Sunday, December 6, 2015

Columbus, Portland, Today!

MLS Cup Final kicks off later today - 4 PM to be exact. Best of luck to both MLS organizations.

There were a dozen or so good narratives to sift through this week, but most of them took a backseat to both "mid-market" cities being excited to have a championship trophy to cheer for.

One question that has lingered over my head all week that the narratives didn't answer is - "How did these teams wind up in the final." The last two years have seen MLS open up the checkbook a little more to allow teams in big markets to buy top talent, but where are they today?

The easy trap to fall into is the one that says these two built "teams" instead of focusing on two, three or four high-quality players, theory being: "A team that works hard, regardless of money, beats out talent." It's very American to think this way. We've seen this narrative ever since the "DP" rule was introduced back in the late 2000s, but before this season started I looked at the last five years and found out that the folks that spent the most generally win things over the long haul.

Work and player chemistry is certainly important, but just like anything, it's a combination of things that have put Crew SC and the Timbers in the Final.

The two big ones for me are - 1. Gregg Berhalter and Caleb Porter are capable tacticians and have out managed the rest of the league and - 2. The two organizations are "all in." from the groundskeepers to the primary operator / investor.

The latter feeds the former.

The MLS Cup is IT for Anthony Precourt and Merritt Paulson. They don't have any other major sporting interests outside what they are doing in MLS. In many ways their teams are little kingdoms inside the MLS system. No stadium or office sharing with other pro sports. No operators who also run NFL teams or disconnected man-children of former founders of the league.

I don't want to compare this game too much to the one two years ago when Sporting KC and Real Salt Lake wound up in the final, but it is like that in a number of ways. I wouldn't mind a league (or soccer pyramid!) filled with teams from Salt Lake, Kansas City, Columbus and Portland. Who wouldn't?

I'm looking very much forward to today's match. Money and expansion to more major markets (NY, LA, Atlanta, even Minneapolis) is going to make it harder for teams on a budget to continuously win hardware in MLS. Just like other leagues in the US, the larger the market, the more money it brings to owners / investors.

Let's look at the major pro leagues in the US and their recent winners:

NHL - Chicago (x3), LA (x2), Boston
NFL - Boston, Seattle, Baltimore, NY, Green Bay*, New Orleans*
MLB - KC*, San Francisco (x3), St. Louis, NY
NBA - San Francisco, San Antonio*, Miami (x2), Dallas, LA
*Not on the coast or in a huge market.

I've got 24 titles up there since around 2010 and only 4 (5 if you count St. Louis) are not in big-boy cities and this quick analysis doesn't take into account the opponents (which are usually large markets as well).

Each major league almost always has a large market playing in the final. In the NBA, the last time two smaller market teams played was 2007 when the Spurs played Cleveland (they did have that James guy, though) and before that? You have to go back to the mid 90s when Houston played Orlando. In baseball you have to go back nearly as far to find two little guys (1997, really, Marlins, Cavs).

The NFL is a little better. Two years ago had Seattle and Denver (if that counts). Anything with Pittsburgh doesn't really count because of their gigantic fan base but 2011 kinda counts with Green Bay and Pitt. Looking over the list, I'll have to say that my favorite Super Bowl matchup is 2003 - Tampa Bay and Oakland. I've looked up the ratings. Interestingly, NFL ratings have been growing since that game.

The league office likely preferred to have larger TV markets in the final for TV ratings as they have been dipping over recent years, but I truly believe the environment at the stadium today is going to be one of the best in MLS history.

It might not draw the figure they want on ESPN or Unimas and we will see lots of handwringing after the numbers are out... but, will show that dozens of other cities similar in size and history (not just another 4, 5, or 6) should have a chance to earn their way to a seat at the table. For me? Therein lays the key to unlocking the sport in this country. It might not be what the 20-28 MLS investors / groups want, but it would be awesome for tens of millions of soccer fans across North America and beyond.

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