Punditry Archive

Sepp’s Latest Senselessness

Dec. 31, 2012

The saying goes it’s better to have someone THINK you’re stupid, than to speak and remove all doubt.

Does anyone THINK Sepp Blatter is stupid?

The man can’t seem to utter a sentence without displaying complete ignorance. Whether its comments on women’s players in shorts, or John Terry’s infidelity, or the denial of corruption on the FIFA ExCo, or…

And now, to Al-Jazeera he blurts out the notion that in the United States, there is “no very strong professional league, they have just the MLS. They have no professional leagues that are recognized by the American society.”

I guess Blatter wants to ignore that MLS has the seventh highest average attendance in the world  for two years in a row. Or that one academic/economist recently predicted MLS will surpass the nearly century old NHL in revenue by 2020.

It’s not that his comment was mere impolitic, like the women’s shorts or Terry, it was along the lines of there is no corruption in FIFA – a complete disassociation with reality.

The argument can be made that MLS is not on the level of the English Premier League, the Bundesliga, Serie A, etc., or that is even close to breaking into that tier of competition.

All subjective comparisons.

But to say it is not a “very strong professional league” and that “they are struggling” either means there are only about six strong professional leagues in the world, or that Blatter is applying some definition that us mere earthlings can’t comprehend.

This is not that Americans should be offended. The concept is so illogical on its face that it begs the question, what measure is he using, and why is he using that measure?

It would seem that leagues with teams that can’t or don’t pay their players is a sign of financial instability and not very strong. Oh, but that would mean Spain isn’t a strong league since Malaga was just banned from European competition for not paying its players.

Or maybe when a league has a team or teams that go into bankruptcy? Ah but that would mean Britain’s leagues because of the never-ending list of teams that have entered – as we’ve come to know from the BRITISH lexicon – administration.

If he is saying that MLS isn’t accepted in American society on the same level as the NFL? OK. But neither is MLB, the NBA or the NHL.

No sports league is as accepted in American society as the NFL.  And while the NFL may be the gold standard, not meeting that benchmark is hardly the equivalent of “weak”.

And if in 18 years Blatter was expecting that MLS would match or surpass the NFL, he has a moronically simplistic understanding of economics and culture, and should be relegated to responsibilities no greater than those expected of a sixth grader with a lemonade stand.

But keep in mind, Blatter has been elected FIFA president four times now, with the support of the U.S. Soccer Federation.

Were Lennart Johansson, Issa Hayatou and Mohammed Bin Hamman that much worse? Well, in at least two cases the answer is an unequivocal, yes!

But that isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of FIFA.

In many cases, I don’t think Blatter cares how he sounds. He has a constituency in soccer, a big enough one that is jealous and not very bright, and as long as he feeds it, he remains in power.

And make no mistake, there is a LOT of jealousy in the world regarding the United States, and that especially extends to soccer.

When the United States lost to host Italy 1-0 in the 1990 World Cup, the AP included a man-on-the-street interview from the tournament in a reaction piece. The man remarked that the result was welcome because it showed that Italy and the rest of the world still was better than the United States in at least one thing.

That attitude persists, and is probably even more entrenched, today. As MLS has strengthened, and as the United States won this year in Italy and Mexico, the prospect that someday the Americans might actually win a World Cup is becoming less theoretical.

This is not to suggest MLS is the ultimate in soccer leagues, or even that it has achieved everything it wants. But the league has grown to 19 teams, which are making inroads in international competition; there is a substantial list of people wanting to invest the money not only in a team but in building a stadium; the players are paid on time (which one would think is a minimum standard); and more internationally recognized players are considering it as an option.

But besides ignoring some obvious facts, Blatter’s comments express an envy and resentfulness held by many in the world about the United States that can be vented through the soccer portal.

Blatter isn’t merely a lone dolt, he reflects a worldview that says common sense and logic be damned – even to one’s own detriment.

And if you need any proof of that, just look at the state of the planet.

European Wanna-Bes

Dec. 20, 2012

For the long-suffering fans of the New York Red Bulls, the suffering doesn’t seem at an end. Well, at least they’re used to it.

