Media Cowardice Demands Supporter Courage on Pro/Rel
When I first began pummeling US Soccer, MLS, and American supporters about promotion and relegation - I was a deluded Eurosnob. I thought supporters were the roadblock to implementation. I expected to find an American soccer public unaware of the virtues of open leagues. US supporters must not know that pro/rel made for such compelling and weighty matches from the top of the top-flight to lowest of the lower divisions. They must be clueless about a century of US professional soccer - and must not know that closed US sports leagues have failed the game that entire time.
I was wrong. The problem wasn't with our supporters. The problem was with our scribes. In place of the ignorance and provincialism I expected to find amongst American supporters, I found a disempowered American soccer media that was simply too frightened to tell the truth about our past, present and future. Worse, I realized that the US soccer media were the ones spreading the myth of supporter ignorance and dispassion. Like me, they blamed fair weather US sports fans for troubles in US leagues - instead of a stilted and isolated US system that often leads to lackadaisical support.
I saw the error of my ways early on. They still haven't.
I found American supporters to be as smart, passionate and dedicated as any in the world. They already understood pro/rel. They liked it. They wanted it. They recognized the need for it.
Meanwhile, the bulk of the MLS/US Soccer media remains committed to blaming US supporters for our inability to move to an open system. While our media still subscribes to their idiocy, dispassion and fickleness, I found that US supporters are pretty up on things. They recognize the chronic inability of our insulated closed leagues to realize the vast potential of American soccer. They understand everything from single table to single entity. They grasp the inner workings of the global game. They are very well versed in MLS’s shortcomings - and don't hesistate to connect their foibles to the lack of promotion and relegation.
Under those circumstances, it's no wonder that they follow every league in the world except MLS.
Dimwitted supporters aren't the problem. The major roadblock to open league reform is a skittish flock of American soccer journalists who have committed themselves to MLS creationist theory. The ramparts protecting our soccer status quo aren't staffed with dullard US supporters. They are in fact manned by a captive American sports press entirely incapable of speaking truth to power.
Worse than their fear is the cynical obfuscation they use to disguise it. My most strident detractors amongst the US soccer/MLS press network said they liked the meritocracy of pro/rel. Instead of opposing it, they cynically insisted that the feudal realities in US pro-sports made it impossible.
Under these circumstances, you can see how my ire with American soccer journalist doublespeak grew. Many agreed that promotion and relegation is as intrinsic to soccer as the home run is to baseball. They admitted privately that open leagues are the cornerstone of open global market in which the club game thrives. Most of them concurred that the closed US sports system had been stunting the US game for a century. They tended to be well aware that a feudal and isolationist US sports owner privilege system stood more defiantly in the way of progress today than ever before.
Most also admitted that their careers depended on not saying so.
The problem wasn't that that they couldn't conceive of promotion and relegation in the USA. They feared admitting it was career seppuku. Most agreed that closed top-flight soccer leagues do not accommodate the great clubs on which the club soccer market thrived. They knew that prior to MLS, all attempts at closed D1 had ultimately failed. They realized that MLS was the only US example of such league that has managed to survive because of systemic micromanagement. They knew the league ran a chain of league owned teams, limited those teams for internal parity, disenfranchised more than a thousand other US clubs via their perpetual D1 sanction from US soccer, and sold the burgeoning US soccer market to imports via an in-house marketing arrangement known as SUM.
They just couldn't admit as much.
Their reality was - surreal. Because there’s no way that an open system will be better for the bottom lines of MLS owners than their current privilege system, our American soccer media scarecrows lamented the fact that they were unable to report on it. They knew full well that while MLS and US Soccer conspire deny most US clubs opportunities FIFA guarantees their global contemporaries - and that the league’s popularity has fallen further behind the potential of the US soccer market than ever before. They realized that despite the burgeoning promise of the game and the remarkable entrepreneurs and innovators it drew, US lower division sides continued to collapse at an alarming rate.
They just couldn't say it.
Sir Alex Ferguson recently said the end of promotion and relegation in English football would be suicide for lower division English clubs. I argue the lack thereof dooms our lower divisions to little more than an agitated coma. The US soccer media can't address either of us - because common sense is too scary. They're more concerned with networking in with MLS/US Soccer and/or being networked out.
After watching this dynamic play out over and over, you can understand why I stopped playing nice with them.
Here's the good news: We may not be able to depend on MLS/US Soccer scribes to stop cowering to power, but we have the knowledge, passion and technology to do it ourselves. Almost every American supporter is far more courageous and at least as knowledgeable as our rubber chicken media. Our passion is on display every week at matches around the country - and we are all connected to each other and our opponents by social media.Top that off with the fact that soccer is the only professional team sport in the US that answers directly to nonprofit federation - and you can see that we have all the tools we need to open the system.
