Earlier today, Prost Amerika Editor Steve Clare posted a great piece about the future of MLS as it ventures into the “post-Beckham” era. Like him or hate him, it’s hard to argue that the “Beckham experiment” wasn’t a success. Attendance is up. TV viewership is up (slightly…more on that later). Combined with the Cascadian expansion and NHL lockout, MLS is in prime position for continued positive growth, while other pro sports leagues look to have steeper hills to climb.
After proclaiming NBC Sports commentator (and former Sounders voice) Arlo White to be the something along the lines of a soundtrack for the advancement of soccer in America (insert obligatory anti-Sounders rant here), Clare uses the second half of his article to say that the role of David Beckham as the unofficial face and ambassador of MLS is likely to be filled by the fans, particularly supporters groups.
If you think about it, supporters groups are a major factor of the MLS experience that helps the league stand out from the American pro sports pack. We’re numerous. We’re fun. We’re loud. We’re diverse. We’re organized. We make clever signs. And, to the delight of big name advertisers and media buyers, we’re young and have disposable income.
Clare further states that supporters groups and the suits at respective teams’ front offices, as well as at MLS headquarters, will need to collaborate on a frequent basis in order to protect this forward momentum. Clare then uses a word that tends to strike fear in the hearts of supporters groups: “compromise.”
While Portland’s front office staff and supporters can talk a big game within the realm of MLS, something tells me that both sides of the negotiation table (front office on one side, 107ist board members on the other) will need to go even further when it comes to compromising in the future. Today’s announcement of a 96% season ticket renewal rate, plus a waiting list of about 6,500, reveals that the Timbers front office will have to go to great lengths to screw this thing up (no, I’m not challenging them to that). It also reveals that Portland sports fans might be gluttons for punishment.
Considering the 2012 season was one of the most emotionally painful sports journeys I can remember, a 96% renewal rate, plus a deep waiting list, does give the front office a bit of negotiating advantage over the TA when it comes to things like game day operations, post-mortem incident reviews, away travel issues, etc. (In summary: “if you don’t like it, there’s someone else behind you waiting to buy your seats.”) However, owner Merritt Paulson has gone on record plenty of times saying that the Timbers Army is a large part of what makes every Timbers match special. I can’t imagine him having the gall to implement major restrictions that would alter this experience.
We’re quite fortunate with what we’ve got here in Portland, likely to the point where most other MLS teams and supporters groups would label us as “spoiled.” And I think I have to agree with that sentiment. When fans line up too early on match days and scratch and claw against line cutters for prime general admission seats, a wristband solution is developed. When food options get slightly repetitive, local food carts are invited into JELD-WEN Field on match days. Don’t care for Budweiser? Why not have one of many local microbrews (let’s just forget about that one-time Spiced IPA thing, ok?). Oh, and so what if our team has spent all season hovering around the bottom of the table…we’re still gonna see camera crews from ESPN and NBC (that’s right…not just NBC Sports, but NB-MF’n-C) at JWF!
In Portland, this is status quo. For most other teams in MLS, these are situations that both fans and front office staff would sell their eternal souls for.
Speaking of TV, this is one area where we could probably use a slight amount of compromise amongst ourselves. We seem to have appointed ourselves to be the “keepers of cool,” especially with regard to “sticking it to the Man” by going out our way to defy any act that might resemble an endorsement of Walt Disney and Comcast (owners of ESPN and NBC, respectively). That’s an admirable stance to take considering you probably already pay them money to watch Timbers away matches on TV, but I digress. God forbid we see a camera boom whip around 10 feet in front of us in the North End and resist the urge to extend 20 middle fingers into the air, or unleash the fury contained within what you perceive to be the most mind-blowing hand-made two-stick ever. Hate to break it to ya’, but Portland’s status of cool-by-default left town once Portlandia season two began production. National TV networks are gonna be at Timbers matches whether we like it or not, so you might as well get used to it, Occupiers.
Granted, the support of national TV networks toward American soccer in recent years has been lackluster at best. Putting a Saturday afternoon marquee match (such as our 9/15 match hosting Seattle) on NBC to compete against Lord-knows-how-many college football games was a terrible idea. The fact that it pulled even a 0.4 rating is amazing. Meanwhile, last weekend’s MLS Cup match drew an also-terrible 0.7 rating. This is actually below the 0.8 rating that the 6/24 Portland-Seattle match drew on ESPN, which also happened the be the third-highest-rated regular season MLS match on cable ever.
While we strive to never kowtow to the demands of the suits representing the front office, MLS, and TV networks, we must recognize that unless the TV numbers improve over the next few years, this current forward momentum could be greatly reduced. If that happens, the sport suffers.
In addition to TV issues, when MLS touts their average attendance figures becoming larger than those of the NHL, threatening hockey’s place as the number four pro sport in America, they usually forget to mention that NHL seasons consist of 82 games, half at home, half on the road. That’s 41 home games for season ticket holders, families of four, local businesses, temporary workers, etc. to attend over about seven months, not counting playoffs. MLS currently remains at a 34-match season (17 home games), with more days of rest between matches over eight months, not counting playoffs.
Plus, hockey’s a bit more of an expensive sport to grow up in (skates, pads, ice rink rental, etc.) and/or follow compared to soccer. It’s a much larger revenue stream to manage, and that’s without corporate logos on players’ chests. I could go into my unmowed backyard on this rainy night and start a pick-up soccer game with my dog right now if I wanted to. There’s far more money to be made (and lost) with hockey in this country. With soccer, if the MLS Players’ Union threatens to strike at the next round of negotiations with team owners, I’d be surprised to see it anywhere near the front page…of the sports section. Yes, soccer is growing in this country, and could become #4 soon, but that just means that soccer is in 4th place. That wouldn’t even qualify for a medal at high school track meets.
While MLS and the American soccer scene are on the right path, it’s still on fragile ground, and even the slightest bump in the road could derail the entire thing. As members of the Timbers Army, arguably the largest and most under-the-microscope supporters group in this country, we must acknowledge that our actions (both positive and negative) will have an impact far beyond our city limits.
A wise man named Uncle Spiderman once said “with great power comes great responsibility.” We didn’t go out of our way to become this phenomenon. We just happened to become it, simply by being our unique weirdo selves. As a result, we must recognize that it’s in our best interest to act as leaders in all aspects of our support.
- Have spirited fun in the North End, but snuff out those whose idea of fun includes language or actions that are sexist, homophobic, racist, etc.
- Volunteer and/or donate to the TA’s charitable causes and other community initiatives like Harper’s Playground, Operation Pitch Invasion, AC Portland, etc.
- Avoid looking foolish in front of anyone holding a camera. Just be yourself…a Timbers supporter. (While you’re at it, don’t get involved with any Nickelback-wannabe bands. Seriously.)
We can’t use the 2012 Timbers season as a measuring stick to compare future awesome seasons against if the league ceases to exist. By acting as leaders, both inside and outside of JWF, this sport has no option but to grow within the United States.
This is an opinion piece and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the 107ist or the TA.