25 October 2006

Improve MLS the Easy Way... Be What You Are

It seems to me that there's a lot of talk on ways to "fix" or "improve" MLS. My Very Brain and An American's View... Are having a good discussion regarding the playoffs, single tables, etc... , (you can kind of catch up on it here and here). Good conversations. But I want to return to one of my constant points: Many problems with MLS can be fixed without significant changes to competition.

We all know that unlike most sports leagues, MLS is a single-entity structure. The league owns all of the teams, all of the contracts. Within the single-entity structure, the Investor/Operators of teams (Checketts over at RSL, Robert Kraft at New England, Lamar Hunt's teams, AEG's teams, the Red Bulls ownership in New York) have some say on running various operations for their teams, such as scouting, front office operations, and in some cases, website design. Profits are shared across teams, as are expenses.

This approach has significant advantages. It should create a nice efficient system whereby I/O's can use individual teams as laboratories, with risk spread across the entire league. Managing player salaries, a significant cost-source, is much easier. MLS has certain legal protections as well. NFL and NBA teams have to deal with free agency since in order to avoid various anti-trust rules, since to ban it would be an anti-competitive act between teams (it helps to think of teams as individual businesses competing against one another). MLS has no such problem, and is legally exempt from worries about anti-trust behavior since there are not mini-businesses competing against each other, but one business (MLS) with, in essence, competing departments. There could be pitfalls down the road, but right now the system still makes sense.

The problem to me is that MLS, for whatever reason, gives too much leeway to each I/O, and doesn't take advantage of the single-entity structure. In essence, MLS has the opportunity to try out strategies of operations within each team laboratory. Then MLS can evaluate those strategies and implement them across the league. Case in point: Website design. We have the standard MLS template pages, and we have two teams that have deviated from that consistent branding to try out their own look and feel. Typically, MLS website design is handled centrally by a team of professionals, and I'm told that supporting both the typical website and the custom ones is a real pain. After a few years, we should have some data indicating which approach has been more successful. If custom team websites are more effective, then all MLS teams should have them. If not, then the Revs and the Rapids should get with the MLS template in the interests of efficiency. It seems simple, but instead this odd gap in branding occurs.

I've heard in discussions that while there are meetings of various departments across teams once a year, where stories of success and failure are swapped, there is no real systemic implementation of best practices across MLS teams. In part, this may be because MLS wants I/Os to feel as if they "run their teams" but the effect is to neglect the advantages that single-entity structure opens for all teams. In terms of operations that have nothing to do with competitive performance on the field (Marketing, Sales, Branding, Financial Organization, Payroll Operations, etc...) the best practices of each teams should be identified, harvested from across the league, and implemented league wide. That might take away from the I/O's feelings of power and control over their own team, but ultimately should result in better performance. You can still allow I/Os to adjust practices for regional situations (% of non-English speaking populations, for instance), or to propose their own pilot programs. But those programs should be evaluated. If they work, that success should stretch across MLS. If they fail, then the team should get back with the standard.

I being this up because you can see how different teams can be. DC's Kyle Sheldon, and FC Dallas's Evan Mitz, are both apparently willing to work with blogs to help MLS. (In fact, a person I trust e-mailed me regarding Evan's offer to state "Evan is one of the good guys." Good to know. So if you're not buying your MLS Cup Tickets from the Eagles or the Barra, get them from Evan.) I've also seen comments, gotten e-mails, and read BigSoccer discussions about the way "Internet Journalists" (read: self-aggrandizing smartasses with computers) are treated somewhat poorly by some teams. I'd like to think that working with writers such as myself helps teams profitability, but what do I know? But that's the point. If teams that have fan-friendly (and blogger-friendly) front offices are more profitable (and I doubt we have enough data to determine that yet, but still, you can apply the same logic to "relations with Supporter's Groups"), then with a single entity structure there is no excuse for all teams not to behave that way.

So, in short, my proposal for MLS is this: Be a single business, and act like it. Get Standard Operating Procedures that are successful in some areas, and implement them league-wide. Don't just have a convention at the end of the year to discuss how things go. Take people from a team that's doing something right and get them to travel to other team's where improvement is needed. You can do all of that without changing a single rule of competition. The only thing, that I can see, stopping you is that you're worried about infringing on I/O turf. Well, if an I/O has a choice between a private fiefdom and profitability, I imagine most are willing to choose the cash.

7 Comments:

At 25 October, 2006 12:02, Anonymous Joanna said...

Interesting point on the websites. At first I was thinking "why not let them set up their site however they want" but then just now I wanted to look up something on New England's website and... it was different. That was not a big deal but kind of annoying.

So put me down as a vote for uniformity in web design.

 
At 25 October, 2006 16:02, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a really good point, and I agree this is a MAJOR issue that MLS should adress. Websites are one thing, but the overall marketing strategies of every team in the leage should be evaluated, and regulated. Markets like NY, KC, Colorado, NE, and even Chicago need help. There is too much variance in local media exposure from one team to the next. DC United in our home market is from time to time even on the front page of our papers, while in some of these other markets other teams are struggling to have their games broadcast, or even covered. The league cannot survive with the kind of lopsidedness that is begining to form amog the seperate organizations. At this rate, not nessecarily financially, but socially MLS will be the new NASL in just a few years. Big markets like NY are getting left in the dust by cities like Houston, Salt Lake, DC, and LA. I agree with what youve said about meeting and actually doing somthing about it. The league needs to take the best model organization, (based on their average attendance, media coverage success, finances, and of course competitive record on the field) and try to emulate their strategies in these struggling markets. I thinks it's fair to say that MLS right now is it a bit of trouble, as far as how poorly some markets have been drawing, they have to find an answer, and right the ship... quick!

 
At 25 October, 2006 16:25, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Look to Australia's A-League. It's about the same age as MLS and has to deal with similar issues, competition from many other sports.

All their clubs use a single website template even though i do not believe the Australian A-League is single entity.

http://www.a-league.com.au/

 
At 25 October, 2006 16:34, Blogger D said...

Joanna: Had the same experience. With the same website.

Anon 1: Exactly. It's not just the website issue, but across all business areas, MLS should take the best examples from each team and export them league wide.

Anon 2: That's interesting.

 
At 26 October, 2006 14:12, Blogger Oscar M. said...

So many points to address, here are 2:

1) Websites - up until 4-5 years ago, each team DID operate their own website. Each was different. There are MORE efficiencies to be gained by having similar website structures across all the teams. Although, they could vary the design a lot more than they do. This is totally a cost thing and its cheaper to do it the way MLS is doing it.

2) Experimentation / Giving the league a stronger hand: NO WAY. Teams have to find a way to succeed on their own. The most MLS HQ can do is help them learn from each other what works and what doesn't. But we loose too much credibility if the central office calls any shots.

 
At 26 October, 2006 14:14, Blogger Oscar M. said...

Theres no guarantee that what works in one market will work in another (see winning championships in SJ). The league should help teams learn from each other, but I'm saying it can't force teams to operate in one way or another. That'll also piss off some of the owners or scare away potential buyers for a team.

 
At 27 October, 2006 02:36, Blogger The Manly Ferry said...

This is actually quite good - and mainly because it's such a small step, but could yield such impressive results.

And I say that as someone who generally wants I/O's to have more leeway and autonomy, though mainly in the context of room to do whatever the hell the I/O pleases under a given salary cap.

 

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