February 24, 2010
by Charles Cuttone
No buzz to spring training
There is no Freddy Adu coming into Major League Soccer this year. No David Beckham, either. There isn’t even a “will he or won’t he be back” debate or feud between Beckham and Landon Donovan. In other words, there is no buzz in the run-up to the coming MLS season.
Oh sure, folks in the Philadelphia area are excited about a new team and a new stadium, and the Red Bulls are trying to get people excited about their new stadium and yes, the fans in Seattle, well, they just seem naturally excited, but otherwise, MLS is all but invisible in the formidable shadows cast by the Winter Olympics and Major League Baseball spring training.
No reports on the news, little space in the dying newspapers. And MLS isn’t doing much on its own to create anticipation for its coming season.
Ok, so you can’t sign a new big name every year, though I don’t really see why not. Even the movement within the league is limited. Trades are very rarely of the blockbuster variety like you see in other sports. They usually involve some future draft pick and allocation money. Not even a player to be named later!
But even more egregious is the fact that MLS teams shroud their preseason camps in a veil of secrecy. Most teams are in two or three places during the preseason, often announcing where they are going the day or two before they leave. The low-key preparations leave no chance to get fans or media interested in maybe going to sunny Florida or Arizona, or even cold and frigid North Carolina. And even when they do, practices and most scrimmages against other teams are closed to both fans and the media, and access to players and coaches is tightly controlled.
Why the secrecy? Major League Baseball has a time-honored tradition of spring training. Teams pack off for Florida and Arizona, usually with many fans in tow. Ok, MLS might not have that kind of impact, but 50 years ago, neither did baseball. It takes time to grow.
Baseball spring training is one of the most open forums in all of pro sports. Workouts can be seen by media and public alike. Games are held on a regular schedule, with relatively modest admission fees, and stories galore come out of spring training.
Even in the National Football League, where most coaches lean toward the far side of paranoia about secrecy, training camps are open to the public and the media. Many NFL teams have even turned them into fanfest-type events.
There are some MLS preseason events which are attracting attention and building a following, such as the annual tournament at Blackbaud Stadium in Charleston hosted by the Battery, which this year includes MLS Champion Real Salt Lake, DC United and Toronto FC, and the new Walt Disney World Pro Soccer Classic, that will this year include FC Dallas, Houston Dynamo, Toronto FC and the New York Red Bulls.
This year, MLS got a number of teams to centralize part of training camp in Arizona, but then didn’t capitalize on it, allowing the practices and scrimmages to be for the most part closed.
Not a great way to sell the sport or fill those new stadiums.