Friday, July 16, 2010

Baby Steps to Respectability? MLS Keeping Landon Donovan

Well, in the comments recently, we lamented the MLS and its 16 years of "progress." It's almost like they were listening to us, and in what I think is a marginal step towards respectability, the MLS declared that they will not transfer out Landon Donovan... despite the huge amount of money that would be given to the MLS/ LA Galaxy.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether this is merely a negotiation tactic, or whether MLS will stand by its initial statement. Something tells me that there always is a number that could change their mind...


MJ said...

See, to me, I think the MLS benefits by transfering out its best players simply because that means those players have value to teams that actually know how to sell soccer in their markets.

The smart thing to do wouldn't be to hold Donovan back but to use Donovan's transfer in two distinct ways:

First, to market Donovan's departure as evidence that the MLS is a breeding ground for talent and that paying attention to the MLS gives fans the unique and privileged position of "getting first looks" at tomorrow's stars; and

Second, to use the money from Donovan's transfer to buy the rights to prospective star teenagers fromthe developing world (South America/Africa) before they get scooped up by European and South American clubs.

The perception of the MLS is that it's a place where two kinds of players exist: the over-the-hill stars who come to the US to extend their careers when they're otherwise unwanted at home and the players that will never become stars and are forced to play in the MLS because their dreams of playing in one of Europe's elite leagues will never be fulfilled.

By permitting Donovan to play abroad -- and if marketed the right way -- it can afford the MLS a chance at being perceived as a breeding ground for talent, not as a place for the has-beens and the never-will-be's.

Frankly, one of the biggest detriments to Donovan's career is that he's perceived by many as unfit to play in Europe. I mean, how good can you really be when you're the best American soccer player but no one in Europe knows or cares about you? European soccer validates a career and nothing would validate the MLS more than letting Donovan establish his value in an environment that knows and cares about soccer.

MJ said...

All this being said, MLS still faces an uphill challenge. American youth soccer has been a regular part of suburban life for nearly 40 years and yet soccer will never be accepted as a mainstream professional sport in the US. It doesn't matter if the MLS produces 10 Landon Donovans, the American consumer has next to no appetite for professional soccer.

That's not to say that the MLS shouldn't keep trying, it's merely to say that there's a ceiling on how much they can grow and attract fans. To date, they've not reached their ultimate ceiling because they've gone about their marketing and player personnel moves all wrong. Further, as a single-entity structure (the league owns each team and individual owners operate more as franchisees and less as autonomous, self-interested units) there will always be an impediment to growth.

Gutsy Goldberg said...

1) I think holding onto Landon Donovan could prove to be valuable to MLS, since he is considered to be a world-class player, as evidenced by his short, offseason-loan to Everton last year where he was scoring goals and excelling. The MLS is actually holding on to someone in their prime, so that's a slight step in the right direction.
2) Providing "first looks" at tomorrow's stars does not help the MLS get much ratings or popularity. That's what they've been doing, in theory anyways.
3) I agree 100% though that playing in Europe for a full season is to Donovan's benefit. I'm not sure if that would validate MLS completely, maybe in some small way though.
4) The single-entity structure of the MLS is designed to provide safeguards such that they don't bid against each other... it also certainly impedes growth. Basically, the training wheels are still on. And I think they will continue to stay on, given how far they have to go still.

MJ said...

1) If no one is watching the MLS right now, what good does it do to keep Donovan in the league? You can't build an entire league on the talent of one skilled player.

I realize that you have to start somewhere but business and marketing are all about timing and Donovan is "ahead of his time" with respect to the MLS finally keeping a homegrown player in the United States. There's nothing else around him that can draw fans.

2) MLS says they've been doing that, but have they actually been doing that?

3) Allowing Donovan to play in Europe may not completely validate the MLS but that's where MLS has to start. It's a two-pronged approach of letting their best players play abroad (and hoping they play well) and then marketing against those players while they're playing abroad. You have to build demand for soccer in the United States and the best way to do that is to build up the players' reputations. Americans are obsessed with individual achievements over team results. Letting someone like Donovan succeed abroad will increase his stature and create a reason for Americans to care about "their" stars.

4) Nothing impedes the growth of a league more than the single-entity approach. For as much as people can bemoan George Steinbrenner's, Jerry Jones's or Mark Cuban's existence, they're examples of how a team acting in self-interest and in competition with other teams is the only way the league will grow. A little innovation and incentive is all it will take. This single-entity structure is doing more harm than good, if you ask me.

Gutsy Goldberg said...

1) You may be right about creating ratings... it really is just the Landon Donovan show if he stays in the MLS.
2) I don't know what MLS has been doing. They try to push "stars" out of the random people playing. I'm really torn on what they are supposed to do, though I'd probably just sell off Donovan.
4) The single-entity approach is being maintained because they still fear that they would financially cripple themselves. I can't disagree with the incentives you listed for abandoning it... but like I said, they are going to keep the training wheels on I believe.