Good Monday morning Caps fans—we are on the precipice of summer down in my neck of the woods, which means I write this in shorts in front of an open window. Hope wherever you are is equally sunny and warm, perhaps with a nice breeze to welcome you into the week ahead.
This past weekend was made more enjoyable by the fact that I had real, honest-to-God soccer that I didn’t have to wake up at 6 am (or stay up until 1:30 am) to watch: the Bundesliga. I consider the league to be the most entertaining in Europe so I took great pleasure in spending Saturday and Sunday parked in front of the TV all morning.
It is, however, not the same as having MLS back—there is something about your own country’s league resuming that is heartening in its own particular way. And, based on the timeline that Commissioner Don Garber laid out, it is very possible that MLS will be the first North American sports league to resume operations. That would create a tremendous opportunity to bring in new fans for the league.
I mention that because Fox has largely phoned it in in terms of their broadcast coverage of the Bundesliga. This weekend they made no effort to move matches to network Fox, despite the lack of live sporting content elsewhere, and they didn’t even use their own announcers or studio show. Given that the league is migrating to ESPN+ next season, I guess they don’t really care anymore about introducing new fans (or making old ones feel more at home). But MLS and their broadcast partners should. Based off my Bundesliga watching this weekend, here are three areas for improvement that would go a long way to seizing the chance that could be before MLS in a few weeks time.
1. Don’t assume anyone watching has any idea what is going on
Generally speaking, if you’re tuning into a national TV broadcast of MLS you either a) are a hardcore soccer fan or b) are a fan of one of the two teams involved or c) both. Based off the league’s national TV ratings, a relatively limited audience of folks are tuning in. Not so during a pandemic when people are so starved for content that cornhole and virtual NASCAR (not even real NASCAR) have done bits in terms of ratings.
I’m not saying that we need to explain what a goalkeeper is to people—most Americans either played soccer as a kid, have kids who played soccer or know the basic idea of the sport via osmosis. They don’t need to be talked down to and, frankly, older fans will not enjoy having to slow down for any newcomers.
But there are real quirks to the game that don’t exist elsewhere (offsides, VAR, added time). These should be acknowledged, perhaps in some type of brief segment geared towards newer fans (during which more veteran watchers could go grab another beer). Tactics could also be discussed—there is no better way to make a newer viewer feel welcome than helping them understand how the game should be player versus just the basic rules.
2. Don’t dwell on the lack of fans
The announcers on the Bundesliga telecasts made frequent mention of the pandemic, as if the substitutes wearing masks and the empty stands didn’t clue us in. Frankly I didn’t find the fact that the match was being played behind closed doors as jarring after time—but frequent mentions of that fact did take me away from focusing on the actual soccer being played. Fans, both new and old, get what’s going on. They get that MLS looks very different normally. And while I’m not usually one for “sports should be treated as an escape” arguments, I think a lot of people will be coming to these matches hoping to forget, at least a little, about the pandemic that has caused upheaval in their lives.
There are subtle, yet powerful, ways in which the pandemic will influence play, both on the pitch and off, and those should certainly be explored. Sometimes it can be funny—the FC Koln-Mainz announcers light heartedly explained that Koln’s goat mascot was barred from the stadium during the pandemic. But repeated mentions of the matches being played in Orlando? Come on man, we get the picture.
3. Make the players (and refs) the stars
OK, this might seem painfully obvious. “Andrew, the players are ALWAYS the stars. They’re the players for chrissakes!” you might say. And you would be right. But I think we forget how much of MLS’ marketing is around the in-stadium experience: the tifos, the cherry bombs, the drums, the chants. Watch any ad for the league and you’ll see. The players obviously matter but the league goes to great lengths to sell people on going to the matches in person.
This means that we can forget a few things. One, that there is a whole world of communication that we do not hear above the din of singing and cheering. I have never played organized soccer and thus found listening to the Bundesliga players coordinating, yelling and even cursing each other out fascinating. And also I think we can lose sight of the fact that no fans makes it easier to witness and parse out the football in front of us, not losing the forest through the trees.
Again, Fox and ESPN can lean into this. How about micing up the ref, which is something ESPN did to great effect in the short-lived XFL reboot? Or just simply having more field mics and pivoting to a segment where we can hear what players are saying to each other (a clean version anyway), with an ex-player commentator breaking down what all of it actually means it laymen’s terms? A few free ideas to maximize the lack of fans and better put those watching inside the action.
This is hardly a PhD thesis here—I’m not preaching radical change. But I think watching the crowd-free matches that have taken place globally has underscored some of the viewing elements we so often miss. Leaning into some of the things I outlined above could score some new fans and help make the best of this tricky situation.
Now onto the links:
Best of the Rest
Thomas Hasal mirrored the actions of many other young people when the pandemic lockdown hit: he migrated back to his childhood home, in this case in Saskatoon.
Foreign players have (well-founded) concerns about any MLS return to play, The Athletic reports
In a sign that we’ve entered “conspicuous consumption” stage of soccer content, MLS’ native website is kicking off “Jersey Week.” If the hoop kit doesn’t win their best jersey bracket we riot
We’ve spent a fair amount of timing puzzling over what COVID-19 means for transfers. Here’s a story that plumbs that issue to greater depths on a league-wide basis
Spike got a respectable B+ in these mascot rankins. Kingfisher BBs will always be an A+ in my heart, though
Now that he’s retired, DaMarcus Beasley could be joining his former national team mates Tim Howard and Landon Donovan in buying into a USL franchise