Sunday, November 26, 2006

I recently enjoyed a film about the Cosmos, a football team that represented New York (their name was a take-off of the Mets) in the North American Soccer League in the seventies and early eighties. The league started out with sides that were amatuer by European standards, and meager audiences to match. But the Cosmos were owned by a very wealthy man who enjoyed the hell out of the whole culture of football and the thrill of managing a team. Rather than let the league fold into bankruptcy or struggle along with no pace, he sought to hire Pelé, who had just retired from his club of two decades, Santos. Pelé was wooed by the chance to bring the game to millions of fans who were woefully unaware of the entertaining fixtures going on in Europe and South America, among other venues. It worked - Pelé's presence brought fans by the tens of thousands wherever the Cosmos went, and some other teams began augmenting their rosters with retired Europeans and more international players. I believe the Cosmos went the furthest, eventually fielding an all-foreign team that featured Franz Beckenbauer and Giorgio Chinaglia, the Italian striker who came in 1976, at the peak of his career, and would eventually hold the league's record with 192 goals. Chinaglia had tremendous chemistry with the team's owner, Steve Ross, and he became obsessed with guiding and managing the team himself. His ego made him jealous of Pelé, whom he really wanted to outdo. One would think that this attitude had a large effect on his willingness to pass the ball during countless scoring chances, and could really hurt the team's competitiveness. Their massive talent, however, helped them to win bunches of games anyway and several championships.

For a while, the team flourished. They were eventually allowed to play their home games at Giants Stadium, and their fans were numerous enough to fill it. ABC covered the league for, I believe, one season. Pelé's massive talent and childish smile had done the trick. The team traveled the world after their seasons, dueling the established clubs of the old world. But Chinaglia's childish rationalizations were their undoing. His influence on Ross seems to have alienated his teammates and helped Pelé decide to retire again after '77, his third season in his new home. The 'Mos were still able to win championships, but the league, which featured as many as 24 teams in its later years, folded in 1984. Then I was born, my generation was herded through youth leagues, and now the US team is far more prepared to have a shot at a World Cup, and our audiences are more able to enjoy the conversations that take place each week in the Premier League and the Bundesliga and beyond. Only two of the 11 MLS teams are profitable now, but the league seems to be growing at a healthy pace, and the rest of the teams will hopefully be in the black within five years. The primary factor cited by The Washington Times in this prediction is the use of soccer-specific facilities. Many teams borrow their pitch from local NFL or MLB clubs, or college campuses. But the two teams that made a profit this year, LA and Dallas, play in soccer-only facilities, which is apparently not a coincidence. Although I'd imagine it cheaper to rent space than pay the full costs of maintenance, I can see how the cumulative effects of the compromises involved could obstruct progress, take some of the purity out of the crowd's emotion, bother and even injure the players, and impose second-class-tenant penalties that include ruling out the best time slots. The frustration of leasing is obvious, and the quote that Commissioner Don Garber gave for the article was a clear plea for construction. He claimed that his franchises would "never" be able to break even or turn a profit in venues they couldn't control.

The idea of building these stadiums is surprisingly appealing to me, even though I normally balk at the prospect of spending huge wads like that. The success of a few baseball and football owners seems to have convinced many others that 'everyone is doing it', and they are each entitled to a show-stopping facility built largely at taxpayer expense. There are economic arguments, of course, the most notable being the drastically greater income from the luxury boxes that are sold to corporate egoists and who knows who else. But the insistence upon public funding is certainly a problem, especially since our great cities have many other investments that are competing for those dollars, and that patience. Also, although there are several technologies that can have a nice impact on the stadiums being built now, I feel that the timing would be even better in the next decade, when more techs are mature and there are significantly more opportunities to leapfrog old ideas and make the fan experience far more enhanced. Yet this is one reason I like the soccer plan - if ten or fifteen new arenas are built in the next decade, they'll have a uniformly high level of comfort, security, and modern architectural beauty. And once they are in place, forces may align to foster the emergence of a minor league, or even open amatuer leagues. My generation will be as old as most of the pros, and I'm sure we'd enjoy nothing more than getting to play some matches on their pitch, and then purchase blu-rays of the games. And leagues like this would meet a number of hugely unmet demands for social ingredients that our culture is lacking. The other thing that justifies the idea of stadiums to me is that they are not replacing existing facilities. These cities don't have massive soccer fields, and we don't know what the fan base would be like if they did. The choice of home field certainly seemed to have a huge effect on the profitability of the Cosmos.

The other thing that spelled the demise of the NASL was its loss of its TV contract after one season with ABC. The point that usually comes up in this argument is that soccer doesn't have natural stoppages of play like hockey, basketball, football, and baseball do, and therefore the revenue from commercials is threatened. European teams advertise right on their jerseys, but this is a step most MLS clubs have tried to avoid (probably to assert equivalence with the other American leagues). But I don't think the stoppage argument is correct. Fouls and injuries stop play consistently, even though they don't stop the clock. But let's assume that on average, ten or twenty seconds elapse between the whistle and the free kick. To me, bumping it up to 30 seconds, and running a single commercial in the meantime, is a great compromise. This way advertisers would get a lot of eyes, as opposed to the current model where they run all their commercials at halftime, and it's easy to just leave the room for twenty minutes. The only advertising they do during each half are those annoying named features like "the T-Mobile man of the match". Except in the MLS they can't even get that term right, they usually call him the MVP instead of the 'man'.

So, whether the clock stops during commercials or not, the compromise seems easy to swallow, the players would get a little more rest so they wouldn't have to play as dirty, and wouldn't have to fake injuries. I also think that replay should be used to evaluate any foul the ref pleases - he should have a handheld device that lets him view all the camera angles immediately afterwards. This might lead to some delayed calls, but they are already a part of the game via the advantage rule and passive offsides, and this sacrifice I consider a pittance compared to the benefits of less diving, less blown calls and makeup calls, and consequently less negative emotion. When the entire TV audience and even the stadium audience is certain to see the replay and know pretty clearly which calls were correct, to not give the ref this option is setting him up for embarassment, a circumstance which must weigh on his mind during the action and can't help his focus. There is nothing shameful about wanting a second look, now that it is so simple to provide. On a related note, it would be really sweet if they ramped up the number of cameras and angles they use to cover these games. Then we could always see shots from the shooter's back, and really know how close they were to the target. Also it would help us know which kicks were bent the most, always cool to see. And HD coverage of these games will really be something spectacular, because the ball is big and detailed enough to see exactly what the footballers are doing to it, and it to them. Very enticing.

So as the MLS grows to 16 teams, with the twelfth taking up residence in Toronto next season, we'll get to see if the corporate bigwigs will coax it through to solvency and parity with the mindshare of the four other big box team sports, or if they'll repeat the shy, cautious tactics that sank the NASL shortly after my natal day. I hope that league didn't disagree with me, but I'm sure of my compatibility with this new one - it's named after me.

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