MLS Fans Don’t Understand International Soccer

Brian McBride

So says L.E. Eisenmenger of the ever curious US Soccer Players website, in an interesting but rather speculative piece about the supposed lack of sophistication of MLS fans about the international soccer world, starting with the claim that “MLS fans may be unaware of international rivalries and even of the relationship between MLS and the National Team.”

For evidence of this, Eisenmenger interviews Dan Courtemanche, an MLS/SUM executive, and comes to the conclusion from his rather bland statements that it’s difficult for MLS to market an individual player because MLS fans might not understand that a sudden transfer abroad doesn’t mean their club is worthless.

Lately, the MLS clubs have been spinning an adult fan centered theme, but marketing National Team players and the team itself is more complex. Due to outgoing transfers of National Team players, it’s risky for MLS clubs to invest in promoting players that may move on within months. Also, many MLS fans are unfamiliar with the transitory nature of international soccer and may view the departure of a hotly promoted player as a club failure, which also fights against the club’s incentive to promote their hottest players, their great assets.

Given the low salary cap of MLS, it’s often difficult to convince even educated fans a player transfer abroad is not a knock against the League.  At the same time, marketing prime players is necessary to promote their current clubs and the National Team. In essence, what’s missing here is the fan confidence in those clubs to manage the transfers of their national team players, and lost in that is the public understanding of the club vs. country conflict, a concept that has largely evaded Americans due to the internal nature of US team sports.

The club vs. country conflict may be one that is largely alien to US team sports, but the power of the dollar and the pull of ambition is not. When for a variety of financial reasons a small-market baseball team can’t hold on to a hot pitching prospect and he moves on to the Yankees for more money and a shot at the World Series, or the salary cap forces an NFL team to trade a star player away, fans are generally able to grasp why. The fact economics also impacts on MLS isn’t that hard to grasp, and the difficulties the salary cap presents for teams in holding onto talent is fairly widely known, is it not?

Perhaps I happen to hang out with an unusual hardcore of MLS fans who also follow international soccer closely and understand these basics perfectly well.  In fact, this is almost certainly the case. But I’d be curious to know what the rest of you think — are MLS fans in general really “unfamiliar with the transitory nature of international soccer” and unable to grasp why their team may have to sell a star player on?

22 thoughts on “MLS Fans Don’t Understand International Soccer

  1. Jarrett C

    As an MLS fan, I was insulted by this article and further by the author’s ignorance of the kind of people that read blogs about soccer on the internet.

  2. americnfootball

    Dave Clark: well done hitting the nail on the head. American fans of global club football are the market the MLS has completely missed and the only group that can bring true, grassroots momentum to the league. And for them, overseas transfers and club v. country conflicts are absolutely basic in the grand scheme.

    I dream of the day when American teams are good enough to begin fighting for continental and global club titles on a regular basis. But to get the sustained momentum, MLS must be willing to woo people who swear their true allegiance to say, Liverpool, but have a soft spot for their local team, say, Chicago Fire. And being a more sophisticated demographic means it will take a MUCH more sophisticated approach, which i have yet to see.

  3. Dave Clark

    well, I would greatly disagree with americanfootball’s assessment that MLS is completely ignoring that group. They went out of their way to target that group, in TV adverts, in billboards, and in the behavior working on the Supporters Summit. In fact, I would say that your statement is as out of date as the article that inspired this post.

  4. DemonJuice

    Curious that they mention shifting their marketing to the “adult fan” (which I assume means knowledgable football fans) then insist on believing they know as much about the game as a soccer mom.

  5. Andrew Guest

    I agree that the framing of the Eisenmenger article is a bit odd and insulting to MLS fans, but I think there is a (potentially interesting) underlying point–unlike when a player moves from the Twins to the Yankees, or the 49ers make a trade to free up salary cap room, when a player leaves the MLS they often just seem to disappear (unless they are US national team players). I’m thinking of guys like Bakary Soumare or Juan Toja — who were great MLS players, fun to discuss and follow, but who are now almost totally off the radar for a typcial MLS fan (even for an a-typical MLS fan, it’s hard to get regular updates on the Romanian league). It does, I imagine, make for a certain type of marketing challenge. The NFL can always promote NFL players as a group, but I imagine MLS has to be more careful (though I do appreciate when mlsnet has the occassional updates about former MLS players around the world).

