Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Chap 11) Laying More Groundwork

Simply put, soccer has more to do to win over fans in the U.S.  There is still a need to fill cultural gaps when it comes to competing with the 'big 3.'  Rules changes are part of the equation, but beyond the rules, there are cultural components within the 'big 3' that soccer has yet to tap into.

I have given some examples of these kinds of traditions over the years in my writings to encourage Americanizing soccer.

In 2012, I proposed an idea, 'Little League World Cup Coming Soon to America?'.

The Little League World Series is upon us again and soon a new champion will be crowned.  Every year in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, sports fans from around the country are treated to a little bit of the lighter side in sports.  

The competition is top-notch and serious, but, it's just nice to see kids be kids, and to see kids from other countries be kids too.  One of eight U.S. teams and one of eight international teams will meet each other in a single-elimination final.  They reach the final as winners of a double-elimination tourney from their own brackets.  

ESPN added additional games for broadcast last year.  All the games are televised among the family of ESPN/ABC channels.  The LLWS tournament has come a long way since its first television broadcast debut in 1963.  The tournament officially began in 1947.  Taiwan/Chinese Taipei has won the most titles, 17, Japan and California are tied for second with 7.

Every state in the U.S. sends a champion of all-stars to compete against all the other states for the chance of making the 'final 8' in Williamsport.  The tournament did not originally involve international teams, but that changed soon after the tournament started and a team from Mexico won the tournament in 1957.  Now, all-star teams from 8 different regions of the world play each other to determine who travels to Williamsport.

The youngsters, ages 11, 12 and 13 years-old, do their best to work their magic around the diamond.  There shouldn't be any sore winners, sore losers or cheats.  The contest is scrutinized closely for integrity due to the international flavor and political ramifications.  Fairness is the number one issue.

So, why not Soccer?  Organizers are probably drooling with anticipation for the first ever Little League World Cup.

Based around some of the same philosophy as the LLWS, states may send a team of all-stars to play each other to see who can make the 'final 8.'  International teams will do the same, so that there are a total of 16 all-star teams, representing 9 countries to face-off for a championship.

In Soccer, there is an Under-17 year old World Cup, but the LLWC would be different not only because of the difference in ages, but also because of the format.

The idea can take off with or without the involvement of the United States Soccer Federation.  Additionally, there will have to be 2 tournaments, one for the boys and one for the girls.

Each tournament will most likely be divided into four groups of 4 teams, two U.S. groups and 2 international groups.  Group play will be a round-robin format to find the best 2 teams from each group to send to a single-elimination tourney for the rest of play to determine the winner.

In keeping with the theme of U.S. playing in the final against an international team, the U.S. sides will be on one side of the bracket and the international teams on the other side of the bracket.

Many sites from all over the country would like to be hosts of this tournament.  There are plenty of tournaments already being hosted throughout the U.S. for youth, but not one quite like a Little League World Cup.

For more than a century, a sports tradition has consisted of U.S. Presidents throwing out a first pitch in baseball contests.  A ceremonial first kick would be an obvious comparison for soccer. But, whether there can be a pre-game ritual for the POTUS to engage in or not before a soccer game, minimally, it would certainly be a good idea for MLS to have the POTUS in attendance.

In 2010, I wrote the first of two pieces on why it might be a mutually good idea for President Obama to attend an MLS game in 'Obama, MLS Need Each Other.'

The contentious nature of politics drives even the best of politicians to the brink.  It’s at this point, when sports have been brought up as a topic to bring levity to a broad audience and show a more human politician.  Sports, at many moments, are the light among all of the dark, heavy topics of the day.

Either on the campaign trail or while in office, like Presidents before him, President Obama has used sports to buy political points and to show a side rarely seen, the sports fan in him.  He has already referenced a college football playoff and has made his picks for college basketball during March Madness.  He is a consummate sports fan, throwing out the first pitch at baseball games and frequently mentioning his passion for the Chicago pro teams.

