How Baseball Indirectly Holds Back American Soccer

There’s only so much time, space and money for sports and America’s National Pastime takes more than its fair share, especially from Soccer
by Mike Firpo   |   Friday, May 04, 2012

Baseball holding back American Soccer

There is a maximum weight capacity for every elevator. For good reason too, because at some point it simply becomes dangerous for everyone, no matter when they boarded. So when it’s just too full or the passengers are too anxious to move on, common courtesy and logic dictates that Johnny Come Lately gets a polite nod, a half-hearted effort at holding the door and in return gives an uncomfortable “oh … okay ... next one” and all modern tension is forgotten as the elevator moves along safely and typically more comfortably with one less passenger.

Same goes for sports in America. Simply put, if you have too many of them in one city, they all suffer a bit. They can survive generally, but it is hard, if not impossible, for all of them to thrive. There is only so much time, space and resources and the runt or late-comer in the litter, typically is the one with the most stunted potential because of it.

We’ve all heard Commissioners, GMs and sports media say countless times that there is room enough for all sports, that there is little rivalry between the top professional leagues and all of the rest of the carefully worded ways in which the sports and teams do their best to co-mingle and pretend not to be competitors with each other.

I don’t buy it. Never did. These statements come from large groups of ultra-competitors and their sports indirectly compete with each other in cities and throughout the nation for revenue, fans, TV ratings, sponsors, popularity and future American sporting market share. It’s like putting 4 predators at the top of their respective food-chains together and seeing what happens – man that would be great TV, oh wait that’s been done. The Lion, Bear, Alligator & Shark all have little time for each other, but they play nice so one gets hurt – directly or overtly. It’s like the MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) Theory of politics. Mighty competitors tend not to attack each other openly, because everyone loses or enough where it’s a deterrent to provocation.

Enter soccer, and more currently MLS, to the pack of sporting competitors looking for food and to survive against a highly competitive and entrenched sporting landscape populated by four huge behemoth team sport leagues in the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL. And that’s not even mentioning the many other sporting and entertainment options available like college sports, NASCAR, Golf, Tennis, MMA and so on.

The historically weaker sport of soccer, sure it’s been around a bit on North American shores but it’s struggled to survive on emotional scraps, industrious immigrants and high hopes for a brighter future for most of those years. Amongst the four predators that are the bigger leagues, MLS is a teenage elephant. Wise for its youth, a good memory of past failures, rightfully cautious and less aggressive amongst the others and its youth makes it less a competitor in the eyes of its peers than a novelty. Though, like an elephant, MLS has the potential to be bigger than all of them.

But it’s become my opinion over time that America’s “National Pastime” of baseball and its top league, Major League Baseball, holds back the potential of the world’s most popular game of soccer and its main league, MLS, from gaining a stronger national foothold.

To be clear, baseball is not the enemy of soccer. However it would be naive to overlook that some natural rivals aren’t more damaging to one’s self interest than others.

Though the NFL is unquestionably the strongest American sport today, I say that wistful baseball and MLB indirectly help hold down a teenage MLS and American soccer more and here are the reasons why:

HISTORY

With industrialization came the building of modern cities and infrastructure. With that came the founding and the entrenchment of not just teams but sports in certain cities, regions and nations. There are in fact only a handful of hyper-splintered multisport nations like the USA, Canada and Australia and even at that there are modern leagues (NFL, NHL and AFL respectively) that rule their borders to differing degrees over their domestic sporting rivals.

Northeastern cities formed the backbones for most American sports and maybe this is most true for Boston and New York with baseball.

Growing up a kid from a multi-generational Italian-American section of Brooklyn, we didn’t play baseball, we LIVED baseball. When you see kids in Buenos Aires playing soccer all day and night, Canadian kids with hockey or cricket-crazed Indians – it’s the same. We played all forms of the game: stickball against a building, softball in the schoolyard, wiffleball on the streets, hardball in the parks, it never ended, well maybe until balls were “roofed”, scuffles broke-out, too many cars double-parked or enough Moms called for us to come and eat dinner. And that’s why we were so good at it. Just as Brazilians might play indoor futsal, beach volley and also street and field versions of their beloved futebol and not-so-coincidentally dominate soccer globally.

Had the rest of my youth not been spent in Manhattan and later around other parts of NYC, I might have thought that baseball was the only sport in the nation … maybe the universe. Thankfully that changed, otherwise this article doesn’t exist and my life would have been less bright devoid of soccer.

