MLS Postseason Can Be Improved with Less Games and More Passion

The 2013 MLS season was good until the last dance, fewer games and more away fans can increase post-season passion and TV ratings
by Mike Firpo   |   Tuesday, December 03, 2013

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

After a very competitive 2013 regular season that saw most of the league within points of the Supporters’ Shield – MLS simply stepped on its own feet and bumbled the last bit of the dance.

The league’s playoffs started with numerous games in fewer days (10 games in 8 days).  In about a week, we got down to the last 4 teams. Those 2 teams though will end up finding 1 champion on Dec. 7, after nearly a month of games and breaks meant to give the US Men’s National Team coach time to go-ahead and not call up the players involved in those games.

In other words, it didn’t need to happen.

Several better communicators than I have already written, podcasted and filled up your eyes and ears with these problems. But you’d likely have to live in Utah or have an RSL buddy to probably know the issues that are apparently not national soccer media worthy of #TicketGate. Let me explain what went down basically before we get to the good stuff:

Sporting KC and Real Salt Lake qualified for MLS Cup a week ago. SKC hosts MLS Cup by way of having the better regular season record. That is the end of the good part.

Then, a Ticketmaster code intended for SKC season ticket holders was somehow publicly released and used by 500 or more RSL fans to buy tickets to the final in a few states to the right. Many of these fans promptly went on to buy hotel rooms and flights, which of course are often cheaper booked earlier than later, and often not refundable.

Not long after, the RSL front office and Ticketmaster let purchasing fans know that the code was not meant for them and they would be cancelled with their money returned in about a week or so (coincidentally too late for some to recoup their travel money in time).

For me, it seemed like an honest mistake but one that caused unnecessary panic, anger and confusion among fans, especially of RSL. Many felt that either they weren’t going to get a seat or would not be able to go later. Credit should go to the RSL staff, who did their best to quell the uproar and ease concerns since little information was released by SKC or MLS, at least publicly. In much of the jury in that court of opinion, SKC was doing this to protect its season ticket holders and make sure their fanbase was maximized and RSL’s was minimized. Totally understandable from their point of view, it was their party after-all and they earned it by the new league rules that the higher of the two MLS Cup finalists does the hosting. Their red cups – they get to hand them out sort of thing.

The problem is this is a league final and it at least appeared like the situation needed a mediator and maybe even some thinking out-of-the-box done in quick time. This is what it got from MLS. Public knowledge that the visiting finalist team gets 1,000 tickets and they have to figure out who to give them to. Problem was RSL seemed to have already given a few of those away already.

Real Salt Lake tried to help ease the situation by releasing on short-notice the following day – 200 tickets to their season ticket holders. From the RSL network who I follow on Twitter, only 2 came out that they had gotten some and even some saying they got in and were denied before the scheduled time. More issues just adding to a bad situation.

After that, most interested RSL fans were still without tickets but full of angst. This led to RSL stating that next Tuesday (Dec. 3) they would be given another window after SKC’s last public window on Monday. Only to find out Monday that SKC said this wasn’t going to happen. It gets better: Late Monday night RSL’s newsletter to season ticket holders mentioned there would be a sale at 10 a.m. on Tuesday. So as of this writing there are still some tickets to be found for RSL fans for Saturday, though we are now in costly hotel/airfare windows and many fans have already given up on this (mis)adventure.

It’s a shame it came to that. MLS Cup is a league-wide final for all. It’s the crowing event of a league season and should be as much for SKC as it is for RSL. Sporting-wise, Sporting should get to host. I firmly believe in that (and you’ll see below), but I don’t think that the league should give so much power to that host and potential for mishap towards the visitors.

It’s clear that the switch from neutral host MLS Cups will have its learning curve, but many of these ticketing issues that led to RSL fans losing faith in their league and club (though underserved because they had little power), several calling MLS amateur or “Bush League” with the handling of the situation, were avoidable.

You can’t say your fans are first at a league or club level and allow them to be put after “staff, players and partners (sponsors)” in a league statement, and in action. It’s important to remember those allocations are also after MLS gets their share of tickets for much of the same minus players plus other owners/clubs.

Like anything in life, whenever a pie is envied, everyone watches how it is cut, especially when it comes to their piece.

MLS is now a victim of its own success, especially after the sensible decision to increase the passion on display on TV and the ticket demand in multiples with locally hosted MLS Cups. But this change needed better empathy and thought-out logistics for visiting teams, their fans and pan-continental travel realities.

The English FA Cup Final, UEFA Champions League Final, FIFA World Cup Final and the NFL’s Super Bowl – you know where all of them are to be hosted months and years ahead of time. They are one-off finals, it gives media and some neutral fans time to prepare. MLS is giving two weeks to the hosts and visitors as it now stands. That is certainly enough time to sell out the stadium locally with club season ticket holders, MLS allowance and even the away fans. But those away fans need to be sold to quickly. They need to buy their hotels/airfare fast. As it stands, many are only going to today/Tuesday before the match Saturday to get their seats and book costlier flights and hotels.

North America is not like the train-friendly Europe or the capital city-focused Latin America. MLS Cup finals will likely continue to have East/West finalists going forward and that means long distance coastal travel in winter months not driver-friendly excursions down the highway in May.

