Major League Soccer (MLS) has grown a strong Internet and social media presence, but its lack of diversity in media fails to engage wide swaths of potential fans in the U.S and abroad. The consequences are low TV ratings and poor attendance at some stadiums.
At this moment, a soccer fan will start to type, “Because MLS is not good enough.” Yet to some fans, MLS is an exciting, emerging league with huge potential. The gap between these two types of fans is wide, but despite myriad soccer bloggers in the U.S., there is little thoughtful MLS coverage that crosses borders and presents MLS talking points from alternative viewpoints from outside and within the United States. A dozen new culturally diverse voices could attract more new interest than another whole truckload of the current, rather generic press.
Shockingly, the majority of the United States is not white, male, middle class, straight, childless and 18-34 years old, the League’s target demographic. But without kindred voices in media or big name internationals, soccer fans outside those narrow confines have no point of reference in MLS and little natural engagement.
The current trend in MLS coverage is bandwagon journalism. Watching an MLS story break is like watching a school of aquarium fish ricochet around the tank as one, their destination determined by fellow fish. While it’s mesmerizing to watch those silvery fish in their synchronized dash, it’s not a good thing for MLS or soccer fans. The rare alternative editorials are caught in a feeding frenzy until the non-compliant fish is subdued and the message silenced.
International coverage necessary to grow MLS
Consider the U.S. media response to FIFA president Sepp Blatter’s recent negative comments about MLS, which were reasonable to many outside the U.S. Much of the U.S. media response was a blatant personal attack on the FIFA president with little attention to the issues he raised, which is poor journalism at best and contrary to the best interests of MLS. While there may be cause to debate Blatter’s overall performance, the issue here was not Blatter, it was the MLS and how it is viewed from outside the United States. MLS media did not pick up on that. What could have been a good opportunity to raise awareness about the nation’s top league was reduced to personal attacks on Blatter and degraded the progressive image of soccer in the U.S. It was difficult for any pundit with a contrary opinion to wade into that shark-infested water without encountering a sea of pain.
This “schooling” trend infects U.S. media across the board, not just MLS. The trend is caused by the new economics of journalism - the shift from independent to source-sponsored news spurred by the economic failure of traditional news media. There are few genuine journalism jobs, especially for regular soccer coverage, and the quest for traffic is deadening to creativity. The problem is actually not MLS, but MLS can do something about it.
MLS would do better to cross those borders and cultures with a light hand on the reins. Whether it’s sponsoring an independent press outlet or hiring internationals and cross-culture writers to expound without censure, this strategy speaks to the personal and cultural significance of the sport more than just the purely informational.
MLSsoccer.com as news source
Fifteen years ago, shut out of traditional coverage by other sports, American soccer fans took to the emerging Internet for news and kindred spirits. To compensate for the lack of professional coverage, MLS intelligently developed its own website as the primary provider of news. But due to the freefall of professional journalism, MLSsoccer.com continues to dominate independent sources.
But when MLSsoccer.com “breaks” a story, the League is actually issuing a press release. Like any public relations arm, MLSsoccer.com has an innate responsibility to suppress contrary messages. Moreover, it’s impossible for any corporate entity to objectively report on itself and in that way, MLS is currently sequestered from the important watchdog function of the Fourth Estate, which is dangerous in the long run.
Consider match fixing, the disease that has infected soccer around the globe. Who is naïve enough to think it could not occur here? Hypothetically, let’s say that a couple MLS teams were involved in match fixing. What would be the consequences for journalists who uncovered it? But if the Fourth Estate is silenced, how long would this disease fester until a federal or international agency exposed it? After a cover-up was revealed, what then would happen to public confidence in the League? As a mature organization, MLS needs independent press to do the jobs they were meant to do, jobs the League cannot do.
Why aren’t paid MLS contributors connecting with cultures from Central and South America in a genuine way? Not as one-off pieces, but regular MLS coverage to provide that cross-cultural counterpoint and engage those soccer fans in MLS. It might not be all daisies and Valentines, but securing genuine international presence is essential for the League to grow its international credibility and for MLS to better understand the challenges ahead.
Why are all the MLSsoccer.com writers white and male? How is this not an insult to non-white and non-male American soccer fans? Yes, MLS must target a specific demographic to sell sponsors and will invest in that direction, but having a relationship with the millions of passionate Hispanic and female soccer fans is essential to establishing a cultural presence. Where are the Hispanic announcers? Why do some teams have sketchy female dancers on the field? Why is radical anti-gay Chick-Fil-A allowed to publicly align with MLS? While catering to one demographic is reasonable, deliberately discouraging others by ignoring or offending them is old-fashioned discrimination.
There are different ways to cover MLS and create more and better genuine impressions. Consider the Cascadia Cup controversy, where MLS took legal rights on a fan-created tournament. Making things go away quietly isn’t the only way to handle issues like this, and it could be approached as a path to help the League to grow. The Cascadia Cup is a timely controversy that pits corporate rights versus individual rights - a common theme in current politics - and MLS would be smart to respect the dissenting press and make concessions to win the battle.
Although MLS still creates it's own news coverage, it now must step out of the comfort zone and cast a wider net to win the diverse hearts and minds of a hungry public.