The Offside Rules: MLS Radicalises Web Presence

It’s about time, the millions who have had to plug through the unwieldy navigation (let’s see how many hundreds of links we can pile into one homepage!) and mediocre writing of Major League Soccer’s website will say, but the news is still good for American soccer fans: MLS is bringing its website production in-house, planning to revamp it entirely for a slated re-launch in March 2010. And they have already hired a prominent blogger, Shawn Francis of the Offside Rules, to help with the transition and editorial content going forward.

Six years ago, MLS partnered with MLB Advanced Media to develop their website for them, a pretty wise move at the time. MLB.com was at the cutting edge of sports websites, and their subsidiary developed a decent site for the league at a much lower cost than in-house production would have been. MLS’ site remains well above the quality of international counterparts such as that of the Premier League, with video highlights a long staple including the excellent feature that allows users to piece together highlights videos oneself to embed and share on the web (unfortunately, much useful content like this was buried in the maze of the site’s tortuous navigation).

But in recent times, the cookie-cutter template used by most teams and the stale content and design has hindered innovation and the site desperately needed a refresh. WPS’ content and use of new media put it to shame and even US Soccer recently launched a much-improved site.

MLS has decided not just for a refresh, but for a radical change both for the league and team sites and in their online business model as a whole.

Hiring Francis, who will be working on their editorial content and the site’s revamp, is a fascinating move — is it the first time a top sports league has employed an independent blogger in such a fashion?  And SF, as all followers of his at-times edgy site know, isn’t exactly a corporate suit.  Top tags on the Offside Rules include “random coolness”, “gossip”, “Shep Messing’s mustache” and “The Biggest Midget in the Game”. The Offside Rules’ tagline is currently “spilling red wine on soccer’s social fabric since 2007.”

MLS website -- Under New Management

It’s fair to say SF will have to tone down this act for MLS.net to spare Don Garber an early coronary, but we can expect content that might not put us to sleep to appear on the new site. Design-wise, MLS have also taken on Memphis-based web consultancy firm RocketFuel to advise them during the transition, a firm which helped the NHL launch an improved site last year.  Presumably, we will see a much cleaner design — the fresher Seattle and DC United sites have set a pace for the league internally with this already. Such a shift would be of considerable benefit to MLS’ online identity. Having a site that was long a watered down cousin of its major summer sports competitor, MLB, hardly differentiated MLS’ identity in the sports marketplace.

But beyond MLS itself, the league sees is making a significant investment in its own online subsidiary to generate significant revenue “through the syndication of content and creation of new subscription products, but also by developing an infrastructure to support other soccer sites and soccer properties”, according to the Sports Business Journal. MLS isn’t investing all this money and taking this risk just for its own site; the idea is, just like with its profitable marketing arm Soccer United Marketing, to make money from the sport’s growth as a whole in the United States. SUM has been crucial to the survival of the league, as one of the few profitable entities attached to MLS.

As MLS President Mark Abbott told the SBJ, “The thing that led us to the creation of Soccer United Marketing in the first place was the recognition of a broad soccer opportunity in the United States beyond Major League Soccer. The same is true in the digital area. There’s lots of opportunity for us to be involved in all aspects of the sport here, and that’s something that’s part of the strategy.”

It’ll be fascinating to see if this risky but worthwhile venture works out to be similarly successful, in what could be a win-win for MLS fans.

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