With winter settling in in earnest, there’s not a lot going on in the racing world Stateside. The Rachel Alexandra/Zenyatta Horse of the Year debate continues apace, of course, with Jess Jackson suggesting he’s happy for a little controversy – after all, it keeps horse racing (somewhat) in the public consciousness. The same cannot be said of the NTRA Health & Safety Alliance, whose accreditation program has been deemed ‘effective‘ – although what that really means is open to debate.
Given the uncertainty that lingers over the Alliance and the future of similar programs, it seems a good idea to finally get around to something promised weeks ago – a discussion of what American racing could learn from American soccer. In the decade I have been following Major League Soccer, it has moved from something dangerously close to an international punchline to a viable, vibrant sport – and some of the lessons learned along the way could be useful ones for racing.
But first, a step back; in 2000, as a fan of the San Jose Earthquakes (who suffered at the time from an uninterested ownership group, a recent name-change, bad management and well-deserved last-place ranking), it was hard to imagine a time when the excitement of the game on the pitch would exceed that of the small gathering of fans and players who had been forced to come out and mingle that took place after each (losing) game. Supporters often wore bags on their heads during segments of the game to emphasize the shame of supporting such a risible team – but it still demonstrated that someone cared. And we had a great goalie in Joe Cannon – but little else. One year later, we had a new manager, a rising star in a then-teenaged Landon Donovan and we managed to go from being the worst team in the league to hoisting the MLS Cup. The last home game, the semi-final that sent the team to Columbus for the big win, was considered quite successful – something like 4,000 people turned up (which was quite a bump up from the usual few hundred scattered around the tiny stadium). The players were still compelled to meet and greet with the fans, so those of us in the supporters’ club enjoyed drinks, dinner and donuts with the team a few weeks later (so yes, I have split a donut with Landon Donovan – and that’s not some sort of bizarre euphemism). Despite phenomenal growth, one of American soccer’s advantages over its worldwide rivals continues to be access to stars – teams still regularly host events where fans can meet their players and coaching staff in a casual setting.
Fast forward to this year: I went to the MLS Cup in Seattle, which had an attendance above 47,000 – largely comprised of local fans (even though their team did not make the finals) and supporters (like me) from across the country who bought their tickets well in advance, with no idea who would be playing. How did we get from a few hundred fans of a Saturday afternoon to full stadiums? With some careful planning, a willingness to learn from mistakes – and listen to fans.
Each year, before the MLS Cup, the league hosts a Supporters’ Summit – any fan is welcome to come, meet other fans, enjoy some cheap food – and to grill the Commissioner of MLS, Don Garber, about anything that’s bothering them (also possible other times, as he’s on Twitter). Under Garber’s auspices, the league has gone from having to buy time on ESPN (sound familiar, racing?) to making $20 million a year on television rights. At this year’s Summit, Garber indicated that MLS was now in a position to dictate terms as well – they want to see every game broadcast in HD, and that’s likely to happen for the next season.
The league as a whole has gone from hemorrhaging money in 2000 to aiming for actual profitability next year – all while improving the quality of the American game, building soccer-specific stadiums and becoming more closely aligned with international soccer as a whole – and each element has helped to build the fan base. There were early tough decisions – some teams were eliminated (somewhat mirroring the less-product-higher-quality argument current in racing) to keep the league afloat in the early 2000s. Now that things are on a solid financial footing, expansion is continuing apace: this year’s expansion team, the Seattle Sounders, sold all 22,000 season ticket packages before the season’s first kick – and went on to win the US Open Cup (a tournament that includes teams from other leagues, including semi-professional ones – it’s separate from the year-end championship – although it should be added here that the Sounders supporters’ clubs and fans were extremely welcoming, generous hosts during the MLS Cup this year). In 2010, Philadelphia is the newest expansion team – and we’ve already sold more than 6,000 season tickets for our under-construction stadium, down economy and all – not bad for a team whose first players only arrived in town yesterday. Portland and Vancouver will be added in 2011, giving easily-traveled rivalries on both coasts.
It would be difficult to imagine US racing operating under the sort of single-entity structure that has been so effective for turning around American soccer, but the lack of any sort of central control means there is no way to move forward as a united sport; piecemeal change is the only current option. But perhaps seeing the results possible with a strong commissioner could entice the various track ownership bodies to come together – after all, good decisions and a real long-term plan lead to more money for everybody. And with the news that MLS is exploring gambling options with a view to the future (although games are already available on a European platform) – getting a move on with regard to centralized, streamlined management should be a no-brainer. Soliciting real ideas from fans, creating real merchandising opportunities and learning from other sports is long overdue – creating committees comprised of the same fifteen people isn’t a way to effect change.
So, in a nutshell, the way forward is to finally get a commissioner and build from there; who wants to take that first step to make it happen?