MLS’ Future Is Not In The Suburbs

This past weekend a winless and pathetic DC United attracted more than 18,000 fans to a collapsing and cavernous relic of a stadium on a chili evening in Washington. Yet in Denver, the Colorado Rapids, possessing a respectable record and playing in a shiny and recently built stadium attracted less than 10,000 fans. There is something very wrong with this picture.

The hard fact that MLS must come to realize is that even if you build it (a new soccer-specific stadium) they still may not come. Now there are many contributing factors for these differences in popularity – from cultural elements in these cities, to successful management and marketing, to on the field success, but the fact is that the location of new stadiums really matter. Colorado plays in the middle of nowhere, while DC plays in the city center located on two metro lines. The fundamental lesson that MLS must learn is that its future is not in the burbs but in the cities.

If you look around the league where the crowds are strong they are all teams with stadiums in urban locations – Seattle, New York, Toronto, DC, and Los Angeles. The teams with disappointingly low attendance are almost all due to teams with stadiums in the suburbs.

Not only do suburban based teams do more poorly at the gates than urban ones, but by strategically catering to a suburban clientèle they also fail to develop an intense and passionate fan base that is vital to penetrating local sports culture and ancillary revenues – like jersey sales. By building stadiums in the middle of nowhere, these franchises may have doomed themselves to cultural irrelevance within their respective cities for the next quarter century. A stadium should not be pursued for simply the sake of a new stadium, such short term cost calculus, will hurt long term profitability and viability of franchises – and will as a result hurt the growth of the game.

The Example of Dicks Sporting Goods Park

Before Dicks Sporting Goods Park opened, the Rapids averaged throughout their tenure 14,299 playing at Mile High Stadium(s). At the new soccer specific Dicks Sporting Goods Park, the average has been just 13,593. That means the Rapids averaged more at the more centrally located, yet cavernous football stadium than at a stadium designed for soccer. One can also not attribute this drop in attendance to performance. While Colorado was not very good in 07 and 08, they were quite credible last year, yet regardless, they saw their lowest level of attendance yet.

Why is attendance so poor, despite a brand new stadium? I am not from Denver, but Dicks is very far from much of the population centers – including other suburbs south of the city. The stadium is so far on the outskirts that it actually borders a wildlife preserve! Dicks is not all that far from downtown, about 20 minute drive with no traffic. But there seem to be absolutely no public transit options. The website for Dicks Sporting Goods Park for instance only offers driving directions, because frankly there are no transit options. And while this maybe typical for the U.S., Denver actually has a decent light rail system and has vibrant centrally located neighborhoods. Urban 20 somethings looking for nightlife and entertainment, unlike in Seattle, DC and Toronto, are less likely to make the trek out for a game.

The same problems affecting Colorado, also affect other suburban locations such as Dallas, New England and to a lesser extent Chicago.

Why Suburbs Fail

For most of the last decade the major emphasis of the league has been to push franchises to get there own stadiums. The reasons behind this make a lot of sense. Soccer-specific stadiums demonstrate the league’s permanence and owning a stadium gives each franchise a significant monetary boost, since stadium ownership yields significant revenue in advertising, naming rights, and other royalties. As a result it is likely that Dallas made more money in their home opener that attracted 10,000 less fans than DC, which has to pay rent. Despite the attendance woes of certain clubs, owning your own stadium remains crucial to an MLS franchise’s long term viability.
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Terrorism hysteria in full force after Togo attack but South Africa can’t be defensive

World Cup Organizing Committee head Danny Jordaan loses his cool

The attack on the Togo national team bus on Friday that killed three people during the African Cup of Nations in Angola was a serious incident. African soccer and security officials should investigate it fully to determine what led to the attack and how these types of incidents can be prevented in the future. This one attack in Angola has caused some to foolishly question whether the World Cup should go ahead in South Africa this summer. That kind of hysteria is exactly what terrorists are trying to provoke, as our own over-reactions often do more damage than the terrorists could inflict themselves. South African officials are rightfully indignant, but their response needs to be confident and reassuring rather than defensive and complacent.

The attack on the Togo team which killed the bus driver, assistant coach, and spokesperson as well as injuring nine others took place in the Angolan region of Cabinda, separated from rest of Angola by a strip of the Republic of Congo that reaches the Atlantic coast. Insurgents in the oil rich province have been fighting for the region’s independence and claimed responsibility for the machine gun attack on Friday that occurred just after the bus crossed into Cabinda. Angola was mired in decades of civil war than ended in 2002 and the attack and resulting withdrawal of the Togo team was a severe blow to the government that had hoped the African Cup would showcase a country emerging from violence. Continue reading

Talk about Evil: Kim Jung Il Censors World Cup Coverage

I ran across this article during my day job. The Telegraph is reporting that the Kim Jung Ill’s regime will not broadcast North Korea’s World Cup games and will heavily edit its content before showing them and will only show highlights of wins.