    My question is what exactly is the US Soccer Players website? You’re right on Tom when you describe it as “ever curious.” Is it supposed to be representing the perspectives of US pros? I know they have regular writers, is it run by some central entity?

  6. John Smith

    I’m quite insulted by the title of this article. I am above all else a soccer fan. Not league specific, not nation specific. I love the game and I know of quite a few others that follow MLS that are the same. I don’t profess to believe that MLS is anywhere near on par with European first division soccer…….. yet. However to doubt our passion for the game is a common theme I’ve heard from the other side of the pond.

    I would venture to say that there is a hard-core soccer fan in the US that generally is MUCH more educated about international soccer than the average Big-5 European fan. My main argument here is that most English players play in the EPL, most Spanish players play in the La Liga, most German players play in Bundesliga, and most Italian players play in Seria A. The fans of these countries generally don’t have much interest in following other nation’s league cause for the most part they don’t have alot of national team players playing in those countries AND the fact that they tend to be more emotionally invested in their club teams. I’m not knocking it as I understand this, just more so with the NFL, NBA, NHL, or MLB. Fans here tend to be more invested in their National team players wherever they may play, than in a particular US based club team.

    I would wager my knowledge of the EPL is much better than the average Spanish, Italian, German, or French fans. Why? Cause my national team has players on a variety of teams in the EPL. The same can be said of the Bundesliga and the French first division. (Not so much Serie A and La Liga). We’re gaining inroads in the Danish and Scandanavian leagues now and have had players in the Erdervise in the recent past. The desire to follow our players is very much like basketball and hockey fans of European players in the NBA or the NHL. Over the past 10 years more and more fans of the beautiful game have been exposed and interested in European soccer, to follow and watch our stars do well at the top of the game.

    The momentum is slowly gathering…. the sleeping giant is awaking…. our 1st division is now up to 16 teams soon to be 18. That’s a lot of players finally getting paid (though a measley amount) to play…..give us another 10-20 years and see what happens then.

  7. Brian

    ussoccerplayers has been around forever by internet standards. I’ve been reading it since at least the ’02 World Cup. Almost every pro soccer writer has gone through there at one time or another. Bradley, Lalas, Canales, Bueno, Connolly, etc. They’re owned by the players union for the national team.

    Though I didn’t care for the Eisenmenger article, I don’t think it’s fair to act like this site just came on line yesterday. They’ve been doing good work for a very long time.

  8. Tom

    John Smith — you should probably read the actual article and not just the title…

    Andrew — agree, though the curious point was that the piece at US Soccer Players was about US national team players. Which also isn’t surprising, as the site is owned and run by the players union. It’s an odd setup, definitely.

  9. Tom

    Brian — by ever-curious I was indeed
    referring to their long history, which has included a solid of solid content but also a regular stream of pretty
    odd stuff too. I find it to be a very odd site partly
    because of their unusual mission and funding.

  10. Lisa E.

    Jarrett C,

    You raise a good point. The vision of SUM extends beyond the scope of “the kind of people that read soccer blogs on the Internet.” There are many people that love/know the sport as much/more/less than you and they don’t read blogs. They may never/some will. Some may just buy tickets, pay for their ‘poorly academically performing’ kids’ clubs – a huge industry which employs more people than MLS and some will profit greatly (see youth transfer fees.)

    You’re the people SUM want others to become. You love it. But tragically, there aren’t many of you. And more tragically, you don’t have any money. That’s okay. This sport is beautiful, you don’t need money, it’s natural, that’s important.

    Andrew Guest,

    US Soccer Players is the site of the US National Team Players Association. It’s their union. Their contract expires December 31, 2010. Their current player representatives for 2008-09:

    Carlos Bocanegra
    Steve Cherundolo
    Brian Ching
    Landon Donovan
    Oguchi Onyewu

    Their goals:

    *Reach people with some association with soccer
    *Encourage, nurture and reward that interest
    *Make it easy for those people to expand their connection to the sport
    *Give them the information they need to expand their interest and knowledge
    *Create a soccer community that shares our goal of increasing soccer’s role and significance in the U.S.

