Scheduling football matches is always a tricky matter. Trying to find the time to get in a decent game of football against all of the other things that might be going on in one’s life is always a challenge.
While it may be difficult for those of us who do it as an excuse to meet with friends and have a pint, for Major League Soccer it is almost impossible.
Faced with stiff sporting competition, terrible weather, and difficult economic circumstances MLS always seems to find themselves making decisions with good intentions but failing miserably to attract strong audiences.
On Sunday, eight Major League Soccer teams will compete for the four spots in the MLS Conference Finals. The matches will be played in a row – D.C. United taking on New York Red Bulls and Columbus Crew SC hosting the Montreal Impact in the East; and Seattle Sounders FC versus F.C. Dallas and Vancouver Whitecaps against Portland Timbers in the West.
With all eight teams still having puncher’s chance of going through to the next round one might expect supporters to be getting geared up for the match.
But soccer is a funny sport here in the United States. As it is with many other subjects, the drama off the pitch outweighs the excitement for the action on the pitch, with supporters and pundits upset once again about the days that the matches are being scheduled.
With games going against National Football League matches on Sunday the fear is that the games will be overshadowed and lost amongst the Sunday shuffle.
This concern about the schedule is nothing new. Since the start of the league the issue of when games are being played has always been a point of contention between the league and their supporters.
Whether it is the league skirting the FIFA international calendar for matches and transfers, playing mid-week matches at odd times, or playing a summer schedule there is always some issue that is popping up.
Of all the scheduling problems that exist the use of a summer schedule is what seems to ruffle the feathers of supporters the most. Although MLS is not the first league to do this, it has perhaps received the greatest deal of attention because of the league’s aspiration to become one of the top leagues in the world.
Running this schedule causes many problems during the regular season, but during the post-season the issues are magnified. The league’s biggest problem is that by trying to play playoff matches during the weekend in the winter it runs into either college football on Saturdays, professional football on Sundays and European football on both days. Facing stiff competition for the same audience the league loses out.
Consider this, on Sunday when the New York Red Bulls host D.C. United they will be shown opposite of an NFL match between the Denver Broncos and the Indianapolis Colts. MLS matches typically pull in about 197,000 viewers. NFL matches? Anywhere from 20 to 25 million
The league could try and schedule them on Saturday against college football and Saturday’s Premier League matches. But even those dwarf MLS’ ratings (13-15 million for college football, about 500,000 for the English Premier League). Try to go to a bar on Saturday or Sunday at any time and ask for an MLS match. Unless you are at a soccer bar that caters to MLS chances are you might get tossed out.
It is unfortunate that the league always seems to lose steam during the most important part of the season. For all of MLS’ faults, the league got it correct when it opted to play matches between June and August as that period is perhaps the most open period in the North American sports calendar.
Without american football, basketball, hockey, or European football the league always seems to attract large crowds and good television numbers. Club competitions like the International Champions Cup and the World Cup help. But once preseason American football kicks into high gear MLS once again finds itself at the back of the sports pages.
So why doesn’t Major League Soccer just change their schedule? For starters, it is not as simple as just moving the schedule. Changing when a league plays their matches will affect not just season but multiple seasons.
Teams have to make sure that stadiums are available, players have to adapt their training methods to include periods of rest and recovery, and contracts will need to be adapted.
As has been discussed quite heavily with changing the date and time of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar all of these changes carry an economic impact and for some teams making the adjustment might not be worth it.
The weather is also a factor. If MLS were to go to a winter schedule it would mean that teams like the Chicago Fire, the Colorado Rapids and the New England Revolution would have to play in freezing and snowy conditions.
In cities in the Northeast and in the Rockies temperatures very often dip into negative temperatures and have massive snowfall accumulations. This is why leagues in Norway and Russia take off during the winter months because it is frankly not safe to be outside for extended periods.
Is there a compromise between the two systems? Possibly. The model employed by Russia and the Nordic countries is an interesting alternative.
If MLS were to run a July to May model, with a break from December-February they could continue to run matches during the late summer yet not have to run the MLS Cup against the NFL and College Football playoffs.
While it would mean that they would have to contend for airtime with the NBA Playoffs, the Stanley Cup, and the end of the European season there are enough windows during that May-June period where there is an off weekend for sports.
Switching to the Northern European model would also have other benefits. With time off during part of the summer months it will free clubs up to put in stronger sides for the U.S. Open Cup, which is the equivalent of the F.A. Cup in the United States.
This competition along with other club friendlies can serve as valuable warm ups for the next campaign rather than serving as a nuisance in the current model. It will also put North American sides on the same schedule as Mexican teams and thus give them a better chance of competing seriously in the CONCACAF Champions League.
There is also the economic incentives for the squads. Although the Northern European model is not exactly aligned with the transfer market window it is much closer than what MLS currently uses. Since MLS operates at a different time of the year than the rest of the world it is never able to take full advantage of the European transfer market.
For MLS, the major window to make moves is in January a time when clubs in Europe are often in a seller’s mode. Switching the schedule puts them more in line with the rest of the world and thus gives them a better opportunity to sell plays at a higher value.
Changing the schedule once again might create some groans within the cynical North American soccer community but in the end it will improve the status quo.
MLS may now have a footprint in the North American and Global sporting landscape but it is still growing and not at the point where it can compete with a multi-billion dollar organisation like the NFL.
Although it may mean that clubs will lose revenue in the transition, a different schedule will mean more opportunities for growth in the long-term.