25 May 2006

With, Not Instead

One of the more provocative sets of articles that's appeared here at DCenters were the examinations of the Google trends tool and the attempt to gauge how interested people are in using the Internet to gain information on Major League Soccer, especially in comparison to the National Hockey League (See [1] and [2]). Recently I read two articles that make me want to revisit that territory. Yes, this is personal opinion time again, so take it as you will.

Over at Off Wing Opinion, Eric McErlain linked The DCenters analysis with an article he read from the Canadian press. He has some great points that I largely agree with. He says:

It's one thing to measure interest from online searches, but it's another thing entirely to measure it in dollars. Despite the gap that's been discovered here, MLS has a long way to go before it can regularly replicate the atmosphere -- and the box office receipts -- of the Stanley Cup playoffs. That doesn't mean it can't get there, or even exceed it for a time.
What he says here is true. The NHL brings in more revenue than MLS does right now, and I don't see much sign of that changing in the next decade. The point I'm trying to suggest is not that MLS is worth more than the NHL, or that MLS is as popular as the NHL, but rather that the demand for information from content providers, such as your local TV station, ESPN SportSCenter, the Washington Post, and all is similar. The question is one of eyeballs, not pocket money. The demand for information is not the same as the demand for tickets (and while they probably correlate, we all know from Stats-101 that correlation is not causation).

So my argument is not addressed to people considering whether or not building a Soccer Specific Stadium is worth public financing, but rather to the information providers. People want MLS news, and if your national or local coverage isn't getting it to you, then a potential advantage for a competitor exists. Simply in terms of providing information, not box office.

Now, the other issue is the idea of NHL vs. MLS for the position of "Fourth most popular professional league." By writing my first take the way I did, I think I may have contributed to a false dichotomy in framing the issue. There is no reason in my mind that the choice between the MLS is an either-or. We play at different times of the year for the most part. The NHL is a daily event, the MLS weekly. Markets are not necessarily zero-sum institutions, where one segment profits only at the expense of the other. I am an MLS fan before all else, but I don't believe that moving MLS up in the world requires that the NHL move down. I think many believe otherwise. For instance, in an otherwise excellent post on MLS expansion options and their visibility, scaryice at Climbing the Ladder falls into that line of thinking:

As a huge soccer fan, of course I want to see the other major leagues struggle (hey, they're not going anywhere). Especially the NHL, because they are the undisputed #4, offering a product that is increasingly being called a niche sport in America. The goal for MLS is to become a major league, and when we get on par with them, it will be a great day for soccer. It would be nice to get their entirely on the league's success, but if the NHL falling can hasten the goal, then that's a good thing.
I disagree with this 100%. If MLS becomes the #4 professional league because the NHL falls below MLS while MLS remains constant, I don't see that the consequence is that MLS gets more money or attention. Instead, I think people will naturally split the space among the NBA, MLB, and NFL.

To me, I want to see the MLS take its place with the NHL, not have the NHL fall apart. And as a matter of respect, including media coverage, I think MLS should earn, per game, close to the kind of media coverage the NHL has nationally and locally. I know that NHL fans are shaking their heads... "Don't they know how shabbily we're treated?" Yup. I've been a Caps fan in days when it seemed like the only thing the media would mention was a game 7 collapse against the Penguins, coupled with a Tony Kornheiser column about dogs requiring first aid. And it is more than MLS gets in most markets, especially nationally on cable sports stations. We want the same sort of information coverage as the NHL, but not by tearing down ice hockey, but by building up soccer. And, to some degree, I think we are pretty damn close in terms of the demand for information.


At 28 May, 2006 23:24, Blogger scaryice said...

Hockey failing helps us. We're going to get bigger regardless, so in the imaginary gap we're trying to fill, we're making up most of the distance. But every little bit that the NHL falls helps.


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