But no matter how futilely I tried to avoid other American sports in the last two decades of my adulthood and focus solely on baseball, all I had to do was click the “F” social media icon to be reminded where my hometown’s sporting heart lies. Put it this way, if the Yankees were about to win or just won something of note – my Facebook account is lit up with more pinstripes, curses and haughty boasts than Al Capone’s vault.

It’s not a surprise that for New York baseball has been king for a while. Once the Jewish, Irish, Italian and later Puerto Rican and Dominican local sub-communities took it as their own and had local and heritage-based heroes to idolize on their rosters it was a done deal, they were sold on baseball for generations. Yes some of the other sports and local teams get some time in the sun during times of triumph and you’ll see a bit of bandwagoning during a Giants/Jets playoff-run, hear some hockey water-cooler talk and try to live thru trendy Linsanity hype and such, but it really still is baseball and only baseball that moves The Big Apple, more than anything.

But nationwide, why is baseball a threat to soccer? It seems innocuous enough.

Only so much TIME

There are only so many things a modern person can do in a day. Forget about the longer workdays, the chores, the goals you had, the incessant bombardment of information from social media, the calls, the emails, the texts, the internet, the gadgets, the TV … we have literally piled so much on top of ourselves we have no time for us anymore. Entertainment and especially sports and recreation in American culture sadly takes a hit.

The same can be said worldwide too. That’s why you see black and white photos of packed stadiums with gigantic 100,000 nearly identical hats from bygone eras. Seeing sports played live was THE recreational activity of choice for a long time. Nowadays it is one of many options we all have, and that also includes sitting passively at home watching the game ‘live’ on the boob tube, YouTube or on one of a myriad of gadgets from our personal tech arsenals.

Baseball in America takes up a LOT of time and sporting bandwidth. Each of the 30 MLB teams will play 162 games this season. That is unless they get to the postseason and a heap more of evolved cricket is added to an already hefty load for players, broadcasters and fans to bare.

The span of the pro baseball season is also quite long. The 2012 MLB season began on March 28th and is due to end November 1st.

American Sports Annual League Span

Not only is that a lot of time and games for baseball to play, it directly overlaps the MLS season, more so than any of the other big 5 (still love saying that, thank you Sounders!) team sports. MLB overlaps with MLS for roughly 219 days of the year. That is more than the NBA and NFL combined.

MLS’s season was elongated this year after adding the 19th expansion team to the mix. That brought the start of the season to March 10th and pushed MLS Cup back to December 1st, a month after the last baseball match. That basically guarantees clearer skies for MLS’s Playoffs with baseball having crowned its “world champs” before the MLS teams take up November trying to win the cup.

But it’s the regular season, with the bulk of American sports’ matches occur, that is the issue. MLS only has about two weeks baseball-free all season. With nearly daily games (amazingly they can play double-headers) due to the lower physical demands of the sport of baseball compared to other team sports, especially soccer, it makes for a mighty strong competitor pulling local (if there is a team) and national media attention and American fans’ now very limited leisure time.

With the chaotic unbalanced schedule that MLS is now forced to deal with until they get back to an even number of teams when they expand into their 20th market, the increase of less popular and lower drawing midweek/Wednesday matches have increased. This only increases the chances of MLS vs MLB gameday clashes from mostly dueling on Saturday and Sunday game days.

The fact of the matter is the bulk and heart of the regular season of MLS and MLB make them inexplicable opponents. Even if they truly don’t want to be, think they aren't or say it publicly – pro baseball and pro soccer in the United States are both the Boys of Summer with competing lemonade stands.

SPACE & MONEY are Finite

American sports complexes still give baseball a great deal of space versus soccer and the other rectangular sports

Take a flight almost anywhere in the USA and upon takeoff or landing and if you care to see, you can get a very broad, yet clear picture of which youth sports dominate territorially. Come out of Newark and you might see baseball diamonds up the wazoo, fly out of most places in Texas and football grids stretch as far as you can see. Harder to tell for indoor sports, but a quick trip on land thru most American urban landscapes and you’re bound to see basketball courts squeezed into the precious bits of real estate, just as you would see makeshift backboards in most of suburbia USA.

Again, just like time, space is finite, especially with a bulging population of 300 million and an uncontainable urban sprawl that shows very little signs of slowing, especially once the economy and construction industry gets back into full gear.