Whether run by Americans or foreigners (mostly Americans), the club can’t seem to shake its Euro-wannabe desires (player or coach), and if reports of Scotsman Gary McAllister becoming the next coach/manager of the club are true, the team’s faithful – and they have nothing to go on but faith – can record on stone (sorta like Fred Flintstone) a “wait ‘til next year” chant.

Regardless of who has run the club, it has never lived up to expectations, especially considering the money poured into the team and the luminary players it’s been able to attract to New Jersey: starting with Roberto Donadoni to Lothar Matthaeus to Youri Djorkaeff to its current crop of Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill.

But foreign coaches, particularly British ones, who have never had any previous experience in the United States have had some notorious failures, from Frank Stapleton (New England) and Bobby Houghton (Colorado) in the inaugural season, to Carlos Parreira (MetroStars), Walter Zenga (New England), Ruud Gullit (Los Angeles),  and Aron Winter (Toronto).

Yes, Gary Smith won the MLS Cup in 2010, but his regular-season record in three-plus seasons with Colorado was all of eight games above .500. And he was fired the year after he won the title.

The utter lack of understanding of MLS and the United States soccer system has doomed the Red Bulls repeatedly, most recently and glaringly in the trade last year of Dwayne De Rosario for Dax McCarty. Nothing against McCarty, but the straight-up swap seems due to a complete cluelessness of Hans Backe and Erik Soler.

The whole notion of coming to MLS for a vacation, or that somehow the U.S. league is just so much easier, also lingers. You may recall the pictures of Matthaeus with his girlfriend on the beach in Saint-Tropez or Djorkaef at the 2006 World Cup — when Matthaeus was “rehabbing” and Djorkaef was addressing family issues.

Now both Backe and Soler are gone, but in their places come Gerard Houllier and Andy Roxburg, who seem to be bringing in their favored European: McAllister.

Is it a total disregard for MLS, a complete dearth of knowledge of American soccer, or an unmitigated arrogance that someone from Europe is so unmistakably better than anything they could find on this side of the Atlantic?

By the mere track record of foreign coaches in MLS, and especially some of the more recent ones like Gullit and Winter, it would stand to reason that Houllier and Roxburg would at least look in the contiguous 48 states first before peering overseas.

Chivas USA seems headed for a similar fate with Jorge Vergara’s appointment of a coach from Mexico.

This is not to say foreign coaches are incompetent, but rather to say their history in MLS isn’t a good one. And with all the foreign influence that the Red Bulls have tried over the years from coaches to players to front office, which has yet to produce one championship and only one trip to the MLS Cup final, maybe a different approach might be worth a try.

Soccer’s annual college debate ritual

Dec. 8, 2012

American soccer officials have discussed it ad nauseum. The U.S. Soccer Federation and MLS have tried to concoct ways to get around it. And Friday night’s College Cup semifinals reignited the debate with tweets flying back and forth.

Whether it was decrying the fact that the pinnacle of the college soccer season was held in a baseball stadium, in Alabama, or that it was played before a paltry crowd, in Alabama, or rules cost Indiana a goal on the stroke of halftime, criticism of the game the NCAA plays was plentiful.

And to be graciously fair, there is a lot to criticize.

But kid yourself not. Until the game, both pro and college, grow substantially, little will change.

MLS will have to grow, both financially and in the greater pop culture. Without significantly higher salaries for average players, college soccer will remain a viable alternative for teens weighing their options – especially with mothers and fathers advising their sons on life decisions.

But money isn’t the only factor. Rarely does risk-reward analysis enter the conversation of a high school football or basketball player’s decision on college ball.  It doesn’t have to.

The colleges are the expressway to the NFL and NBA because both football and basketball generate significant revenue – and this is not the time for the Title IX advocates to add their two cents – for their schools.

The schools see it in their best interest to adopt, or at least adapt to, whatever the pros are doing to leverage that popularity. It’s a symbiosis that’s more like a mutual parasitic advantage.

Soccer, like track or swimming or rowing – or any other sport including EVERY woman’s sport, does not have that advantage. And it won’t until it starts to make money for the schools.

Barring that, FIFA, the USSF, MLS, nor any pundit on Twitter will have any leverage for the NCAA to change its rules to restrict substitutions to three per game or put the clock in the hands of the referee or alter its game schedule.

