Yesterday afternoon, Goal.com reported that the recent television ratings for the MLS Cup final were lower—much lower—than the previous year.
They were the lowest ratings in over a decade.
The 2010 MLS Cup drew a nation-wide audience of about 1.1 million viewers, resulting in a 0.5 TV rating, down from last year's 0.9.
We can look at these depressing statistics and presume that's the result a few things: unpopular teams playing in the final; it was prime-time on a Sunday; the American Music Awards were on; or there was an National (American) Football League match-up between Philadelphia and New York.
However, Major League Soccer cannot use these excuses for their cup final; the match that's supposed to be the flagship of the league, to show the league's best, drew weaker ratings than regular season matches.
MLS needs to accept the unfortunate realities of the American mainstream.
Sunday Night and MLS Don't Mix Well
If there's an NFL game on TV and Major League Soccer teams playing, odds are most people would pick NFL over MLS. Even the World Cup final drew twice as fewer ratings than last season's Super Bowl (28.5 and 53.0 respectively).
It's not to say that MLS should not have their cup final on that date; however, they should play the game when there isn't going to be a lot of coexisting sporting events that could hinder the league's ratings.
The best way to maximize the number of viewers is to host the match on a week-day evening. That way, MLS doesn't run the risk of interfering with NFL match-ups or marquee college, NBA and NHL games.
It is something MLS needs to realize when scheduling their Cup final for 2011.
They shouldn't even consider going up against any NFL matches until they have a cup final that draws crowds just as high, if not higher than NFL games.
The MLS Playoffs Badly Need an Overhaul
No, this doesn't mean adding teams, but rather, a complete reconstruction of the playoffs.
It sounds ridiculous to say that a club from the Rocky Mountains and the California Valley are playing each other for the Eastern Conference title.
The league (Don Garber) is so drilled into this belief that the playoffs must feature conference semifinals and conference finals rather than quarterfinals and semifinals, that it wrecks the credibility of the league and poses unfair advantages for clubs that seem to be rewarded for having a weaker regular season.
Does it sound right for the team to go into the final match of the season thinking "if we win this match...we have a tougher opponent in the playoff...let's tie or lose guys!"
It results in lousy, unattractive football, which is exactly what we saw through the dwindling days of MLS; boring, lazy matches for no meaning.
The playoffs themselves are not necessarily a problem; leagues across the globe use them (Greece and Mexico), but what's the difference?
These leagues seed their teams based on how they performed overall, not how they did in a conference. If that means three of the top four seeds are from the West Coast, so be it.
Because of this, there has been too many fluky results and undeserving champions of the Cup, which has caused dissent towards the cup and more recognition to the Supporters' Shield.
For a league that likes to emphasize the MLS Cup and consider the Supporters' Shield its consolation prize, ironically the SS is getting more credibility from fans and even CONCACAF.
MLS should still keep its playoff system, but the best way to convey the playoffs next year is dock the conferences and give the top eight teams seeds, regardless of "conference".
This would be fair since the league is retaining the balanced schedule for next season.
Take Risks with the Playoffs
The reason MLS has this East v. West set up, is the hope two large markets from the East and West coast duel each other in the cup finals, in effort to maximize television ratings.
When the maximum is not cracking 1.0, then it's not the conferences problem, or the dark horse who caused outrage. Thanks to Garber's parity philosophy, it might just be the fact you're emphasizing conferences.
The worry behind docking conferences and using a 1-8 seed in the playoffs, is that it will not appeal to the "casual sports fan". The casual sports fan only cares about the sport when it involves bandwagon clubs, or household player names.
The result of trying too hard to appeal to this demographic, is alienation of the true soccer fans in the nation. Can't even think of where to start when it comes to their sneering at the league; not because of its inferior play, but because of its corny structure.
Of course, creating a 1-8 seed based on a single table will not instantly make every hardcore fan attracted to the league, but I highly doubt it was cause casual sports fans to find MLS anymore unappealing than they already find it.
There's nothing to lose in trying this format for the playoffs, because when you're attracting about 500,000 households in a nation of 300 million, you can only improve.
Sign of Stark Things
Assessing the record crowds that watched the World Cup final, of those 26-28 million, there's bound to be a good deal of soccer fans in the group.
The trick is appealing to them your league.
American eyes see it as an international sport with its own set of guidelines in structuring itself.
They love playoffs, but not playoffs where the underdog either wins or makes it to the final.
Structuring the league like almost every other league in the World will show the nation that MLS is a serious league, and not a league trying to be a cheesy spoof of the NFL, NBA or NHL.