MLS-Plus Shows Nothing New

The league’s new plan to create unique content is same old, same old
by Robert Hay   |   Friday, June 21, 2013

Soccer Americana - column on the intersection of American culture and soccer in media, politics and pop-culture

The big news this week out of our biggest domestic soccer league was MLS’s plan to bring a new type of content to every conceivable viewer in every conceivable viewing manner.

The new “MLS-Plus” is a league-owned content production company that will create a new news magazine, mini-documentaries, a mobile app, user-generated content and a digital series. Distribution partnerships already in existence include the NBC Sports Network, TSN, Yahoo! and SB Nation.

The major part of the announcement was dedicated to MLS Insider, a self-styled “30 for 30” type of unique content that will aim to tell stories in an emotional documentary style that made the ESPN series so popular. The news magazine will run weekly on the NBC Sports Network and TSN in Canada and will be produced by Jonathan Hock, the director of 3 “30 for 30” documentaries.

This is a shrewd move by the league to try and get its stories in front of as many eyes as possible. The ratings struggles for the league are well established, so this type of content is a chance to get the product out there separate from the struggling game viewership. It’s a win-win for NBC as well, which needs to fill the airwaves of its sports network prior to the launch of its EPL coverage in August. And the league wisely decided to push much of this content digitally, where video viewership is rapidly growing and smartphone/tablet users can quickly access it.

In this sense, the league is embracing technology and trends quicker than other leagues and can embrace the “cool factor” that it should be seeking to gain new audiences.

However, where the league falls short is content. In this Friday’s first episode of MLS Insider, the magazine will focus on three topics: Robbie Rogers, Tim Cahill and the Sons of Ben.

Obviously, the league is going for low-hanging fruit in its debut: Rogers is now one of the more well-known players due to his struggles to marry his sexuality with his career, Cahill is an international and well-paid player on a well-publicized team and the Sons of Ben are known in soccer circles for convincing the league to bring a franchise to the city and set a trend of fan-supported new franchises.

But if the league will use these new platforms to keep churning the same hype machine for the same storylines, it will be missing a major opportunity.

When I first heard the announcement of the new content, I was hopeful for something different. What “30 for 30” did was tell 3 kinds of stories: stories we knew but told from a different angle, stories from a first-person point of view with interesting people and stories that were critical to sports history but no one knew. While it’s hard to judge an entire series from the 1st episode, already the league is focusing on the first 2.

My fear is that what will be lost is the opportunity to tell the story of players, fans and franchises that are ignored by traditional media but whose story should be told.

For example, DC United’s Michael Seaton is a fascinating player. The 16-year-old was born in Jamaica and moved with his family to Capitol Heights, Md., at age 7. He was signed into the DC United youth system and developed in the Freestate Soccer Alliance, a nonprofit youth soccer academy. United signed him this offseason at age 16 and while a bulk of his playing time has been on loan with the Richmond Kickers, he made the bench for DC’s game against Toronto FC.

Why is this newsworthy? This is the PERFECT story for a “30 for 30” style documentary. Here are a few angles a producer could take:

- How a young man adjusts from being born in a soccer crazy nation to moving as a youth to Prince George’s County, where youth soccer development is thriving but much less popular than basketball and football.

- Comparing how the league is growing in allowing its young talent to develop and contrasting 2 different DC youth signings: Freddy Adu and Michael Seaton.

- Life in MLS 3.0, or how the new USL PRO affiliate allows a player like Seaton to grow and adjust to life in different leagues.

- An interview with someone with that background would be pure gold.

While he lacks the Q rating of a Rogers, he is an immensely talented teenager in a system that has developed some top notch professionals who signed as teenagers (even, to an extent, Freddy Adu). If the league wants to separate itself with new content and appeal to a wider audience, it should let the traditional media tell the obvious stories and use its new investment to share with the public those hidden stories.

Again, MLS-Plus just launched and there will be time and bandwidth for the league to create these type of stories.

But so far, it looks like a league that loves to hype its hype is again falling back on the same old stories and failing to strategically position itself in the sports landscape.

Robert HAY

Club Domestic:
DC United
Club Foreign:
Arsenal & Bari
By day, saving the world in Washington D.C. By night, morphing into a soccer writer & podcaster. Serie A & MLS fan that writes about the intersection of soccer & American culture & how the two influence each other in politics, media & pop culture.