Category: Philosophy of Sport Musings

The End of Competition

The MLS announcement on the integration of the Reserve League with division three USL PRO came out today (see it here.)  When news of the potential integration hit just over a month ago I posted some of my initial thoughts (if you missed them, click here) including a brief comment on the ‘competitiveness’ of ‘reserve’ league. Now that the structure for the 2013 season has been announced, I would like to re-visit that comment and give it some nuance. In fact, as you might have inferred from the title of this post I have shifted positions a bit.

My simple statement on the matter is that I believe the Reserve League/USL PRO integration, as presented for the 2013 season is nothing short of farcical. To be fair, I have been critical of the integration idea from the beginning. And even I can see some value in the model, even if I believe other models would prove more effective. But there is one point that I can’t seem to think my way around, no matter how hard I try - that the two MLS Reserve League matches will count towards the USL PRO standings. This decision assumes that either A. all MLS Reserve Teams are created equal (clearly not the case as the Reserve League has its own stratifying table); or B. belies the single entity, closed circuit, franchised nature of soccer in America.

There are of course other options, but most of them come back to A or B. While I have very strong feelings towards the structure of MLS I am not de facto against MLS. In fact, I have my own Red Bull jersey and were I living in New York would hold season tickets. For this reason, I don’t believe the conspirator stories that would imply that MLS is trying to destroy soccer in America. I also don’t believe that those in power are naive to what they are doing. And so I have to conclude that they are doing what they believe is best under their view of things. Maybe they believe that ‘on average’ the Reserve Teams will give approximately the same level of competition. More likely though is that they just don’t see this as an infringement on ‘competition’. The rational goes, “there will still be fixtures, tables, playoffs, championships, wins and losses - so whats the big deal?” And this is classic franchisement behavior, which views the entirety of the season as an entertainment drama built on the platform of a sport. If that is your view of a league -  if all players are owned collectively, all profits and losses shared - then it really doesn’t matter who wins, at least not to the management. It matters to the fans of course. And probably to the players who believe the are ‘living their dreams’ by playing. And though it doesn’t matter to MLS or USL who wins and loses (aside from match attendance and TV ratings of course), the fan can still be satisfied because no matter what his team won definitively (aside ‘miracles’ like the Hand of God which have and will always be an unfortunate part of the game).

So what we are left with is a scenario in which team X misses the playoffs because they played a tougher MLS Reserve opponent and we all wonder: what if. This league structure categorically defies the logical imperative that competitions such as a football match be zero sum in nature. It represents the end of meaningful competition.

In retrospect, maybe I am a bit conspiratorial.  If you stuck with it this long, I apologize for the rambling nature of this post. I’ll go back to bullet points next time.

Grand Theft Cascadia

Continuing on yesterdays post ‘Controversy in Cascadia’, I felt obliged to note the release of an official statement by MLS regarding the pending Cascadia Cup trademark application.  Essentially, MLS is claiming that it has applied for the trademark in order to, “protect the brand from exploitation by parties unaffiliated with the League and its supporters.”  It also noted that MLS plans to “meet soon with the leaders of the three teams’ supporters groups to discuss the topic together.”  The full release can be read here courtesy of Alexi Lalas.

MLS is claiming that their actions are in the best interest of the supporters; the language that is used in the statement belies their true intentions.

MLS slyly refers to the Cascadia Cup as a ‘brand’ to be ‘protected’.  That is corporate speak, not supporter colloquialism or fan hyperbole.

Next notice who the ‘brand’ needs protected from: those unaffiliated with the League (MLS).  This disregards the fact that the cup originated and existed outside of and not in affiliation with the ‘League’ for most of its history.  Further, what would happen if the supporters were to decide to add another team outside of MLS to the Cup?  Would they be subject to a final ruling by MLS?  And what about supporter scarves and apparel?  Would they also have to buy officially ‘branded’ apparel and purchase from an ‘authorized’ retailer? 

Last, notice which entity the supporters are assumed to support; the ever ubiquitous ‘League’.  This belies the obvious fact that MLS views its franchised ‘clubs’ as nothing more than different heads of the same corporate leviathan.  

