March 16, 2009
By Charles Cuttone
Nostalgia is part of the passion for sport
Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber is under the impression that selling soccer and selling nostalgia do not necessarily go hand in hand.
In a conference call with media on Friday, Garber talked about the fan and media reaction at a recent Vancouver Whitecaps press conference.
The Whitecaps join MLS this season along with the Portland Timbers, forming a Pacific Northwest triumvirate with Seattle Sounders FC, who since joining MLS two years ago have played to crowds that are twice the average attendance of the rest of the league.
Garber spoke of how emotional people in Vancouver are about 1979 (though he did mistakenly identify the year as 1976), when the Whitecaps upset the Cosmos in the NASL Conference Championship game, an epic contest that many consider to be the greatest game in that league’s history, and perhaps in the history of North American soccer.
“Every city that I go to that has had a successful team, they hearken back to an emotional past,” Garber said.
He described how someone at the press conference even wore an old Whitecaps jersey. He then went on to observe that this was not the demographic MLS is trying to attract.
“The demographic for those people is a bit older. They are in their 60s and that’s not our core fan base today,” Garber pointed out. “I am not sure it would be a valuable core base for any sport. We’ve got to go and build around the young urban demographic that exists throughout North America that has been driving the success of our league. And if you have a brand that people can remember fondly like the Whitecaps or the Sounders or the Timbers, that’s great. But believe me you can’t make a business work on fond memories. It’s got to be built on solid fundamentals.”
The elephant in the room for this discussion was the new New York Cosmos, who have been aggressively resurrecting the classic NASL team’s brand and identity through everything from youth soccer academies to apparel and other merchandise preparatory to pursuing an MLS franchise. Garber admitted that when he joined the league he was offered the opportunity to acquire the Cosmos name and declined. Now, he and the league are taking a wait-and-see attitude to see whether the new organization can make the leap from nostalgia-fueled branding to a viable stadium and MLS business plan.
Garber is right about solid fundamentals, and he and his owners get the lion’s share of credit for the fact that MLS has survived into its 16th year, and is now an established major league. But, one of the key fundamentals of any sports enterprise is its history. Baseball is deeply rooted in this country. For generations, fathers have taken their sons and daughters to games, teaching them the nuances of watching the sport, extolling the stars of their youth, such as Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Sandy Koufax or Carl Yastrzemski. The same with other sports, whether the fathers were talking about Johnny Unitas, Bobby Orr or Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.
The game is handed from one generation to the next. Soccer in the United States has never had the benefit of that heritage. Until now. The North American Soccer League created a beachhead for the sport in this country, and continues to pay dividends for the sport at large, if only in helping to expansion teams pull their financial weight from the first kick of the Jabulani. And that legacy, in the markets where it exists, is something to be embraced, not dismissed. The same fans who pack Qwest Field for every Seattle home game are the same ones who raised enough uproar to change the team owners’ minds when they proposed using a name that did not include “Sounders.” More recently, fans in Portland and Vancouver made it clear that they wanted the Timbers and Whitecaps names for those franchises.
Those names and others, including the recently-revived Fort Lauderdale Strikers, have been used before in the minor leagues. The names did not help make those franchises successful. But at the Major League level, now there really is a link to the heroes of the past, one that those 60-year-old fathers can be proud to pass to their children and grandchildren, and that in turn will help MLS build long term sustainability.