It’s Week 2 in the National Football League, or as some of us who follow the other “football” in the United States and Canada might call it, Week 28 of the 2019 Major League Soccer campaign.
It can be a bittersweet time of year for MLS followers, who are excited by the playoff push but also irritated how many of their friends are distracted by The Shield.
It’s at times like these that MLS fans should remember the NFL was also once a relative afterthought in America behind baseball, boxing, horse racing and even college football. And many of the traits that make the NFL among the most marketed sports entities on the planet could be relatively easily adapted by MLS.
Here’s a few that might make sense even right now, with MLS still growing:
Play A 16-Game Schedule (Twice A Year)
Facts about the current MLS schedule:
- The two-conference format will be nearly impossible to maintain as the league grows to 30 or more teams
- The current schedule constantly creates logistical hurdles for teams in international competitions and players transferring in from abroad
- More warm-weather climates are entering MLS as confirmed or possible MLS expansion markets
Purists often argue MLS should adopt a European-style fall-to-spring schedule. But considering that extreme heat and extreme cold can both befall some MLS markets, why not mirror Liga MX and other leagues in Concacaf, most of which play two short seasons each year.
Competing for separate Spring (February-May) and Fall (late July-early December) trophies makes sense on several levels. With 30 or 32 teams, there’s more hardware to go around. The calendar would be more synched with the rest of the region and the world, while also allowing for at least six weeks off during the worst of winter. And the new single-elimination playoffs format makes deciding two champions far less lengthy of a process than the old aggregate-goals series.
If MLS eventually expanded to 32 teams, it could follow the organizational structure and scheduling model as the NFL, in which all matchups are decided based on divisional and conference rotation and how each team finished the previous season. A league structure in which there are two conferences split into four divisions would foster continued local rivalries and preserve competitive scheduling balance. Playing 16 games each season plus an additional postseason each year would more or less match the current 34-game annual schedule in terms of ticket sale opportunities.
Flex More TV Games
To its credit, MLS has allowed for some modest flexible match scheduling during September. But it’s a far cry to what the NFL is able to do with its Sunday night and Sunday late afternoon TV windows between Weeks 5-17 of the season, to get its most favorable matchups in front of the most eyeballs. (For that matter, the schedule is also more flexible to TV demands in college football and several European soccer leagues.)
The MLS should follow these examples, originally producing a fixture list listing all weekend games on Saturday, then allowing TV partners to select games for Friday and Sunday timeslots as late as 3-4 weeks before the game is scheduled.
The MLS would enjoy added benefits from this that the NFL doesn’t. Because the transfer market opens twice a year, teams that want more TV exposure could choose to pony up the cash for a big-time foreign transfer and see the benefit almost immediately. At the same time, networks could avoid scheduling a team when it’s clear a marquee player is out with an extended injury layoff, or the team might be rortating its squad because of U.S. Open Cup, Concacaf Champions League or other commitments.
Allow For Alternate Uniforms (Again)
Since last season, the NFL has permitted teams to wear a third or alternate uniform from their normal home or away color scheme for three games a year.
Whether purposefully or not, the move actually follows the example of many European soccer teams, who regularly include a home, alternate and third kit as part of their wardrobe. By contrast, the MLS has for now at least done away with third kits as its exclusive uniform deal with adidas continues.
That hasn’t always been the case. The Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders both sported stylish and popular third kits in the recent past. Some time before that, the Chicago Fire’s four-star third kid that mirrored the city flag was widely regarded as one of the best in the league.
Perhaps fewer designs leads to less overhead, and perhaps third kits don’t sell all that well in the short term. But in the longer term, they help build a brand a lot more than a standard issue white away jersey.
Start Games When They Start
For American and Canadian soccer fans, figuring out kickoff times can be incredibly frustrating. Sometimes games listed for 3:30 p.m. kick at 3:38. Sometimes they kick at late as 3:55. Somtimes it’s somewhere inbetween.
Generally, this owes to whether a network has a 120-minute or 150-minute broadcast window. And by listing only the start time of that window, the hope is more viewers tune into pregame programming, when the broadcasters can sell the most ads, since there are no commercial breaks during live action of a continuous soccer game.
But how many casual viewers turn away from a game because it’s taking forever to start? And how many regular viewers figure out the game and flip the channel, only to flip back when the game starts? Yes, NFL games have far more in-game advertising opportunities, but you have to think they’d game the system similarly if it worked. And they don’t. Every 1 p.m. kickoff is literally a 1 p.m. kickoff. As are those games that start at 4:25 p.m or 8:20 p.m.
Treat your product seriously, and that’s how consumers will treat it. Just ask the people who run Europe’s biggest leagues and the FIFA World Cup, which also operate with precise kickoff times.