Every park, field, court, gymnasium and patch of green becomes an unintended part of the overall competition for recreation and places to play and compete in sports. The tricky part in America is that we have one of the major outdoor sports that just doesn’t jive with the rest. That’s baseball.

American sports complexes still give baseball a great deal of space versus soccer and the other rectangular sports

Gridiron football, lacrosse, rugby and soccer can for the most part use the same fields. It’s not ideal in certain cases when field markings are fading, or worse, overlap but it is certainly a work-able situation. The rectangular American sports play well enough together that it can almost be deemed harmonic. Their shared oblong fields and space, make it easier for the budgets and planning of Parks & Recreation boards, municipalities and youth sports teams and leagues.

Even amateur and professional indoor gymnasiums and arenas built mostly for basketball and hockey can be used for indoor soccer and futsal as well.

But there is one American sport that, by no fault of its own, does not fit too well in a sports complex strewn with quadrangular markings. The diamonds of baseball break the mostly uniform molds and worst of all it can’t be shared very well with the other sports.

Have you ever tried to play soccer with a pitcher’s mound near the penalty box or tried to pass the ball deftly from the infield dirt to outfield grass of a mixed-use baseball-rectangular sports field? Not fun. Not safe. Not ideal. If you grow up in a baseball town, or a city that has little budget, foresight or space – you may have experienced that. Playing high school soccer in Manhattan we got to play on Upper East Side turf, dirt, softball fields in Central Park, muddy baseball/soccer fields of the then underdeveloped Randall’s Island and sometimes even worse. It was bad and I feel for kids that have to play in that subpar situation and not experience soccer-only or at least mostly rectangular fields.

But it is in professional sports that we see the competition for space maybe more profoundly and plainly.

In a recent interview with Ed Serrano the President of the Miami Ultras supporters group in South Florida he was asked how hard it might be for Miami to build a Soccer Specific Stadium for a future expansion team there. His answer inadvertently touched on the issue of baseball and soccer competing for space at the pro level:

“Miami’s going to be pretty difficult because they’ve already built that baseball stadium. Will they want the team here? Of course they would, but it would be very difficult for them to push anything through the county and the city – especially after they built that huge baseball field.”

For a former baseball fan, turned obsessed soccer lover it always hurts to see pro soccer in America, especially MLS and its clubs, squeezed out of contention for funds, political will or space by what is deemed the most patriotically American of all domestic sports.

MLB's Washington Nationals even messed with the DC United clock at RFK

Perhaps there is no greater issue that hurts the soccer-loving souls of long-standing neutral and DC area MLS fans than what its most successful club, DC United, has been forced to deal with. For years the black-and-red faithful bounced the stands of RFK Stadium up and down to the beat of, literally, their own drummer. But in comes Major League Baseball with the ownerless Washington Nationals and not only does DC United get treated like a bastard son in Game of Thrones with a diamond deforming setup, infield dead areas on the pitch for MLS games and a re-branded Nationals clock (that was painful), but it got worse than just the symbolism of sporting nepotism. The District gave MLB and the Nationals not only a great location along the Anacostia River, but one of the sweetest stadium deals in modern sports history.

When they moved to their new ballpark, the Nationals might as well have left some cab fare and a Dear John letter on the top of the dresser. The most decorated MLS team – and the second most decorated team in the District behind the Redskins – at the prom had just been dumped by a nameless freshman from a good family. Oh the indignity.

The jilted United still have not recovered from that blow and the now calamitous situation of half-baked political promises in DC and the surrounding municipalities. This, as their fanbase, management, owners and, increasingly, MLS headquarters has little patience for remaining at the decrepit confines of RFK, possibly seeing the positive television and in-stadium numbers in nearby Baltimore as a sad, but longshot alternative to being treated as second class sporting citizens in a city they earned much glory for.

Granted the Nationals and MLB might not have tried to disrespect and take anything from DC United and MLS specifically. But, the presence of baseball and the interminable attachment to its nostalgia by older generations of Americans that are currently in positions of power in business, media and politics – inadvertently hurts the sport of soccer, the new guys on the sports block.