The Supreme Leader has ordered state-run television not to broadcast live games, and to only screen highlights of North Korea’s victories. The ruling means that 99 per cent of the country’s 29 million population will not be able to find out who wins the competition unless the 350-1, outsiders win it.

Games between other nations will be banned from the airwaves, while any highlights of North Korea’s matches will be heavily edited to ensure that they look like the better team.
All advertising in the stadiums will also be blurred out – along with opposition fans, The Sun newspaper reported.

Mike Breen, author of highly-respected book Kim Jong-il: North Korea’s Dear Leader, said: “Like everything else there, the regime will have complete control over the World Cup.

I guess the North Koreans aren’t going to see much at all because they aren’t going to be winning anything.

Cry for the Irish, But Blush for the Russians

While most of the attention from the European playoffs has been devoted to the Irish, the biggest shock of the playoffs – Slovenia’s win over Russia – has been largely overlooked. The Russians were playing some great football under Gus Hiddink. They had built off their fantastic European championship performance in 2008 and lost just twice, both against Germany in qualification. The Russians were the clear favorites to go through and perhaps to make some noise in the World Cup. But instead of being humble and cautious heading into the playoff the Russians were cocky.

Before the first playoff game against Slovenia the Russian team unveiled their new 2010 jerseys. While the phrase “world cup jersey” was probably not used in the unveiling, that was clearly the implication. To drive the point home further, this wasn’t simply a new jersey, but was a completely new rebranding of the Russian team. The new home jerseys were dark red and harked back to the imperial Russian might of the Soviet era. And in a reflection of the mix of politics and sport, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev made the trip to Slovenia to watch the game. The hubris of the Russians to change jerseys to ones reminiscent of the Soviet era, prior to a World Cup playoff against a country that was under the thumb of Soviet imperialism (okay Slovenia wasn’t a country then and Yugoslavia had a degree of independence) is remarkable. It also makes the defeat all the more embarrassing.
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Egypt v Algeria: An eye for a… World Cup berth

You know there is a problem when a match is played in Sudan to avoid violence. But that’s what will happen Wednesday when Egypt face Algeria in a playoff for the last African berth to the first World Cup played on African soil. These two neighboring North African nations have a deep, and at times violent, rivalry on and off the soccer field. The last time these two countries squared off with a World Cup Finals place on the line, it ended with an unlikely Egyptian victory and melee that cost the team doctor an eye. Everyone is hoping that the riots that preceded Saturday’s group stage finale in Cairo can be avoided and the focus can return to the pitch, because it should be a cracking game.

While most Americans associate soccer violence with mindless hooligans, it’s more often based in international and domestic politics than simple anti-social behavior. Soccer is a genuinely global game and unique among sports in that it often mixes athletic competition and international relations. The El Salvador-Honduras Soccer War (a real war between the two nations fought after violence during a World Cup qualifying match in 1969) gets the most attention, but Egypt and Algeria have had their share of intense soccer-political rivalry. Continue reading

Honduran political crisis heats up in advance of US WC qualifier

Honduran demonstrators; photo by egmb

Honduran demonstrators; photo by egmb

National and international politics impact soccer far more than most Americans appreciate. Whether it’s the Soccer War (seriously, a real war) fought between Honduras and El Salvador after rioting during a 1969 World Cup qualifying match, or “more than a club” FC Barcelona serving as a proxy for Catalan nationalism and resistance against Franco-supported Real Madrid, soccer and politics are often linked. American awareness may be about to change, however, as the U.S. team is gearing up to go to Honduras for a critical World Cup qualifier in the midst of a massive political crisis that pits the anti-American elected president against the de facto government that ousted him in a summer coup.

Honduran President Manuel Zelaya came to office as a conservative rancher and businessman turned politician. But over the course of his term in office Zelaya veered sharply left, embraced Hugo Chavez-style populism, and pushed constitutional changes to allow him to serve an additional term as president. Zelaya is a pretty unsavory character who has defied repeated legal orders to stop his proposed referendum on constitutional changes—a move straight out of the Chavez playbook right down to having the ballots printed in Venezuela—but nothing justifies his seizure by the military and exile. That’s a coup. Continue reading