MLS Fumbles by Allowing Football Lines in Playoffs

With higher TV ratings the big goal, the last thing MLS needs is football lines scarring its big matches, no matter the reasons
by Mike Firpo   |   Monday, November 04, 2013

Fox Soccer Channel , FSC -- Mike Firpo/Soccer Newsday

MLS did it again. North American sports did it to us again.

You’d have thought most of us lifers, fully-committed, supporters and gluttons for punishment would have known by now. Just when things look rosy, just when the hype machine for a tight regular season race and potentially great playoffs matchups are eminent … just then … again … we have to be reminded of our place in the North American sports landscape. Though we are at the table, we are still the teenager. Our league, our sport and our love for both is just not enough.

Thankfully it wasn’t a Little League World Series match marginalizing one of our telecasts, or a multi-sport broadcaster trying to get some hits by posing as a close-minded anti-soccer xenophobe.

It usually is their fault. But here we go in 2013, and in what looks to be a great MLS Playoffs with interesting team pairings, conference races and good coaching matchups with all of the MLS' battle-tested elder and best promising younger coaches. The table was set for drama, for entertainment, for selling of the brand to more owners, fans and even to non-believers.

But then New England versus Sporting KC happened.

No, the Revolution didn’t have the biggest crowd, but it wasn’t terrible for them at 15,000. That wasn’t the issue. Nor was it apathetic support either – they amazingly still have enough loyal and passionate fans thru these testing Kraft ownership and improper facility years. Mind you the tarps still take getting used to in all MLS venues, especially when they decided oddly to allow upper tier fans to sit in unconcentrated seats, yet had blue tarping below them and the majority of one end. All of that though, manageable for hardcore and newbie fans alike.

This time though, it was the sport who took our name improperly in this part of the world. American gridiron football was back, yet again, to spoil the soccer afterparty. And it was … well … pictures speak louder than words. And realize when looking at those three pictures to the left that in the top match pictured in New England, the bottom yellow line is not even the sideline.

Obviously fans and media knew this was coming. Well, most did. But it is still a shock and a bit of a splash of cold water - or more like a hurricane raining on your parade of fandom - when it happens.

Billed pre-game by MLS as “Two of the hottest squads in MLS square off” – you’d be hard-pressed to feel like any form of entertaining soccer is going to occur on anything resembling that 90% NFL-decorated field.

And within moments the Twitter and social media world that cared about the teams, game and league generally were abuzz with mostly negative things to say about the pathetic look of the NFL markings for the New England Patrio ... Revolution home game.

Here are a few gems:

It isn’t MLS’ fault entirely. I’d gander watching Barcelona under Pep Guardiola in its prime on something similar would be less than appealing as well.

To make matters worse, the little-brother care the Patriots stadium staff took to make the soccer lines (for a playoff!) a faint yellow, was head scratching and eye-straining. You could barely see the ball, the touch lines, the box, the end lines. You could of course see the Patriots logo, the Gillette Stadium logo, obnoxiously painted endzones and the confusing also yellow-painted NFL staff area that could fit a Monday morning DMV waiting room.

But this was an even bigger problem than one match because it wasn’t just at the home of the owner-neglected Revolution. Three of the four Western Conference Semifinals this weekend had football lines on the fields, to varying and oddly diminishing degrees it went:

New England: Throwback Thursday? Nice to see the Patriots Under 200s playing kickball. Where the hell are the sidelines?
Seattle: Urgh, another one? Well, at least I’m joined by 40,000 people singling merrily and overlooking this sporting abomination.
Houston: Huh?!? Didn’t they just build this? And don’t they own this? Why in the world are there even faded lines … oh right, Texas.
Los Angeles: Finally no football lines. Duh, this is the NFL dead-zone.

Are football-scarred MLS fields the worst thing in the world?

No, of course not. Famine, Chinese internet, Lance Armstrong’s mirror and Miley Cyrus’ tongue beat that soundly.

But it does make watching the league, even for huge and potentially exciting games like the playoffs, akin to inviting a stripper to career day at the elementary school. It just doesn’t look right. Even if you want it to work, try to make it work, overlook the obvious, it just doesn’t feel right.