    BTW: Target demographics collect stats to sell TV advertising because that segment buys certain products that targeted advertising sells, which sponsors broadcast television. But this sport is not limited to the 2010 target demographic. It will spin to other segments that may sell even more products with less investment. (sigh)

    That’s okay too. When your foot touches the ball or you watch your team, it’s still beautiful. It doesn’t matter who you are.

  11. Elliott

    As long as MLS is single entity, the concept of selling players for a profit overseas will be seen more as “exporting a quality product” than “free agency.” This has to do more with nationalism than any rational perception of what’s going on.

    What strikes me most is the lack of faith in the next crop of American players – in Argentina and Brazil they have the same export racket, but everybody is already talking about “Pato” by the time “Diego” gets sold abroad. Granted, huge chasm in overall talent between the US and those greats, but I (perhaps naively) only see improvements overall in the kids coming through the Yank ranks.

  12. novi mobiteli

    People are fans because their hearts, and executives in the clubs are only working there for salary. Rich club don`t mean anything to fans, only the one who wins. This is a case of eternal fight between heart and mind. It is same all over the world.

  13. Ryan

    The article isn’t insulting to MLS fans though, because it is the truth.

    You have a very small percentage of each MLS club’s fans that completely understand what happens in the game, on a national level, and also on an international level (i.e other leagues abroad).

    But you also have a very large gap between those fans and casual fans who follow their local MLS team, but truly do not have a grasp on why things happen outside of the US.

    The soccer fan that reads blogs on the internet, they know what’s up. Why? Because they read blogs on the internet. They know the latest stories, they know the latest scoops, the who, where, why, how.

    But there are a lot of people who still don’t read blogs on the internet. With that group the mystery about transfer fees and player rights is just a blur because it is not explained well enough in their mainstream media.

    I work in soccer for a living. I talk to loads of people who understand the game completely, but there are also loads who say they ‘love’ soccer, and they truly do, but they don’t know the first thing about the game.

  14. Ryan

    PS. My comment above about a ‘small’ percentage was not the desired one. Better said, you have the percentage that know loads about the game, and the ones who do not. I actually think for true MLS fans, a majority understand, but those are not the ones that true quality marketing has to capture and enthrall because they are already invested in the club and what happens.

  15. A. Ruiz

    I think the sort of fan the article talks about is getting rarer and rarer, when the players such as Beckham and Donovan are getting loaned, bought, signed and re-signed like pork bellies futures and it’s covered by the mainstream media.

    Although…theres is that old saying, “no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people”

  16. Matthew N

    I think a lot of you guys let the people you know in real life color your opinion about MLS fans in general. Yeah… me and my friends know about soccer. We follow the international game and understand the buy/sell nature of it. Most MLS fans are not like this. The stands are filled with soccer moms and NASCAR dads who are bringing little Timmy to the game for a good time. They get attached to the big personalities and the superstars because they don’t quite grasp the game enough to appreciate each player individually. They do see the sale of players to a foreign club as a failure, or at least I imagine they do. I think MLS’s salary cap and transfer limits really creates this problem though. People are used to loving some player in the NFL, for example, Terrell Owens, and even though he may get traded from your favorite team, you can keep that soft spot you had for him and cheer for him when he plays against your team. If Landon Donovan gets sold to Europe, these casual fans arent going to know anything about the ENglish game and it might as well be like Landon Donovan fell off of the earth. Just because players get loaned and transferred all the time does not mean people know what it means. I have had a handful of people (soccer fans) ask me what it means that Beckham gets loaned to Milan and why would he do that. Americans see America and America only. They would rather have their favorite players with a lower quality of play rather than seeing their favorite players sold to increase the skill level of all players.

    I feel like that didn’t make as much as sense as it did in my head, but whatever.. you guys gotta remember that people reading soccer blogs on the Internet are probably 1% of the actual soccer watching population (or something extreme like that). Most people watch Sportscenter (where they DONT talk about soccer), read the newspaper (where they DON’T talk about soccer), and attend a match once in awhile because it is a fun thing to do. Season ticket holders, supporters groups, foreign football fans with a soft spot for the domestic game… we are the very small minority.