MLS beware: these supporters existed before the teams joined MLS.  They support MLS because they support clubs which are now a part of MLS.  These groups are your greatest asset in spreading the MLS gospel.  Don’t piss them off and risk turning them into your greatest foe.

Controversy in Cascadia

In a post I wrote just over a month ago titled ‘Saving the Soul of Soccer’ I made the comment that, “Many clubs have not been able to attract and engage fans without promotional gimmicks – and fail to realize that the clubs that DO attract at the gate do so BECAUSE of the supporters, not the ‘clubs’.”  And if any more evidence was needed to support this, look no further than the recent attempt by MLS to trademark the Cascadia Cup - a supporter cup which has been going on longer than any of its participants have been members in MLS.  


Many casual fans may not find this particularly newsworthy.  But the fact of the matter is that MLS is attempting to commandeer a supporter initiative and turn it into another brand label.  IF the cup was a club based initiative, MLS could rightly as the parent company steal it away for its own asset portfolio.  But its not.  The competition was created in 2004 as an combined effort of the supporters groups from Portland, Vancouver, and Seattle.  The derby format and rules were agreed upon and set by the supporters groups, and the actual trophy was designed and paid for by the supporters groups.  Each year, the cup is awarded the supporters group of the winner by the supporters group of the previous years winner.  If anyone ‘owns’ the Cascadia Cup trademark it is the collective supporters groups of Portland, Vancouver, and Seattle.  

So why would MLS risk raising hell from some of the leagues most ardent supporters?  One can only assume it is once again the money factor.  For despite claiming to ‘grow the game’ and all talk of ‘grassroots initiatives’ what we have consistently seen is a trade corporation leveraging any and all assets to increase the bottom line.  And this time, that includes robbing the passionate fans and supporters of one of America’s only true derby competitions (I say ‘true’ because I reject the majority of derbies in MLS as artificially staged. They are failed attempts to tap into the resources of supporters, by constructing a cheap alternative to the story, history, and drama of the derbies in Europe.)  

I don’t believe that the MLS trademark bid will be allowed to stand.  But I am appalled that they would even try.

Saving the Soul of Soccer

If the soulless state of Premier League football has been occurred as a steady decline, then the damnation of the American game is likely to come much more swiftly.  Where English clubs boast century long blue collar histories, the US must acknowledge its origins as a commercial venture birthed for the purpose of hosting a World Cup.  MLS clubs are franchises - teams that are licensed to play the beautiful game.  Many clubs have not been able to attract and engage fans without promotional gimmicks - and fail to realize that the clubs that DO attract at the gate do so BECAUSE of the supporters, not the ‘clubs’.  In fact, clubs like Portland, Seattle, Philadelphia, and Montreal are successful because they had faithful supporters involved with the team BEFORE they moved to MLS (and in the case of Philadelphia, the fans were the driving force in the city being ‘awarded’ a franchise).  The good news is that more and more clubs are recognizing the value of their supporters and are doing more to involve them.  The bad news is that because of the franchise model, it is unlikely that the MLS cartel will ever allow a truly ‘member’ owned club.  If the Premier League is losing its soul, than MLS was born without one.

Of course, those in MLS will object and state that they have created a ‘stable’ league within which to develop the domestic game.  And Premier League owners will continue talking about how their brands have achieved worldwide recognition.  They are selling the soul of the game for profit - and I believe the future ‘success’ of these two leagues will stagnate.  At least premier league ownership haven’t been able to ban promotion/relegation yet.

But there is hope!  As David Conn wrote yesterday at theguardian, the German Bundesliga model requires at least 50% club member ownership.  This keeps ticket prices down, stadiums filled, and fan engagement high.  Don’t believe me?  Take a look at the numbers.

Sporting News reported that AVERAGE attendance for the Bundesliga was a world leading 45,726 for the 2011/2012 season.  That is about 10,000 more per game than the second place Premier League - the so called ‘top’ league in the world.  And more than twice the average of MLS, which despite rapid growth has only seen a couple of clubs able to draw over the 20,000 mark consistently.

