees DC United from having to play in RFK Stadium which is a facility that should have been razed at least 20 years ago. As with many of the other new soccer-only venues, this one is not a huge concrete cavern; Audi Field will seat 20,000 people.
All of that coincides with another major piece of news for DC United:
- They signed Wayne Rooney – the aging EPL star for Manchester United and Everton. He is available for the opening game at Audi Field.
This signing of an aging foreign star is the new normal for MLS. Various US pro soccer leagues in the past have gone down this path only to see that it did not provide nearly the financial revenues that were envisioned. Previous foreign stars who came to the US to play soccer here – and hopefully to convince skeptical fans that it was OK to enjoy soccer – included Pele, Johann Cruyff and Giorgio Chinaglia; none of them succeeded in that task.
I think that MLS has taken a different and more realistic view of what it is and what it might become in the near term in the context of US sports. The answer is that it is still a small and growing sports enterprise and that it does not have itself leveraged to the hilt. MLS does not play in cavernous venues that cost and arm and a leg to lease and to operate. MLS has a national TV contract to keep the league financially sound – if not artistically sound by comparison to other televised soccer leagues.
What I find most interesting here is that another of the niche sports that suffers from TV comparison with the way the “big guys” play it – the WNBA – has begun to emulate the MLS playing venue model. The WNBA teams are looking to find alternate sites for their games other than the large and expensive arenas where the men play NBA basketball. The New York Liberty are going to play future home games in Westchester County and not in Madison Square Garden. The folks who run the Liberty have decided that they are not going to fill the Garden even if they try to wallpaper it with free give-away tickets; ergo why try to cover costs in a place as expensive as the Garden when there are much smaller – and much more affordable – venues available for the booking. It makes eminent sense…
As of now, only 4 of the 12 WNBA teams play in “NBA arenas”; when the league started, every team played in an “NBA arena”. The Liberty’s new home seats a maximum of 4500 which is fine given the number of paying customers the Liberty draws. Here is the kicker; the new arena in Westchester County costs only 5% of what it costs to play in Madison Square Garden.
In recent news, and in another sport, you can find yet another team looking to downsize its venue. The MLB Tampa Bay Rays have had difficulty drawing fans to their very large ballpark outside St. Petersburg. The place can seat 55,000 for baseball; the Rays cannot draw 20,000 for anything other than Opening Day or a World Series game. So, the Rays have been looking for a new park for a while.
What now is on the table is a stadium in a downtown neighborhood of Tampa that will seat only 28,000. Given the attendance history of the Rays over the past 15 years, this downsizing makes sense. Lots of folks have opined as to why the venue in St. Petersburg has never worked all that well for fans in the area. I would be lying if I tried to tell you what the correct opinion might be in that mix.
There are no definite decisions regarding this new venue for the Rays; this is all still in the “concept stage” but the mayor of Tampa seems to be pleased by the idea and the design. Now will come the interesting part of the “negotiating: who will pay how much and for what in order to turn the proposed site into an actual stadium. I am sure that the Rays would like the whole thing to be on the city’s dime; I surely hope the city drives a harder bargain than that. You can see a report from the Tampa Bay Times about the design concept for the new stadium and where it might be located and what the projected costs might be at this link.
Finally, here is a comment from Brad Dickson formerly with the Omaha World-Herald regarding the recent summit meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong Un:
“In Singapore Kim Jong Un reportedly ordered his security detail to seize and destroy the phones of bystanders who were taking lots of selfies…OK, this guy isn’t all bad.”
But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………