  17. joejoejoe

    The status of La Liga has been raised because of the inflow of players like C. Ronaldo and Kaka. EPL and Serie A fans aren’t rubes because they think their leagues aren’t as good this year without the very best players. It IS a knock on the MLS that players leave because of the low salary cap. Fans correctly assume that the quality of play is better in the leagues that attract the best players. I don’t care about MLS marketing woes related to their low-salary cap. The Eisenmenger piece isn’t so much a dig at MLS fans, it’s a dig against the byzantine MLS salary structure. If MLS were more honest about it’s place in the world (a middling league in terms of quality of play) and run less like a cartel (“the only aspect of MLS where our clubs compete is on the field”) they wouldn’t have the problem of marketing hamburger as steak to fans. If Jonathan Bornstein has a good World Cup and gets sold to Fulham it will be because the MLS values whatever pile of money they get in return more than they value Jonathan Bornstein. The MLS keeps 2/3rd of the money from the sale, Chivas USA can’t sign an equivalent player because of their small return and the salary cap rules. Chivas USA might have a hard time explaining it to their fans but that’s because it’s complicated!

  18. Shane

    I think what Eisenmenger & Courtemanche were trying to say is MLS/Teams can’t market their players to any non fan/potential fan because they might head to Europe soon after, leaving the newbie who is unaware soccer is played elsewhere wondering what happened to the player they bought a ticket to see.

    This is the reason getting a big time DP is important. Recognition and winning through exciting attacking play will increase the fan base.
    America is full of bandwagon fans. The point is every time they hop off, some stick around. Build build build.

  19. Iggy

    Whats funny about that article is that the MLS fans that are being discussed are the ones that will never even read it and the ones who do read it are the ones who legitimately claim to be insulted.

    I would consider myself soccer educated, i’m familiar and understand with what goes on in the MLS, other leagues and internationally. One thing that use to frustrate me like crazy was all the people i would meet that claimed to like soccer, but outside the rules of the game, the world cup and maybe a couple club teams didn’t know anything else about it.

    i think previous posters touched on it well. we are the ones who make it a ritual to constantly update ourselves about the soccer world. We do this by immersing ourselves with articles, blogs, review and analysis shows, bigsoccer etc. however, the number of us that actually do these things compared to all those who ‘like’ soccer, is probably very miniscule.

    i think that article was trying to reflect those MLS fans who follow their team and only their team for the entire season and don’t have a clue as to whats going on elsewhere in the soccer world. good luck trying to explain these people how MLS doesn’t adjust to to the FIFA International calendar and why stars like beckham and donovan are missing during important league games due to international duty.

    I mean think about it, when you watch a sounders game and see the 30,000 sea of green its impressive right? like damn that many ppl like soccer… but do u actually think all 30,000 or even most of them will be able to tell you how howard, dempsey, altidore, bradley etc. did abroad that weekend?

  20. giaco

    I read through the article, then re-read it, just to be sure, and I’m not so sure that it’s quite as disparaging as you seem to feel it is. The original article seems to indicate that SUM and MLS clubs have a quandry (or two) on their hands–how to effectively market a domestic league in a country where your best prospects/national team players get ‘promoted’ via transfer to clubs outside of the country, and that a (potentially) large segment of ‘fans’ and/or potential fans would have a hard time grasping why on earth such a thing could happen.

    I hate cross-sporting analogies, and I’ll probably muck it up, but it seems a bit similar the situations in basketball or hockey, where there are leagues in many countries, but many (if not all) of the best talents from other countries consistently want to come here to ply their trade–whereas we have a similar situation in soccer. Many American players are not on par with the foreign leagues (for various reasons), but the best of the best can still play abroad. I’m certain there are English fans that are interested in the happenings (in general) of Beckham, and there are many Spaniards interested in Pau Gasol. How do those clubs/leagues market to their target populations to increase their profiles? It seems much the same quandry.

    I also feel that there isn’t really a dig, per se, at MLS fans, it seems that what the author is trying to reconcile is the difference, or gap, between the potential fans understanding of the sport, the finer nuances of the deals involved, and how that should increase one’s interest in the domestic product rather than decrease it. Even if said fan didn’t choose an MLS side, just conciousness raising (of the league and national side) and minimizing a perceived negative view of the league (based on player departure), in general, are almost the win-win outcome they hope to acheive.