In terms of TV contracts and viewers the EPL outdraws both the Bundsliga and MLS by significant margin, though I would argue that this has more to do with the colonization of the British Empire and the universality of the English language as it does the league structure.  In fact, when talking ‘domestic’ football the Bundesliga receives top honors as one quarter of the German population watch any given league match.

Lastly, the Bundesliga develops domestic talent that rivals the Spaniards and the Dutch - a fact emphasized by the number of World Cups the Germans hold.

As the German game receives more media attention and is able to command larger TV contracts, the strength of the Bundesliga will only improve.  Yet in spite of this, German giants such as Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich remain committed to providing affordable access to the fans and supporters who have taken them this far.  The German clubs will not have to ask ‘who is our next Roman Abramovich’ when a rich investor gets too tired of losing.  As more and more clubs sell off pieces of the football world soul, it’s nice to know that there a few clubs committed to preserving the heritage of football for all.

Calling Out The NCAA

Introducing the Conversation

Earlier this week Grand Canyon University announced that they were accepting an invitation into the WAC (Western Athletic Conference) of NCAA Division 1.  Paul Fain published an article on the Inside Higher Ed website raising some thoughtful questions in reference to Grand Canyon’s for profit status and how that could affect fundraising, and by inference NCAA compliance.  This case is particularly significant because Grand Canyon is the first for profit institution to join Division 1.  This means that ‘donors’ are really ‘sponsors’ and that GCU’s athletic programs are not ‘extracurricular activity’  but sports ‘business’.  Which begs the question: should athletes at GCU on athletic scholarship be considered ‘amateur’ or ‘professional’?

Before I take this discussion too far, I must say that it is entirely possible that this conversation as specifically involving GCU could prove to be a moot point.  They may offer scholarships through a non profit or foundation associated with advancing the mission of the college.  But as I will argue below, this isn’t just about GCU.  It is about calling the NCAA what it really is - a Sports Franchise.

The NCAA Franchise

‘Franchising’ as a business practice is generally defined as the right or license granted by a company or individual to another company or individual to market an existing product or service.  Within this context, the NCAA is the ‘franchise’ and its sanctioned athletic events are the ‘product’.  The participating colleges and universities are both the franchisers and the franchisees, much the same as the teams in the NFL.  Skipping the history of the NCAA, we will say that current NCAA members are the franchisers and when a new member is added that member is the franchisee.  After the franchise has been awarded, the franchisee then becomes a part owner of the franchise or in this case, a voting member of the NCAA.  Similarly, just as the structure of the NCAA mimics a franchise enterprise, so does the ‘economy’ or the exchange of goods and services between the university franchisees and the individual consumer.  The universities sell tickets to sporting events, the rights to TV broadcasts, and market fan apparel. Successful teams often secure large financial prizes for their parent institutions.  And all of this is accepted blindly because these institutions are legally chartered as not for profit - which really only means that in exchange for tax breaks there aren’t any shareholders reaping profits off of the athletic feats of young athletes.

College sports are big business.  The athletes performances are the product being sold by the members of the NCAA to the consuming masses.  In function, these athletes are professionals whose performances are bought, sold, watched, evaluated, and consumed.  The fact of the matter is that whether or not an athlete is or isn’t compensated (via scholarship or otherwise) for these performances is irrelevant.  The point is that a university can sell a product or service that is not strictly in line with the academic nature and mission of Higher Education (nullifying the appropriateness of tax exempt status) AND profit off of it, while demanding that amateurism remain crucial to the academic development of the student athlete is a whole lot of crap.  [A short note here: another very big portion of this argument could center around an athletes 'compensation' - or lack thereof.  But that's a topic for another post].

The truth is that the NCAA is a cartel of higher ed institutions operating a very profitable sports franchise.

I find it fascinating that the NCAA so adamantly insists on a standard of amateurism in spite of the obvious business of college sports.  But I find it even more disturbing that institutions that are dedicated to the academic pursuit of knowledge and truth (to say nothing of justice!) can so willingly ignore these issues in favor of financial boon.

