The news of the potential relocation of the Columbus Crew to Austin, TX, has set off shockwaves throughout the U.S. soccer world. Coming close on the heels of the U.S. men’s national team’s embarrassing failure to qualify for the World Cup, the moment seems to call for a vast rethinking of what we’re all doing and why we’re all doing it. In particular, both events seem to have struck a single chord among diehards—a feeling that the people who organize soccer in America do not have the same priorities as the rest of us.
In the days after word of the impending move came out, the U.S. soccer community has almost been unanimous in expressing its disgust and opposition. Yet, there are some who have defended it, and they’ve basically done so on the same ground. Soccer is a business. You may not like that, but it’s an undeniable fact. If professional soccer isn’t run like a business, there won’t be professional soccer.
Consider American soccer mascot Alexi Lalas, who has made a point of defending owner Anthony Precourt’s choice to set the moving vans in motion:
Morning. Looking forward to another day of telling people how to spend their money and run their business.
— Alexi Lalas (@AlexiLalas) October 20, 2017
Or MLS writer and editor Sam Stejskal:
All these takes against "treating soccer like a business" are driving me up the damn wall.
— Sam Stejskal (@samstejskal) October 20, 2017
You can find similar takes in the negative comments section of most /r/MLS threads about the topic.
The problem with the “soccer is a business” line of thinking isn’t that it’s wrong. It’s indisputably correct. It’s ‘no shit Sherlock’ levels of obvious. But it’s not the rebuttal to critics of the Crew move that Lalas and Stejskal think it is.
This is because there is nobody who is disputing that Anthony Precourt has the right or the ability to move the MLS franchise that he owns and operates (provided that the league signs off on it of course). Nobody disputes that Columbus haven’t drawn barn-burning attendance, although there is plenty of dispute as to who is to blame for that. Nobody disputes the statement of MLS commissioner Don Garber that the Crew are “near the bottom of the league in all business metrics.” There’s been plenty of questioning as to whether Austin is really the right city to turn all of that around, but ultimately that’s an unknowable at this time.
What critics of Precourt, the Crew, and MLS have said is something different. On this site, for instance, after the news in Columbus broke, our own Wes Burdine wrote a sharp-edged piece breaking down the damage. Among the points that he made is one that stands out to me as central to explaining the fallout. He wrote:
“Soccer in the US and Canada—and MLS in particular—has been portrayed by some (myself included) as a sort of evangelical enterprise. We’re all building this thing together.”
The reaction to the Columbus move is not just an objection to the process of relocating teams, which is regrettably common in American sports. But that opposition is often local to the community that is losing their team, not league-wide, as the backlash this week has been. The reaction to the Columbus move is really an objection to a business that has been lying to its customers. Both the Columbus Crew front office and Major League Soccer are guilty of this.
For years, individual teams have unabashedly wrapped themselves in civic pride to draw fans to the stadium and deepen their connection with the product. To pick one famous example, the Crew debased themselves for a season with one of the worst kits in MLS history because it was inspired by the flag of the city. The “For Columbus” kit may have been a fashion flop, but the message of devotion to the city surely wasn’t lost on fans.
The particulars differ by team, but the playbook is one that has been used successfully by teams across MLS and in other leagues. It is the standard way that sports teams market themselves. And most companies tell lies all the time (we value our employees/customers) that are understood by everyone to be basically transactional.
But MLS is unique in how far the league has pushed this marketing strategy and how thoroughly it has been bought by fans. The tradition of active support in soccer is one that is exceptional among American sports. Active support is sustained by civic pride and its manifestation in the team’s brand and narrative.
MLS is deeply invested in the narrative that the connection between its clubs and their fans is exceptional in the American sports marketplace. This season, one of the league’s longer running sponsors, Continental Tire, has been running an ad campaign with none other than Alexi Lalas pushing this line. “All sports have fans,” he says, “but soccer isn’t like all sports. Soccer has supporters…. These aren’t fair-weather fans. These are wear-a-scarf-in-any-weather fans.”
It’s a bit hard to square Continental Tire Alexi Lalas with the Twitter version who writes rather dismissively of fans as “customers.” They are, but didn’t you just say they are also something more?
This is just one example of a larger genre, but I hope you’ll agree that pitches like that one are so widespread and so successful that it’s not worthwhile to list them all. But to sum up briefly, with Rachel Bonnetta’s “Get Me In There” series highlighting the intersection of supporters culture with the local city, and Calen Carr’s “The Movement” series doing much the same thing, MLS has been an aggressive participant in documenting, celebrating, and encouraging the bonds between club and community.
This is not problematic! This is something that is popular and successful. This is something that people want. But it only works if it’s sincere, and working both ways. When an owner tries to move their club and MLS backs them, it gives the lie to all of what MLS has attempted to do with its marketing. That’s not business as usual. MLS and the Crew have emphasized a product that goes beyond the game on the field. They can hardly blame fans for buying their own marketing, and being hurt when they betray its message.
In one video, MLS encapsulates their marketing strategy in Columbus. Produced to follow the team’s rebrand, “A City, A Club, and Its Fans” is a bit painful to watch now, even if you’re not from Columbus. Wil Trapp, the club’s best homegrown player, talks about what it means to him to play for his hometown eleven. A man says “it doesn’t matter what’s on the scoreboard, they’re still ours, they belong to us.”
This is in a video produced by MLS and shared on MLS’ official channels.
Then there’s the photo above, which speaks for itself, and the screenshot from the video that is this article’s title page. It’s a stocking cap that reads “Til I Die.”
Best associated with the Portland Timbers (Rose City Til I Die, aka #RCTID), the “Til I Die,” phrase is a common enough that we don’t think much of it any more. But what does it mean when a club sells merchandise which suggest a fan’s support is lifelong? What does it mean when that club then decides to get up and leave town? What is the meaning of “Columbus ‘Til I Die” if it refers only to the fan’s unwritten contract with the team and not the team’s unwritten contract with the city?
To take the view that this all boils down to “soccer is a business,” is to take a very bleak view of things. It is starkly objectivist, in the sense that Ayn Rand meant it, where what is ethical is solely to pursue what is in one’s self interest. Because Anthony Precourt can move his team if he wants, it is pointless to discuss any further whether it is fair or right that he should do so. Because money must be made in soccer to make it sustainable, anything that might make soccer more money is a good thing. This is capitalism. The Columbus Crew are a business. So what of the fans who were gaslit by club and league for so many years?
Those who would defend the Crew’s potential move by defending their business interests need to more honestly explain what the rest of us are to make of the ways in which they and MLS have sold their product over the years. Was it acceptable to fake a heartfelt and unbreakable connection between club and city? Should we accept that this type of marketing is insincere at best for all clubs?
It’s a defendable position to answer affirmatively to those questions, I guess, and it’s the one that MLS seems to be going down right now. But it doesn’t seem to be one that portends a bright future. Businesses that openly admit to lying to their customers rarely last long. That’s just business, after all.
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