022415_isi_silvadavid_bpi_pg_261214_wba_v_man_city_37.3014908 Paul Greenwood/isiphotos.com

Still Think MLS Should Play Through the Winter?

ASN columnist Leander Schaerlaeckens argues that the economic climate—not the meteorological one—is the biggest reason why MLS should stay on its Spring-to-Fall schedule.
BY Leander Schaerlaeckens Posted
February 24, 2015
5:41 PM
FIRST, LET'S GET SOMETHING out of the way: this isn’t about the weather. Well, OK, it’s a little bit about the weather. But the central reason why it would be foolhardy for Major League Soccer to move away from its Spring-to-Fall schedule and adopt a Fall-to-Spring calendar, like most of professional soccer, has little to do with barometric readings or polar vortices.

Certainly, the weather makes for an easy argument when it’s February and there’s several feet of snow on the ground in Toronto and Boston and Chicago and Salt Lake City. You snap a picture of your buried back porch with your phone, fire off a tweet, and… BOOM, point made.

While challenging, the weather in North America isn’t totally prohibitive to a European-style schedule. In a few years, with Atlanta, Miami, and Orlando all having joined and a second Los Angeles-based team re-joining the league, there will be enough franchises in the South—wherein we’ll include Texas and California for the sake of this argument—that you could stagger games there when it’s cold in the North, and, indeed, do the reverse when it gets hot in the South. To make things easier, MLS could institute a winter break, like most European leagues.

While it could work, it wouldn’t look pretty, with just eight of 23 teams playing in favorable winter climates. Northern fans would basically have a truncated schedule of home games while the Southern ones would get a heap of matches early on, and then very few for many months.

But all of that is to miss the point.

There are far better reasons that render a winter schedule a bit senseless. Unlike just about every other soccer league in the world, MLS doesn’t operate in a near-sporting vacuum. Its dominance of the sports-entertainment sector isn’t culturally assured. There is no demographic group in America for which MLS is the favored league. There are probably few in which it’s the third. So, like any company locked out of an oligopoly, it has to adapt and carve a niche somewhere on the margins.

Summer is one of those margins. Of the so-called Big Four leagues, the NHL and the NBA are off from June until October and the NFL doesn’t begin until September. That means for the bulk of the March-October MLS season, its only competition is Major League Baseball. We can bicker about how much overlap there is between the fan bases of those leagues, but it’s inarguable that it’s easier to cut through the clutter in the summer.

That’s especially true within the soccer market itself. During the summer, the more popular European leagues, which surely are at least partly to blame for MLS’s anemic TV ratings, are dormant. Getting people to tune their televisions to Major League Soccer is obviously a priority. And that’s a lot easier when your season runs opposite that of the better soccer products overseas.

Then there’s this: the NBA and NFL play indoors. And the NFL is so popular that it could sell out a game on the North Pole, amid roaming packs of hungry polar bears, beneath collapsing glaciers. MLS just doesn’t have that kind of pull. It needs the good weather to get people through its turnstiles. That’s just a fact. While MLS fandom has become a hipster pursuit of late, you still see a great many families in the stadiums. And families are more likely to go to the trouble of attending a soccer game during the summer holidays.

Attendance climbs as the season warms up and temperatures do the same. So why bargain that away for no apparent gains, just to be like the rest of the world?

It should be fairly well established by now that soccer in America just isn’t like any place else—for the above reasons and many others. And while MLS finances are ever so opaque, it’s probable that attendance still drives a large part of revenue, since even the much-ballyhooed new TV contracts, bringing in $90 million annually, are small potatoes in the broadcasting game.

One of the few benefits to be derived from going to a winter schedule—aside from appeasing FIFA’s apparent urge to get the whole world on the same calendar—is to avoid conflicts with the international tournaments that take place during summers. (Although not the 2022 World Cup, which looks set to be played in November and December.) For the 2014 World Cup last summer, MLS took a two-week break though. It could simply extend that and do the same during Gold Cup years to avoid being overshadowed and bereft of its star players, thereby solving the problem.

Another rare advantage of MLS playing in the winter would be to align itself with the international transfer market. Most of the business is done during the summer window, but it’s inconvenient for MLS clubs to lose players mid-season, or integrate new ones. It’s harder—and often more expensive—to unloose the players you want from Europe during the winter window, for the exact same reason, only from the selling clubs’ perspective.

Yet MLS didn’t make out badly at all this past January—the one-off Frank Lampard fiasco excepted—landing all of its apparent targets and even getting Juventus to let Sebastian Giovinco to come over immediately, rather than over the summer. Of the sizable influx of star power, only Steven Gerrard—yes, and Lampard—won’t be here for the scheduled season opener.

Oh, and also, it’s been snowing quite a lot lately. I can’t even see my garden furniture.

(That was a joke.)


Leander Schaerlaeckens is a freelance soccer writer. Follow him on Twitter.

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