Yes, I know all the familiar reasons will be tossed around. It’s the NFL club’s stadium. It’s the NFL owner’s teams. It’s not their stadium. The rich NFL has a game, and even a regular season one trumps an MLS Playoff game any day. We have to co-exist. It is sporting reality. We aren’t rich enough. Our ratings aren’t strong enough.

All I hear with those is excuses, not answers. Not fixes. Not common sense. Not improvement. Rather stagnation and, in some cases, regression is being allowed to occur but being passed off as acceptable.

Question: Were those playoff seats in New England, Seattle or even Houston discounted? Were they partially directly subsidized by the football teams who scarred the field the soccer fans paid to see playoff soccer on?

Doubtful.

How can MLS ever try to get to its main (and most needed) goal of higher TV ratings when the entire season is full of mostly meaningless games and focused towards reaching the Playoffs – and then those games are allowed to look like a bad 2002 MetroStars at Giants Stadium re-run?

Fox Soccer Channel , FSC -- Mike Firpo/Soccer Newsday

Pictured to the left was this weekend's field at Arsenal versus Liverpool in London. A big game for sure, but it came with a beautiful field to display it properly, to match the occassion and complement the beauty and dynamism of the sport at-hand.

MLS of course cannot yet compete for players with long-established top European or wealthier world leagues - but can't we honestly say regarding facilities we can meet their standards, if not better them?

It's hard to deny, since it has already happened. 

Sporting Kansas City did it, and their resulting attendance, atmosphere and new-found popular support cannot be an accident. It's not like they are winning everything in sight. They are though, packaging their team's matches and the sport, as it should be, as if it is relevant and a sporting peer to its rivals.

Can a league indirectly competing with the pristine EPL, NFL and NBA truly expect to garner "fan share" when they present themselves and their field of play as the backdrop to an opening act?

How can we keep telling the general public we are the sport of the future, yet still allow our league, clubs and important games to look like they’re from the screechy AOL dialup or blissful pre-steroid baseball days?

Imagine you told your non-soccer friends about that game. Now imagine their faces when they tuned in and saw that packaging of a North American sport playoff match. Knowing full-well even if they aren’t fans, they are used to a very high level of visual refinement and sport specificity for the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL.

It would be a moment that would erase any of their soccer-is-blossoming memories of Portland tifos, Seattle singing, Beckham commercials, USMNT YouTube virality, Alex Morgan notoriety … all of it gets submerged under the endzones and scars of the grid iron game. The glories of our sport in North America, literally and figureitvely are allowed to be painted over by football.

Think the NFL would let a game be televised with distinct MLS lines?

No. Never. Ever.

Why can’t MLS start holding itself to that standard? Even with less clout, less fans, lower ratings and far less cash reserves. So? It’s not like the owners are much different, or even identical in some cases.

The league needs to show its strengths and to show itself, always and only, to the public with its more photogenic side.

Similar to how the NFL does with attendance and TV. I propose a new rule, hopefully not over-looked for a decade and begrudgingly heeded in two. It goes like this:

If a local MLS club for regular and post-season games cannot guarantee or configure their field to proper soccer markings devoid of any noticeable youth/college/NFL gridiron football markings – that home club must not be allowed to have that match shown on national television.

Is it a bit harsh for some clubs like Seattle and New England who share stadiums? Yes. But I’d also gander that the situation would get fixed a bit sooner, too. Well, at least in Seattle where owner Adrian Hanauer was frustrated by the situation this weekend but seemed unable to fix it this year and hopes it will not be an issue in the future.

For me, the only way to ensure that doesn’t happen is to have specific and clear league-wide rules and parameters that just don’t even allow it.

Don't get me wrong, I love this league very much and have pushed it to my personal spheres since before it kicked a ball. I've spent thousands of hours and dollars trying to get more people interested and to see its potential and positive milestones. But when there are negative fan reactions and situations like this and others league-wide (Chivas USA attendance erosion, TFC instability & fan apathy, Revs ownership SSS glacial progress and TV rating stagnation), it needs to become a national public discussion. After which, solutions by MLS' billionaire owners and their staffs that are paid millions to run the clubs and league, may just be hastened to positive action from it.

How many things must fans be made to endure, before what is being offered is frankly unendurable?

Mike FIRPO

Nationality:
USA
College:
Binghamton Univ.
Club Domestic:
NY Cosmos, NYCFC & RSL
Club Foreign:
Palermo, Napoli & FC Barcelona
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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