Supporters are far more woke, aware and capable than the MLS corporate scribes. We don't have to worry about being overtly conscious. We know that SUM - in which every MLS owner holds shares - cleans up on marketing virtually every high profile international friendly in the United States. We know it’s true that in MLS’s unique single entity league, teams are little more than outlets in a limited chain. As recently evidenced by MLS President Mark Abbott’s recent comments on promotion and relegation “never” happening in American soccer - we now know MLS's moderate tone on pro/rel was a joke, and they are now imposing their anticompetitive values on every US club more overtly than ever. We are also aware that - saddled with the hallmarks of cloistered US professional sports leagues and subordinate to the marketing arrangement with imports on which owners profit - MLS has sunk further from the potential of the US club game than at any point in their 20 year history.
We aren't afraid to say so.
We can tell all the truths that our captive media cannot. We know US World Cup audiences have been breaking records for the last two decades. In 2014, they rivaled the mighty NFL. We know MLS Cup audiences have been shrinking in the same time frame. In 2013, the much ballyhooed MLS final was dwarfed by an Everybody Loves Raymond rerun. Of all the major US pro-sports, top-flight soccer is the only example in which the championship game draws fewer viewers than regular season matches drew in 1980.
Don't expect these truths to change our captive media behavior. Be prepared for them to keep telling us we’re lucky MLS allows soccer to exist in the USA. Most of the our captive media has already succumbed to MLS creationism. Unsuccumbing risks acknowledging that they succumbed in the first place.
MLS creationist thought is very pervasive amongst the MLS/USSF media, and its hallmarks are easy to ID. They are dedicated to blaming the game and its fans for most of MLS's shortcomings. They've told me the league must have special protections from promotion and relegation since soccer is so new - in order that top flight club soccer can survive in the United States. They told me US sports fans are too fickle, fair weather, casual and simple minded to consider the rigors of pro/rel. They agreed with Sunil Gulati that passion was a prerequisite for pro/rel, not vice versa. They gratingly lauded MLS’s commitment to fairness – because by limiting every outlet, the league gives every one a chance to win and allows no team to buy a title. Never they mind that only 20 teams out of thousands American clubs have purchased that chance.
In a world where the US soccer media subscribes to this MLS cult theory, It is refreshing to see MLS reveal themselves as a deity that doesn't mind undermining its congregation. For 20 years now, US supporters of open leagues have been misled on pro/rel. League and federation officials used to insist that American soccer is just a baby - and their loyal scribes followed suit. They all swore together the game was still evolving out out of the mud - and hadn't yet developed the legs it needs to utilize the open league ladder. Don Garber himself claimed to like pro/rel. He told us we’re just not ready for it. When MLS VP Mark Abbott frecently exposed MLS apologist theories on youth and fragility as either hollow garbage or crafty public relations, he finally threw the evolving baby out with the bogus bath water, leaving only raw creationist theory behind.
I’ve often said MLS has no plans to incorporate pro/rel. Thanks to Mark, that’s no longer a conspiracy theory.
Real US supporters blame the system, not the game or the supporters. They don't subscribe to any throry that depends on covering up our rich soccer history. We know MLS is unpopular because they inhabit a closed system the game consistently rejects - not because soccer is unpopular in the USA. US pro-sports owner privilege produces lackadaisical fans, not the other way around. 20 MLS outlets bought a chance to a win a D1 title, leaving thousands of US clubs with no opportunity to do the same.
The only choice I ever had was to associate myself with American soccer supporters, and disassociate myself with American soccer media. I'd rather fight for meritocracy and opportunity than network in with a captive clique of soccer blaming media that are effectively barred from addressing reality. I do so as a former soccer hack, current soccer fan, and a former political hack who is increasingly concerned about the feudal path our country is on.
Any study of Major League Soccer is an educational exercise in early 21st century American anticompetitive privilege. They are a prime example of how wealthy Americans and their companies have found more and more ways to buy their way out of the competitive open market. In the late 19th century, robber-baron-monopolist-extraordinaire John D. Rockefeller famously quipped, “Competition is a sin.” Teddy Roosevelt called the perpetrators of that system “malefactors of great wealth” – a sentiment later echoed by his cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Martin Luther King, Jr. hit on this point when he said: “We all too often have socialism for the rich and rugged free market capitalism for the poor.” The kind of power these Americans referred to to has ebbed and waned throughout our history. We’re in the midst of a pyroclastic flow in here 2014.
I often hear closed league US pro sports referred to as a socialist system. Socialism for the 1% isn't socialism. It is called economic fascism.
