The latest extension to the collective bargaining agreement between Major League Soccer and its players union expires today, and various fans and pundits are ratcheting the hysteria to ridiculous levels (“The death of professional soccer in America. Period.”? Get over yourself.). (Luckily, some, like Kyle McCarthy, are taking a more reasoned view.)
I would like the people who would claim that a strike or lockout would either kill or severely damage either Major League Soccer or professional soccer in this country to go a little deeper than the bumper sticker/casual conversation sound bite and answer these questions for me:
- Are the people funding Major League Soccer going to stop funding Major League Soccer after a work stoppage? Are they just going to fold up their tents and stop operating teams?
- Will players who either go on strike or get locked out end their professional careers and stop playing in Major League Soccer at the conclusion of a work stoppage?
- Will the communities and companies that have funded the league’s nine soccer-specific stadiums (with others either planned or hoped for) just bulldoze them and turn them into shopping malls?
- Will the teams at the Division II level just say “Eh, there’s no point in playing if they’re not playing, so we’ll fold, too?”
- Will fans stay away in droves from Major League Soccer matches when they resume after a work stoppage?
The answers, as I see them, are no, no, no, no, no and maybe in small numbers at first, but not really.
So, really….what’s the hysteria about?
It’s trendy and chic and makes you look like you’re in the cognoscenti when you shake your head slowly and say “A strike would kill soccer in this country” with a tight frown on your face.
Seriously, just stop. You’re an idiot.
When other leagues have had labor strife and work stoppages, those leagues have taken a short-term hit.
- NBA attendance, which was at 17,117 per game in 1997-98, fell 2.2% during the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season, but was back to pre-lockout levels by 2004-2005. Their finances are a mess now, but that’s because they spend stupidly. But neither the NBA nor professional basketball went away.
- The NHL canceled the entire 2004-2005 season because of a lockout. NHL attendance is down 3% so far this season from last season’s final average, but every year since the lockout has seen higher average attendance than the four years prior to the lockout.
- How many baseball fans do you know who swore they’d never go to another game after the 1994 strike? How many of them have held fast to that? It did take baseball fans a while to come back, but they did come back. From an all-time high of 31,256 per game in the strike-shortened 1994 season, baseball’s average attendance dropped 20 percent in 1995 (baseball fans were pissed) and then made slight gains every year (with a dip in 2002 and then a spike in 2004) before finally exceeding pre-strike levels in 2006.
Now, you know and I know that attendance is ( a ) just one measure of a sport’s health and ( b ) not always 100% reflective of the number of people actually attending games.
But none of those sports have disappeared. None of them have gone under. None have stopped playing. No leagues have folded. They haven’t stopped televising games, or selling jerseys, or generating revenue.
“But, Kenn,” you say, “soccer is fragile, and not as strong as those other sports. Surely it can’t survive the hurt of a work stoppage. We don’t have enough fans as it is, and the ones we have won’t come back if we stop playing for a week or a month or (however unlikely) a season.”
You’re not going to kill soccer in this country. Not pro soccer, not any type of soccer. Just stop. “The game” is stronger than ever in this country. We went ten years without Division I soccer in this country, but the game didn’t die. It lived on in places like Tampa and Portland and San Jose and Albany and Orlando. It endured on small college fields in Los Angeles and indoor carpets in Cleveland and Canton and Tacoma. And the Division I level was reborn in 1996 and has a 16-team (on its way to 18 and beyond) league with real, permanent roots that virtually ensure it’s not going away.
In most of these owner vs. player schisms, the general public gets fed up and frustrated because they perceive it as billionaires fighting with millionaires over what to do with a huge lucrative pie that never seems to be big enough for them. Sports fans feel like they’re being disregarded, used and abused and that they are good for nothing but the continued feeding of the money monster.
That’s not the case in Major League Soccer. Everyone knows the players aren’t getting rich, for the most part. And while most Americans would be fine making $70,000 a year – the MLS median salary for 2009 – they understand these aren’t petulant millionaires lighting their cigars with $100 bills. I contend the average American sports fan doesn’t notice if MLS plays or doesn’t play, so it doesn’t matter what they think about a work stoppage.
You know what will happen if there’s an MLS strike? The following will happen:
- A burst of mainstream media coverage during the first 24-hour news cycle. It’ll make the network evening news and some front-page headlines in newspapers, but they’ll be very short blurbs that won’t delve into the issue. The only thing the casual sports fan will take away from it is that there’s a strike. Those who don’t say “Who cares? It’s just soccer.” will likely say, “Huh. That’s interesting. Hey, is Survivor on?”
- Jim Rome will devote a segment to it on his show, ranting about how lame soccer is, and it will be a running gag among him and his clones for at least a week. Pardon the Interruption will give Tony Kornheiser license to make a 65-second rant about how lame soccer is. Jay Leno will make five jokes about it (one a night) in his monologue. David Letterman will do a Top Ten list on it. Saturday Night Live will likely mention it on “Weekend Update.” You still with me? Think the league has folded yet? This is all in the first two to seven days.
- The soccer press and pseudo-press will be in Page View Heaven. Bigsoccer.com will need new servers. Everyone will run around and speculate and latch onto every statement and nuance and rumor. It’ll be great fun if you want to just sit back and watch people lose their minds.
- The world will keep right on spinning.
- When it’s all over, the players will have won some concessions (free agency unlikely to be among them) and the owners will have gotten some security and some cost certainty (always one of the top aims of management in these situations).
- Soccer fans will come back. Supporters who stand and cheer in Columbus and Chicago and Seattle will come back and stand and cheer and be happy to have the games back. Guys like this, who are depressed now (needlessly, I feel) will come back eventually.
- Attendance will very likely take a short-term hit, but largely for this reason: group sales. Groups are a big part of MLS ticket sales (so big that the league names a Best XI among ticket sales people for their efforts putting together groups). It’s hard enough to put groups together when you know when the games are played. If the league is in limbo, so are groups. Anything that’s been set up since the schedule was released would naturally become tenuous, and sales staffs would have no ability to set up groups for later in the season for games that might not be played.
- By 2011, when Vancouver and Portland enter the league, this will be largely forgotten. You’ll look back at the kilobytes expended and the angst and say “Wow. That was fun, but largely useless.”
Soccer is not going to die in this country because of an MLS work stoppage. MLS is not going to die. The league is on as solid footing as it has ever been. It has infrastructure. It has a core audience. You might be depressed now, Jeremy, but trust me – it’ll be okay. Really, it will.
If not having a major league for a decade didn’t kill the game, a brief work stoppage isn’t going to do it. WUSA folded and there was no high-level pro women’s league for five years – yet it came back. The original MISL folded in 1992 – yet indoor soccer endures on some level. Our national team program is light years from where it was just 20 years ago.
Soccer is stronger than ever. Soccer is not going away. Those of you who seem to like your gloom and doom as much (or more) than sweepers and strikers need to get a grip.