In this second non-neutral MLS Cup – the first being last year's hosted by the Los Angeles Galaxy – there were only 1,000 tickets to go around the deserving RSL away fanbase, with many thousand “members” now in Utah, and only 2 weeks for them to arrange travel/work/family/life to attend. Some may say it is too idealistic but maybe, at least in this sticky situation, both club and league sponsors/staff/partners/MLS allowance could’ve been cut to make way for the RSL faithful who paint the flags, wave the poles, bleed for their club and sing their songs the loudest. Most of the fans going to travel to see their team in an away MLS Cup game are those fans. They are not the masses unless you are in Portland or Seattle; they are the special minority who anchor the marketing of the league and clubs. They need to be put before all else, especially in this sport, where supporter-culture, fan ownership and atmosphere make it unique among peers and ultimately the game of the people and the planet.

MLS wants to be that league, but it has to put fans first in deed as much as word, as much as possible and as publicly as possible.

I’ve been to a few MLS Cups and have never remembered so many ticketing issues and certainly not this late in the game. All sports have occasional final game hiccups, it’s a big highly sought after game afterall. But the league needs to learn from this season and these bad situations and fix the odd playoffs and their resulting MLS Cup ticketing allocation issues, quickly.

As always I try to give a few ideas on how we can fix the situation I just whined about.

Supporters’ Shield Winners Host MLS Cup

I say let the Supporters’ Shield winners host the MLS Cup and give real value to the marathon-like regular season. Yes, that means they basically have a bye through the playoffs. They played lots of games well and unless they win MLS Cup, too, history will likely forget them – they above all deserve to host. Yes, it also means they have time off, but not too much if we do the following change too.

Shorter Playoffs with Better Ratings

Knockout rounds and play-in games are confusing and a waste of time. Two-legged playoffs are cute for Champions League play, but remove almost all meaning for finishing higher in the regular season – thus devaluing the competitiveness of the bulk of league play.

Mainstream media and pop-culture also have no patience or short-term memory. No one can stay involved in drawn-out playoffs, especially in two nations with competing entrenched sports vying for attention, too. So let team’s No. 2 to 5 in both the East and West conferences battle it out for the single slot to play the MLS Cup finalists (SS Winners). Have each game be like the NFL Playoffs, one game knock-outs. The ensuing passion and drama can only boost MLS’ TV ratings – a major league roadblock to greater success. Let the higher seed host and give them that advantage surely but give the away fans a proper seating allotment for each (see below). Keep all the games on the weekends to maximize crowds and TV ratings.

If all that is set, it can trim the playoffs from its bloated 2013 self of 15 games in 39 days to just 7 games in 21 days. Concentrating focus on simpler content with packed in-demand fervent stadiums that become more like events that people like to turn their TVs on for (see NFL, college football, MMA, World Cup, Champions League, etc). The new abbreviated version could look something like this for 2014 and no matter the eventual expansion ceiling of 24 in 2020 or 40 in coming decades:

Western Conference Semifinals (4 teams – 2 games) – Sat. Nov. 1
Eastern Conference Semifinals (4 teams – 2 games) – Sun. Nov. 2

Western Conference Championship (2 teams – 1 game) – Sat. Nov. 8
Eastern Conference Championship (2 teams – 1 game) – Sun. Nov. 9

2 week break

MLS Cup (2 teams – 1 game – Supporters' Shield winner host) – Sat. Nov. 22

No Seams Showing Just Pageantry

As mentioned in my last article, football-lined fields devalue MLS and its post-season. Briefly, if a playoff team cannot host the game on a non-lined field don’t show that match on national television. If that can’t work or is deemed too drastic by broadcasters, consider giving hosting rights to the other team if they can provide a proper field.

Increased MLS Cup Visiting Allocation

English Premier League games without a similar LigaMX, A-League or MLS playoff style post-season allocates 5% of the stadiums for visiting fans. Much higher percentages are given to the fans of the two teams who play in their domestic cup finals (FA Cup, League Cup) at Wembley Stadium in London.

Even in under 20 years, most MLS clubs have more than 500 or so fans who would attend an MLS Cup. Giving only 1,000 to visiting clubs or hundreds after ‘friends of the family’ (sponsors/staff/partners/league) take theirs, is simply not enough to match real fan demand and maximize in-stadium passion to a TV-watching culture. So I say give each away team 2000 tickets minimum. Most MLS boutique stadiums are around 20k seats, so that is only 10% of the stadium the hosting Supporters’ Shield winning club would be giving away.

Again, in England, where the FA Cup Final is a top 10 viewed TV show, both sets of fans get more. The home team (Supporters’ Shield Winner) will still have a huge fan advantage of some 85-90% of the tickets and support so it is not really a stretch yet guarantees both sets of fans are at least heard and represented – that’s good for the whole league, not just one club. Give the 1,500-2,000 away fans a chance to show off their passion. If the home club is losing in an MLS Cup the fans often tend to get quieter, but with a sizable away crowd of 2,000 or so, intense crowd atmosphere is guaranteed throughout. That’s TV magic folks and something to make our sport stand-out amongst its domestic peers.

Chaperone The Dance

The MLS 2013 regular season was excellent, the MLS Playoffs, not so much. The penultimate part of the big dance had the clumsy rhythm of Carlton from “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and did not put MLS’ best foot forward or keep it there with all those long stutter steps. I strongly feel shortening the playoffs, rewarding the regular season, giving Supporters’ Shield winners the MLS Cup hosting rights and away fans more tickets solves the league’s current post-season problems.

If implemented the may help fans get to the game, maximize in-stadium passion, reward winning teams and their loyalists and boost MLS ratings when it matters the most.

Modern society bombards itself daily with more information than a Chinese supercomputer; they barely remember the last thing you did — forget about the stuff before that. Ending a gripping MLS regular season with a calamitous post-season devalues all before it, it’s about time we conclude this big dance with the level of grandeur it began with.

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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