The Sweeper: MLS’ Digital Disaster Dumped On Its Teams

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Being the nice, gentle and kind soul that I am (sometimes), I’ve been reluctant to pile-on here about MLS’ new website since our post last week reviewing the site’s disastrous initial state. But, alarmingly, one week on from that post and the launch of the site, the scale of the problems MLSSoccer.com ekes out of every pore have only become more and more evident.

There hasn’t been a lot written about this massive fail (one does wonder if the fact that half of America’s soccer writers also write for MLS’ official site now might have something to do with that….). But the scale of the problems the site has encountered, especially given the central importance of the internet to MLS’ marketing and communications strategies, remains astonishing.

From basic functionality not working to missing links to bizarre content, I simply don’t know where to start. When developers are too lazy or too overworked to do the simplest stuff – like using margins for text – you know something has gone seriously, horribly wrong somewhere. Not to mention the failure of its most basic function, to provide accurate score-reports, something MLS has at least apologised for.

And I won’t start, because Fake Sigi has absolutely nailed it with a blistering take-down of the site’s development process. I feel bad for the man at the centre of the attack, MLS Director of Digital Strategy Chris Schlosser, because FS’s post is a call for him to lose his job. I’m sure Schlosser isn’t too happy with Rocket Fuel, the consultants who have developed the site for MLS;  and FS has plenty of venom for them, too.

But FS is right that the site has been an absolute travesty, and it’s MLS’ responsibility, whatever mistakes the company they hired have made. It could probably form the centrepiece of a very useful case-study on how not to develop a major website.

The problems are so pervasive as to possibly be terminal. I wouldn’t be surprised to see MLS struggle through a year of this site before totally ditching “mlssoccer.com” and rebranding with something entirely new. At the very least there will be another redesign in the next couple years. The die has already been cast for this turd.

I don’t say any of this lightly. I’ve been involved in projects like this. I know how mistakes can happen, and how a radical change in web site architecture can create unforeseen issues that need to be dealt with. I’m also acutely aware of the nature of web sites as changing, developing entities. At some point in the future, bugs will be fixed, functionality will be restored, and everyone will get used to the new site.

But what happened with the MLS web site to this point goes far, far beyond the normal hiccups that typically dog tech projects of this nature. It’s impossible to go point by point, screen-cap by screen-cap to eviscerate the totality of the new website because I have over 50 screen-caps of problems, and right now that’s not counting the stats, players, community, supporters, espanol, mobile, or store sections.

MLSsoccer.com is the one of the worst website redesign rollouts I’ve seen in years. It represents a lost opportunity and a monumental failure in execution. It exposes the weaknesses of those in charge in the worst way.

And quite frankly, for an organization the stature of MLS, one that relies so heavily on publicity to bridge the gap to profitability, one that is run by marketing professionals, such a misstep is unforgivable and inexcusable.

One aspect that FS does not delve into is how this has filtered down to the team-level as well. For some months, I was excited to learn that the Fire would be getting a new site, and would have more control of the content; they were taking that in-house, making good hires, and they talked several times to me about how once the site was launched they’d take feedback and do what they could to incorporate my suggestions into the supporters’ section of the site (for those that don’t know, I’m chairman of Section 8 Chicago, the Fire’s Independent Supporters’ Association).

It seems to me they’ve been hung out to dry by MLS. The site’s launch date kept creeping back…and then it finally launched on the eve of the season. And boy, did they drop a stinker on the Fire. At first glance, it looks nicer (apart from the inexplicable two inch grey space at the top of the site):

fire-website

Similar to the main MLS site, the basic formatting of the text and pictures on numerous pages looks like it was developed by somebody who just took their first class in HTML design and hasn’t figured out this whole CSS formatting thing yet. Text is crushed against pictures, the fonts used are poor and inconsistent, and well, you get the idea.

fire-site-2

The information on these pages is horribly outdated and has some bizarre flaws. As I understand it, the Fire’s front office still has to send in updates to these static content pages to be fixed in New York. Somewhere along the line, something has broken down as egregious errors have not been corrected in a week since launch. The worst example is undoubtedly the Ring of Fire page; what should be a tribute to the Fire’s members of the Ring of Fire is instead about a separate honour the Fire bestows on fans, the Wall of Honor.

ring-fire-wall

The supreme irony there is that the two current members of the Wall of Honor, Brandon Kitchens and Dan Parry, were in 2008 selected for the Ring of Fire by the current members, a decision vetoed by Fire ownership who decided to create the Wall of Honor instead.  Oh, the bizarre twists of internet fate!

The Fire history page? Well, it’s an excellent explanation of the club’s history up until the end of 1997…before the team had even played its first game. The Important Dates in Fire History page gets a little further, but stops in 2007 with the resignation of Juan Carlos Osorio.

It’s inconceivable that the Fire’s front office, who quite honestly have been on top of their online game this offseason with engaging social media work, could be happy with this state of affairs content-wise. It’s clear they do not yet have the control of the site they were promised when it was trumpeted MLS and teams were taking these sites “in-house”.

A peek underneath the hood does nothing to inspire confidence that the site’s developers took any care or spent any time on the site. A basic search engine optimization piece of code that takes 10 seconds to write and has been in use since the 1990s is, for example, an empty tag:  <meta name=”keywords” content=”" />

This is where it might be useful to write in, I don’t know, “Chicago Fire”, “MLS”, “Soccer”. See, that took me five seconds.

The developers are too lazy to even embed hyperlinks.

Did I mention the site often slows to a crawl and goes offline?

The curious part is there is nothing difficult development-wise about the Fire’s site. It doesn’t rely on anything more complex than the open-source content management system Drupal, a piece of web development software so easy to set-up and deploy that I’ve done it. All we have here are some static pages and dynamic content easily edited in a web browser, themed for the Fire. But it’s clear the developers are so overwhelmed dealing with the disaster that is MLSSoccer.com and its myriad problems that the team’s individual sites have been neglected as well, simple as they are.

The sad thing is, long before Seattle supposedly rewrote the rules on having a compelling MLS website, in 1998 the Fire had a site superior both to today’s incarnation and the previous league-run site, by local company TribeAgency (you can see their portfolio from those days here).

Some teams haven’t even had their new sites launched — see Columbus, for example — but quite honestly, that’s a blessing in disguise. Better to have a functional site than the bug-ridden, poorly coded, poorly implemented site MLS has dumped on the Fire.

Quick Hits

The Sweeper appears daily. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.


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