Oh no, not that again: Promotion/Relegation Part I

I’m sorry.  I couldn’t resist.  With the BCS announcing the exploration of a playoff model to determine the national champion, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to broach one of the hottest, and possibly the most futile debate currently plaguing American football: Promotion/Relegation.  There.  I said it.  Let the soccer moms (as if?) sit down at their keyboards and begin raging on the Big Soccer battleforumfield.

The blogosphere may be sick and tired of the pro/rel debate, but it is a real issue.  Not only do myself and a host of other American footy fans care, FIFA cares.  And because FIFA cares, it likely (ok, I’ll admit to some journalistic speculation here) cost the US a chance to host the World Cup.  THE WORLD CUP.  Yes, I’m yelling.  IT’S ONLY THE SINGLE GREATEST SPORTING COMPETITION ON THE FACE OF PLANET EARTH.  Ok, that’s a little obnoxious.  But I want you to understand this is a big deal!

And while many claim that pro/rel is decades away from being instituted in the US, I believe that it could be much closer based upon the rapidly changing fabric of sporting culture in this country.  Two quick pieces of evidence: 1. As stated at the beginning of the article, the BCS.  If an institution so entrenched as the BCS and college football can take a step forward, then so can the United States Soccer Federation. 2 The US Open Cup.  A cursory glance over the growth of this tournament in recent years underscores the growth of soccer in the US - at all levels.  That is not to say that there aren’t significant issues facing the US Soccer pyramid.  Only that there has been a lot of growth throughout the pyramid.

Ultimately, this debate comes down to a series questions about the economic implications of pro/rel on established clubs within a franchised system; namely, what will happen when these clubs are disenfranchised AND potentially relegated?  The answer to this question that pro/rel opponents would offer is to say that it will ruin some of these clubs financially, causing severe a stratification within the league(s).  Without salary caps to drive down the cost of player wages, without a revenue sharing agreement to skim the successful clubs profits and share them with the unsuccessful clubs, and without a Big Brother to keep everyone playing ‘fair’ the market can be controlled, risks can be minimized, profits are theoretically maximized, and of course, everyone wins [kind of].  Of course, this answer betrays a certain set of presuppositions that ought to be examined as the real basis of those opposing pro/rel.

So, in the upcoming pro/rel series I will seek to first examine and then evaluate these underlying assumptions in the hopes of building a case for the value of the pro/rel system in America.  I welcome your thoughts and comments along the way and would love to hear some healthy critically though out dialogue on the subject.

The Rust Belt Derby and Supporter Culture

The Rust Belt Derby was a regional derby created by the supporters clubs of Detroit City (The Northern Guard), FC Buffalo (The Situation Room), and A.F.C. Cleveland (6th City Syndicate).  It is a great competition that fosters a real supporter culture and engages the communities these teams are located in.  

Initially, I was going to post about how I thought that the Erie Admirals and Greater Binghamton FC ought to be considered for this trophy; however, after reading an excellent article by Daniel Casey on footy culture in America (see link below) I have come to a different conclusion.

You see, Casey is right.  The talking heads of Major League Soccer have attempted to create certain faux rivalries as a way to engage fans and drive consumption of a product, MLS.  But because these rivalries have no deeper roots, they are essentially meaningless.  Casey points to the Brimstone Cup as an example; the only reason Dallas and Chicago vie for the ‘Brimstone Cup’ is because of the flame related nature of these two teams names (Chicago Fire and Dallas Burn = although Dallas has since dropped the Burn moniker in favor of the simpler FC Dallas title, a fact which makes the persistence of this competition all the more ridiculous).

So, why should Greater Binghamton and Erie be allowed to participate in the Rust Belt Derby?  Some might argue they ought to automatically qualify because of their status as rust belt cities.  However, I believe that this status must be earned.  It wasn’t the NPSL or the teams executives who cooked up the Derby as a cheap publicity stunt.  It was the fans, the ardent supporters of Detroit, Cleveland, and Buffalo that collaborated to give these games meaning.

In that light, Erie and Binghamton have a long way to go, though I hope for my part that we we will soon see the Parlor City Supporters clamoring for the Upstate Cup with Buffalo.  In the meantime, check out the supporters websites of the 6th City Syndicate, The Norther Guard, and The Situation Room - they are great examples of top notch American supporters clubs on a grass roots level.