Regardless of the endless parade of pro coaches who lament the university system, saying it actually retards player development because of its restrictions on the number of games and the aforementioned rules on substitutes and game clock, what advantage is it for college ADs or coaches to change? Maybe recruiting help by pointing to the pros who have come through their locker room? Eh…

The college game has grown somewhat since the inception of MLS in 1996, but not in any conspicuous ways. College coaches and administrators apparently are content with the way things are.

Maryland coach Sasho Cirovski has passionately defended – and will into infinity – the college way.

The “Final Four” or College Cup remains a relatively stealthy event on the American sports scene – even among college championships. And there is no reason to believe that will change.

Despite the creation of the academy system by the USSF/MLS, the league will still get a significant number of players from college.

Because of football and basketball, and the emphasis of education in the United States, most people will generally believe that college is how you get to be a pro athlete.

Whether or not that is to the benefit or detriment of MLS and the U.S. national team is irrelevant – at least to the public, and more importantly to the NCAA.

So complain all you want, vent your frustrations on social media, or on blogs or in a bar. The status quo is molded right now in the mantle of the earth.

It could change, improve or evolve, but only with time.

MLS’ Donovan conundrum

Dec. 2, 2012

The post-match analysis on websites, blogs and even maybe satellite radio will linger for a few days, but MLS has had its “Hollywood moment” where its much-ballyhooed star won a title, at home in front of a full stadium (including celebrity screenshots) and a national TV audience.

Now some reality will have to settle in. Maybe not so much to MLS HQ, but some for of the pundits and the league’s fandom (or critics). MLS appears to be on the ascent, albeit begrudgingly if you judge by major media trends.

But how steep that climb gets from here, and what the view will look like, is another matter.

During Saturday’s telecast, Alexi Lalas questioned MLS Commissioner Don Garber about paying to make America’s best talent as “designated players” (i.e. Beckham Rule types) and keep them at home rather than be lured to Europe.

Garber quickly defended MLS by pointing to Landon Donovan as a designated player.

But, unfortunately, Donovan epitomizes the conundrum MLS faces.

Donovan is arguably not only the best American player of his generation, rather the best talent the United States has ever produced.

His exploits have pushed his club teams (San Jose and Los Angeles) to domestic glory, and the United States to heights unimaginable 20 years ago.

But because he chose to play in MLS, rather than in Europe, he has been derided: mocked by some as “Landycakes” and not given his full due by others.

Not to slight Clint Dempsey, but many see him as the United States’ best these days simply because he plays in England. But to those who felt the United States struggled during the most recent World Cup qualifying phase, ask yourself whose absence most greatly impacted that performance.

Dempsey’s case is not lost on young players who want to make sure they not only capitalize financially on their talents, but also achieve as much recognition for their ability and achievements. Dempsey, and other U.S. national team regulars who ply there trade overseas, are viewed more favorably by some — and get far more credibility by some writers/bloggers/commentators — than Donovan because of the belief that is so much harder and better in Europe.

Watching the U.S. national team over the past decade or so, and especially the past year, one has to wonder how deeply that mindset is/was entrenched in Bob Bradley and Juergen Klinsmann and their predecessors. Steve Sampson clearly made that case 14 years ago, but MLS was nowhere near the level it is now.

So while Garber and MLS may try to match the money offered by European clubs — and might actually do that in some cases, there is still an intangible factor it will be unable to equal. Call it the “Not for All the Tea in China Factor.”

And if MLS insists on keeping the youngsters, does it risk not only bankrupting itself by overpaying market price, but face a backlash from U.S. fans for “stifling” the development of America’s best talent.

All the money in MLS wasn’t able  to keep Dempsey, or Jozy Altidore or Michael Bradley, or Geoff Cameron…

And it likely won’t be able to keep Juan Agudelo, or Graham Zusi, or Omar Gonzalez or…

I don’t think this issue is lost on Garber or his brain trust on Fifth Avenue. But with others seemingly unaware, Garber has to make sure while walking on these eggs, he doesn’t hop.


The evergreen of MLS profitability

November 9, 2005

Missing amid all the reports that likely will come out of Frisco and MLS Cup this week is probably the biggest story of all _ MLS is about to turn a profit.

