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What Can a Commissioner Do? Ask MLS.

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?

9 comments to What Can a Commissioner Do? Ask MLS.

  • Handride

    The industry has to wait until June. Single entity decision from the Supreme Court would allow the sport to get a national framework, and create a meaningful league office. I haven't heard much as the odds of it passing, maybe 55/45 to pass?

    Though even if it did pass, there's been little to no talk about it from current people in charge.

    Alex Waldrop fielded my question on it at the Las Vegas meeting, but said it didn't fit with racing.

    We'll see.

  • Steve Munday

    Having a league commissioner has certainly worked well for other sports. I'm not too familiar with MLS, but Rozelle & Tagliabue took the fledgling NFL and transformed it into a powerhouse.

    Could some genius do the same with horse racing? Maybe, but I doubt it. Racing's saddled w/ too many complex issues (only one of which Handride alluded to) and competing interests working against one another. Instead of trying to herd cats and force order from choas, maybe an alternate strategy is to accept the chaos and figure out how to leverage it in the best way possible.

  • The_Knight_Sky

    SuperfectaBlog wrote:>

    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?

    Hire a protege of the late Ahmet Ertegun. He founded the great teams of the 70's called the NY Cosmos. That was some era!

    But touching on Mr. Waldrop retort to Handride, it sounds to me like a typical defensive comment. As long as these executives' salaries are intact they have little willingness to change the structure of horse racing. But I do believe the pro-centralized leadership faction must keep the pressure on.

    Horse Racing will not reverse course with its current lack of leadership and direction.

    Happy Holidays to everybody at this blog !

  • SaratogaSpa

    Very good post, but one key hurdle is that the MLS and other popular sports (and profitable) such as the NFL and MLB are set up as franchise.

    The Franchise owners elect a commissioner who than has real power to ensure that the sport flourishes and the Franchises make money. The franchises are in it together, unlike the many racetracks across the US

  • rather rapid

    interesting post, but is there really a comparison between HR and soccer. Soccer is a team sport involving a small number of owners. Horseracing might be more akin to track and field. There is an international body there, and the sport has done anything but prosper financially.

    in general there are some aspects of racing that would benefit from national organization and others that most decidedly would not. Personally, i'd prefer a rational look at the pros and cons of the present system with a "commissioner" system, then to merely assume because team sports have strong central authorities–which benefit the very few–that horse racing would necessarily benefit. there are those of us on the horse side that view the present democratic evolving nature of the sport as a strength.

  • The_Knight_Sky

    Handride wrote:

    Though even if it did pass, there's been little to no talk about it from current people in charge.

    The fans need to overthrow the "people in charge".

    Horse Racing fans want a commissioner badly!

    Have you taken a look at the early results of the current poll. I'm very surprised at the margin – yes versus no.

  • Chris R.

    Nice to hear that you had a good time in Seattle and I'm glad to recently hear that you're getting a new stadium in Philly, the images on the team website look great and I hope it's not at a windy spot like Candlestick (yet what could possibly compare to that place).

    Ironically I've been living in Portland (getting a team) and grew up in Seattle & used to go to Sounders games in the Kingdome and went to one this year as well. Closest thing to Europe on this side of the pond and it was great to see. Still a Sounders fan though and can't be a Timbers fan as it's not in my blood.

    I agree that Horse Racing is really messed up in it's governing structure since everyone who runs the sport just doesn't give a damn about the customer. It's easier to go to a casino to play and cheaper since you don't have to pay an admission or parking fee, they'll give you inexpensive good quality food and drinks (if they're not free) and you don't need to learn how to read a form or have dealers playing games with your deck of cards like some Jockeys do.

    Horse Racing…

    The ONLY gambling industry the looses money overall (unless you have a casino at the track and know better).

    HANA needs to go farther with their membership base, promote it more, give us membership cards and benefits and create a players union at each track to petition and shake up the industry, because the industry needs a good swift kick in their ass!

    Until a bunch of vocal and pissed of customers get into those arrogant fools faces and let them know what we think, they'll just keep treating us like a bunch of degenerates that are too stupid to do anything else, which we're not of course.

    I've started playing Australia since they get the big picture and the payouts are better there at certain tracks (like here). So the North American tracks are loosing my business.

    So how many customers have they lost to Casinos?

    Chris R.

  • I predict that the Seattle Sounders go to the Championship game this season.

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