For some, soccer is up there with religion. Yes, the afterlife may seem a bit bleaker than the traditional offerings but the chance to worship at a colorful and boisterous local cathedral most weekends a year is the highlight of their corporeal existence. To not have a temple of their own due to a sport that is near impossible to co-habitate with or worse be tenants to the whims of an non-existent club or un-sympathetic league is simply intolerable and unacceptable at this point.

Like Serrano said of Miami, these cities and towns are less likely to pony up and help propagate an MLS stadium after they give obscene (and largely unreturnable) amounts of public funds and might to baseball stadiums.

Now the NFL on the other hand can house MLS teams. It’s not ideal, but it was NFL and college football stadiums in America that incubated the original founding clubs of the league. Though they were cavernous, mis-lined and did not help the atmosphere of early MLS, they gave them homes in mainly urban areas giving many in key demographics the ability to get to games and become lifelong fans of the sport of soccer and MLS locally.

The NY Yankees spring training Steinbrenner Field in Florida was the temporary home of the NASL's Tampa Bay Rowdies

In Seattle, there may never have been such a perfect home for the NFL Seahawks if it not for the support of soccer and citizens urging that the stadium be made with soccer dimensions for a future MLS expansion team and FIFA tournaments. New England’s situation is a bit different, but until the Revolution’s owners get them nearer Boston, Gillette Stadium will suffice perhaps better than sharing Fenway with the Red Sox if the Kraft’s ever decided to sell to their owners, who coincidentally now own Liverpool FC in England.

The NFL and MLS ownership are not only harmonious due to a common ancestry of rectangular fields, but shared-ventures. The Hunt family owns the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs and the Columbus Crew & FC Dallas. AEG, the owners of the LA Galaxy, still seems to have a leg-up on other local suitors for the future cash-cow LA NFL franchise. And even this week Minnesota politicians are debating giving their gridiron Vikings a modern stadium that the league is incessant on.

The connection to soccer? The owners already have an exclusive 5-year window deal with the league in order to negotiate a future twin-city MLS club to help fill the dates of their massive venue and be a part of the future of American sport. Wise move for MLS and the Vikings. The venue would be too large for the soccer market and MLS club, but if it eventually led to them getting a more boutique SSS that packaged the then entrenched club in, well then so be it.

You can also look at the upcoming strategy and battle for MLS headquarters and league owners for prime real estate in the New York City area and face the fact that yes football got its stadiums for bosom ‘roomies’ Giants and Jets, but those were funded by/with the nearby state of New Jersey. But New York under two baseball-loving Mayors just got done helping the New York Yankees and New York Mets obtain state of the art new digs next door to their old ones. Add to that a still queasy economy and it is not an ideal environment for MLS to build a new ballpark in Manhattan, Queens or otherwise. It is not impossible under the Cosmos and MLS-aware Mayor Michael Bloomberg, but it might not look ideal to locals who may be out of work, underemployed or stadiumed out.

Ironically in neighboring Canada, it’s the failure of professional baseball in Montreal that gives a vacuum-like boost to the expansion Impact who gets much more favorable treatment from an underutilized Olympic Stadium. Montreal will use the Big O until their small blue soccer specific beauty is finished being upgraded within its shadow.

If you remember enough high school French, ask the local Quebec fans in a few months which stadium they prefer to watch MLS matches in: the antiquated diamond and turf of the O or the airy, yet intimate azure stronghold of Stade Saputo. I think we can safely predict their preference for boutique over bases.

And although the made for baseball Olympic Stadium is still pleasant architecturally from the outside, it now stands as a relic to a bygone era of baseball nostalgia. A curved concrete middle-finger from an old sport to the new whipper-snapper on the rise playing on its lawn, that it sees as a threat to its role as the national pastime of summer.

Maybe it is baseball that needs to worry more than soccer about how they can coexist in this highly competitive sporting landscape. Because the coming trends and tastes of the future America is already upon us if we like it or not. And that horizon finally looks bright indeed for soccer and MLS, no matter if the old grumpy man on the porch rocking chair wants to admit or not, there is a new kid in town.

Mike FIRPO

Nationality:
USA
College:
Binghamton Univ.
Club Domestic:
NY Cosmos, RSL
Club Foreign:
Palermo, Napoli, FCB
Creator of Soccer Newsday. President of World Football Travel. Founder of NY Cosmos Campaign. Manager of North American Soccer Industry group on LinkedIn. Helped a few fans see the global game. Proposed on-field at MLS Cup 04. Longtime devotee of Soccer.
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