Wednesday, December 5, 2012

MLS and NASL ... are we there yet?

north american soccer league
In 2013, Major League Soccer officially outlives the defunct North American Soccer League.

There have been countless attempts to bring professional soccer to North America, but the NASL and MLS are the two biggest stories.

I have a personal attachment to the old NASL.  In 1981, my youth team from Port Colborne was selected as the ball boys for the Soccer Bowl held at Toronto's Exhibition Stadium.  The Chicago Sting played the New York Cosmos.  My friend Mossimo and I were placed behind the one goal and I got an up-close view of my favourite player, Giorgio Chinaglia.  The Sting won that game in a shootout after playing to a 0-0 draw.

The old North American Soccer League ran from 1968-1984 and, in my opinion, this league was an amazing story.  It managed to wiggle it's way on to ABC as a weekly national broadcast in between broadcasts of Major League Baseball and early season NFL.  The NASL sold soccer to North America, period.  Big name players came to North America to play out their final days.  Pele, George Best, Johan Cruyff, Giorgio Chinaglia, Roberto Betega, etc etc etc.

You can criticize the actions of certain owners, but you can't argue that soccer grew at a crazy rate during the NASL days and those people who put their money where their passion was are soccer heroes.  A lot of people had NASL jerseys and t-shirts and all of my soccer friends had favourite teams and players.  EVERY SPORTS FAN knew details about the New York Cosmos.
"the final nail in the coffin was the USA not getting the 1986 World Cup after Columbia had to withdraw"
Teams played in cavernous football stadiums and modified baseball parks.  You could see the football and baseball markings on the field along with the soccer lines and people did pay to watch.  The highest average attendance was 14,201 in 1980.  The league also has a high 24 teams that year.

In 4 short years the league went from 24 teams to 9 and average attendance dropped to 10,759.  In 1984, the league played its last game.

A lot of things led to its death, but the final nail in the coffin was the USA not getting the 1986 World Cup after Columbia had to withdraw in 1982 because of economics.  Mexico was named the new host.  Experts agree that awarding the USA the 1986 would cup would have been the boost needed for continued growth.

Different leagues have come and gone in both Canada and USA but the NASL was the first to take it up a level and have some kind of exposure and staying power.  All of those leagues before and after the NASL were instrumental in keeping the market active and laying the ground work for MLS.

MLS was founded in 1993 and played it's first season in 1996.  The announcement of the USA being awarded the 1994 FIFA World Cup Finals played a huge role in the league birth.  In fact, the league's formation and planning for the 1994 World Cup was all under the same umbrella with US Soccer.

Major League SoccerMajor League Soccer is entering it's 18th season in 2013, officially surpassing the life of the old NASL. MLS currently has 19 teams and the average attendance in 2012 was 18,807 over 323 games.  Most teams have soccer specific stadiums and that is a boost to credibility and a testament to the owners' collective commitment and confidence in soccer.  The occasional big name still makes the jump over and big name friendlies are always being played.

This league is for real and sustained interest in North American soccer and the USA's perennial qualification for the FIFA World Cup keeps adding fuel to the fire.  Each team is adding full academy systems to their organizations.  In Canada, the three MLS youth programs are constantly contributing talent to our younger Nation teams.

The caveat with MLS is the ownership structure and how youth academies fit into the system.  They don't.  Sooner or later MLS will have to be independently operating teams truly competing with each other and profiting from selling players to bigger clubs.  There is also a quality issue on the pitch (players and officials) that fans are wanting to see.  There is also international criticism of not taking days off for international matches and a true relegation/promotion system.
"It's like a smouldering fire that people kept trying to fan into a flame."
Does the MLS owe a debt of gratitude to the old NASL, the players and those who invested in soccer? Nobody can separate the two leagues in terms of a foundation being laid and a market being present.  Having the courage to invest in big names and bring Pelé over moved soccer into the mainstream.  You can also qualify the effect the 1986 World Cup would have had on the NASL by the fact that the 1994 World Cup was the catalyst for MLS.

The defense of the ownership structure is to protect the league from spending it's way out of business.

Locally, Toronto FC fans wait for success.  And wait. And wait.

A lot of people have emptied their pockets over the past 100 years in hopes of bringing professional soccer to Canada and North America. Every major city has somebody who tried to champion high level soccer. Former Toronto Maple Leafs owner Steve Stavro is an example of such a person in Ontario.  There are also countless people who have owned teams in the Canadian Soccer League, National Soccer League and CPSL.  There are countless stories of passionate fans, broken hearts and bad investments and they truly deserve a space of their own. 

It's like a smouldering fire that people kept trying to fan into a flame.  From a marketing point of view the story has been consistent : Who will be the first to find a way to convert all of those soccer players in North America into paying customers.

But TV coverage of soccer is awesome, brand names and globally recognized teams are seeing their jerseys in our classrooms and municipalities are investing in more pitches.

So are we there yet?  Is professional soccer here to stay?  I think it's safe to finally say "YES ... maybe", despite it currently being in an unorthodox, not truly 100% competitive structure. 

Now, go buy a ticket.  :)