Perhaps the wildest part of MLS’s role in the rise of anti-competitive oligarch privilege is the philosophic contradictions it creates amongst the people involved. We live in a country where open global competition has become a ubiquitous catch phrase. Yet we turn 180º when it comes to US pro sports.
Free market capitalism has real problems, but it beats the hell out of closed market capitalism. In a world where club soccer thrives on open international club competition, MLS owners like Paul Allen stand for resplendent old-fashioned and feudal isolation. Where would his Microsoft be if their products had been limited for domestic parity in a global market? Yet, it is in that puddle of isolation and market privilege in which his Seattle Sounders wade.
Whatever you want to call it, the results of this isolationist privilege system based on domestic quality limits in an otherwise open global market are as predictable today as they were when US domestic automakers clung to them in the 1970s: Imports won. Never before has MLS fallen further behind the World Cup in terms of American soccer interest. Ratings for imported soccer have risen as fast as those for the World Cup. MLS interest – outside of the Pacific Northwest and some dubious attendance figures – has flat lined. Yet, the league pronounces itself more vibrant and healthy than ever before - partially because they generate revenue by selling the market to imports via SUM. MLS is the result of market in which competition has been suspended for the financial needs of a few. Their revenue is predicated on protections, not fulfilling market potential. It relies on selling the US market to foreign competition, not reaching that market. Is it any wonder MLS falls further from reaching the potential of the US market than ever before?
Perhaps some hope Mark Abbott's comments mark the end of the line for promotion/relegation advocacy in the USA. If so, they’re wrong. What does a D1 sanction amount to in a league that promises never to embrace promotion and relegation? Is it too crazy to wonder if a court will find that it amounts to little more than an illegal anti-competitive arrangement?
No other US sport has a nonprofit, independent and internationally sanctioned sports federation designating it major league. That's the weakest link in their scheme. As soccer supporters, we can break it. We possess everything we need to make our demands heard. We are dealing with the only US pro sport that answers directly to a nonprofit federation bound by bylaws and a mission statement to consider the demands of American stakeholders and supporters. After all, it’s not a league's responsibility to impose promotion and relegation on itself. It’s a federation call, it’s 100 years late in coming, and no other US pro sports league answers to one. A federation is supposed to be sensitive to the demands of supporters. With the US soccer media paralyzed by fear and career suicide, It's us who need to be calling US Soccer on their tardiness.
It cannot be overstated: Unlike the American sports media, we don't have to worry that billionaire purveyors of US pro sports are too powerful to mess with. We can take a principled stand. We can insist that our clubs deserve the same opportunities as any in the world. We can prove our federation isn't accountable to most of us, and that will go a long way towards winning this battle.
Granted, we’re Americans. That means we have the right to protest virtually anything, but we don’t resort to protest unless things get really out of hand.
You may think that consumer choice is enough to change Major League Soccer and US Soccer behavior. Everybody Loves Raymond proved that theory wrong. MLS was built from the ground up to rely on market privilege, not free market economics. It will take more than empty seats and 0.0 TV ratings to get this done.
We can show US Soccer and MLS that we’re not the fair weather casuals the traditional American soccer media say we are. We can show the world that we want to be able to take our clubs as far as any on earth. We can show everyone we are not hard wired for salary caps, drafts, mystery allocation orders, designated poster boys and marketing ploys - and we can do that without traditional media help.
It isn't going to be easy. Prepare to be attacked for speaking up. Prepare to be be told that you don't matter. Prepare to be assigned all kinds of wacky ulterior motives. For me, that goes with the territory. Take all that attention as evidence to contrary: Demonstrating your care and concern drives them nuts.
Things are really out of hand in American soccer. Leave no doubt – FIFA, US Soccer, MLS and even the incontinent American soccer media hear your calls. As more Americans demand their club has a right to pursue happiness in the best possible league – they will be unable to pretend they’re not listening. Their mounting attacks will serve to demonstrate that.
If you require any more evidence, take this into account: The Sporting News just ran their first story on the promotion and relegation debate in 128 years. We are are on the right path. We are making a difference. If we decide to sit back and wait for MLS to act, the outcome is easy to predict. when we keep speaking up, we keep making progress.
Teddy Roosevelt couldn’t stand monopolies and trusts arrangements. He hated gentle attacks even more. "The unforgivable crime is soft hitting. Do not hit at all if it can be avoided; but never hit softly." Supporters can exonerate soccer from failing to excite the US soccer market. We can remove the blame from fans for being fickle and fair weather. We can indict US sports owner privilege for boring that market. We can grant US clubs the same opportunities as any in the world. We just need to hit hard. I’m dedicated to pummeling our federation, MLS and their apologists on these issues. As more and more Americans follow suit, even the VP of MLS won’t be able to cover up on the ropes.
Aren't you ready to rumble?