Buried in last week’s reports about the 2010 and 2014 World Cup television rights deals for the United States was that the packages included handshake agreements between Univision and ABC/ESPN/MOUSE with MLS about the league’s next television contracts.At first glance that may not raise an eyebrow.

But MLS grand poobah Don Garber also was quoted, indirectly, as saying the league is expecting rights fees for those contracts.

Univision and ABC want programming to keep their showcase events: World Cup, Women’s World Cup, etc., in the public’s field of vision.And apparently they are will to spend a little coin to get the best advertisement for an American audience that they can, MLS.

How much coin is a guess, but if MLS gets a mere $5 million per year from both Univision and Disney, profitability is essentially achieved. Considering MLS has never received rights fees in 10 years, some may wonder which planet I’m from.But it could be more than $5 mil each.

Ten million dollars a year is a pittance compared to the nearly half of a billion ($425 million exactly) Univision and Disney just committed to FIFA.To realize what makes these numbers significant, consider two years ago when Kevin Payne, then under the AEG umbrella, acknowledged that each MLS team had to kick in between $2.4 million-$2.5 million to the league as part of the “cash calls” to cover the league’s expenses.

That meant MLS HQ ran through all the money it generated at the league level and needed more from the “investor-operators” to run league operations. Multiply it by 10 teams, and the number comes to $24 million to $25 million _ MLS’ yearly loss for 2003.Payne’s disclosure came in a report about the Galaxy becoming the first MLS team to report a profit, albeit a relatively modest sum of about $250,000.

If you assume Garber has held the line on spending, and losses have not increased dramatically, the annual loss has remained at about $25 million.Now take the $10 million from Univision/ABC and add it to the $15 million annually from Adidas (recall that $150 million, 10-year deal signed earlier this year) and you get $25 million _ break even.

MLS started the reserve league with some of the Adidas money, so the numbers don’t exactly match. But $5 million from each Univision and ABC was a number I devised to make the math easy.

If it’s $10 million per year from both ABC and Univision, we’re up to $35 million from the TV networks and Adidas, and that surely will cover the previous annual loss totals.

And that doesn’t take into account the one-time expansion fees (which Garber said would be “slightly more” than the $10 million Chivas and RSL paid) from Toronto and/or any other city MLS decides to admit to its fraternity.

The league could redistribute the excess to the clubs, or more likely, use it to acquire higher profile players, better promotions, etc.Either way, profit is assured. LA’s $250,000 profit becomes a $3 million profit.

Columbus, who Lamar Hunt said would be profitable without the cash calls, automatically becomes profitable.Chicago, which Peter Wilt said before he was ousted would become profitable with its new building in Bridgeview (including the cash calls), now is guaranteed an additional $2.5 million in profit to whatever they were projecting next year with the opening of their home.

Dallas likewise. Colorado in 2007. Whispers have been around since 1996 that the New England Revolution have been near profitable or break-even every year since the beginning due to fact that the Krafts own their own building and don’t gouge the Revs. They now are guaranteed a profit.Sore spots remain: including the sorest spot of all _ the MetroStars, who I have heard lose $6 million-$7 million a year.

Not having to pay $2.5 million to the league will get you down the road, but that light at the end of the tunnel is still just a dot. But they say they have a stadium on the way for 2007 (hack, cough, gag _ sorry, but the body has a difficult time swallowing things like that!)  D.C.’s stadium plans are still not definitive. The situations with San Jose and KC are another matter.

Chivas, and its virtual monopoly on revenue from advertisers from companies trying to reach Spanish-speaking Hispanics, has unique circumstances.But we “soccer smugnuts” _ as Frank Deford once called us _ have another reason to be smug and twist it into the ear of the Deford-like U.S. sports swammiyobs.

They told us “no one” would go to the 1994 World Cup, and then said it was “just a bunch of foreigners” that comprised the record attendance of 3.5 million. They said MLS wouldn’t last a season. We’re finishing 10.They said soccer would never make a profit.

The ’94 World Cup, the 1999 and 2003 Women’s World Cup all made money and now, MLS is about to as well.University of Oregon sports marketing professor Paul Swangard said two years ago when asked to comment on the Galaxy development that when MLS reached profitability that it would be an evergreen.

Take a walk outside MLS fans, smell the pine.


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