He has also shown support for the World Cup, the international influence of Soccer and his daughter’s games.  But, his relationship with U.S. pro soccer has been completely ignored with the exception of a customary invitation to the White House (Columbus Crew following 2008 season).  This lack of involvement with U.S. pro Soccer may not be all his fault.  It could also be a misstep by MLS and their own out of touch marketing efforts with sports fans.  

It’s debatable whether Obama needs to get involved in the looming players’ strike of MLS.  The President would not be able to halt a strike by players and force them back on the field, but he could make some calls and ask both sides to make concessions or keep discussions ongoing while the calendar of games continues.

It’s probably true that the looming strike is not on President Obama’s radar, but maybe it should be.  Certainly, there may be some political points to gain.  Though for President Obama and MLS, who both seem to need each other, the bigger issue is not being a hero to a strike, rather, being a sports fan to a game that needs sports fans.

What President Obama should do is wait for the players to take the field again and then show up to a game.  In fact, MLS and their power executives should be working towards inviting him publicly to a game (i.e. an advertisement in the Washington Post or USA Today for the next Chicago Fire at D.C. United).

If attending, Obama gets a much needed light moment in his political day, makes points with Soccer fans, while MLS gets publicity and the Obama presence and touch.  Its possible Obama stays for the whole game, really enjoys himself with his family and states his enthusiasm for soccer and MLS at the podium the next day.

Interestingly, a U.S. sitting President or past President has not attended an MLS game, Obama could be the first.

My other piece in 2012 included these thoughts:

Obama has been a supporter of soccer, most recently inviting the LA Galaxy to the White House to celebrate their 2011 MLS Cup title and he pushed hard to get the World Cup for the U.S. in 2022, though it didn't work out.  Also, he has been known to attend his daughter's games.

With the MLS season winding down, it's time for a sitting President to attend a game and do some kind of 'First Kick.'  Obama would do well to attend a game while in full campaign mode, possibly the nationally televised Philly Union-D.C. United game on Sep. 20th in Philly.  He should at least stay and sit through the first half.  He could generate a lot of good press with Soccer fans and maybe steal some votes for November's reelection campaign.

MLS can surely use the press if he were to attend and Obama likes to take pride in being the first President to do things.  Clinton and W. Bush never attended an MLS game-here's a first opportunity for the current Prez.

A significant reason for how the NFL acquired its cultural folklore was the recording of its history by NFL Films.  The value of NFL Films for the sport can't be matched by any one player or coach.  It is a quality representation for why fans were attracted to American football and continued to gravitate to the game over the years.

In 2011, I asked the question, 'NFL Films Set the Standard; MLS Films Soon To Follow?'.

Ed Sabol, the 95 year-old innovator of NFL Films, entered the pantheon of NFL Football on Saturday in Canton, Ohio.  He earned his place in the NFL Hall Of Fame by spiriting a concept from his two favorite hobbies, film making and watching tackle football.  He began in his mid-forties after years as a clothing salesman.  He got his son, Steve, to work alongside him and saw NFL Films grow its business, after starting in 1964.

Ed and Steve were pioneers because of the style of films they produced.  They told fantastic stories by using great writing.  Also, they were able to capture the essence of tackle football with dramatic footage from all different angles.  They were pros covering pros.

Their documentaries covered all aspects of the game, including; techniques, personalities, weather, follies and the fans.

Two other aspects brought their films to a level of greatness.  They had original scores of music made specifically designed to match the sport's grind, discipline and beauty.  The music sounds perfectly suited for how the game looked and felt.  Then, there was the announcer.

Their choice for announcer sealed the deal.  He was John Facenda, a longtime Philadelphia radio and television broadcaster.

Part of the reason that Ed Sabol made it into the HOF is because of the financial rewards he brought to the NFL.  His films provided the NFL with a heritage that will never be forgotten.  He helped build and create a culture for how the NFL became what it is today.

Many people remember the films and place themselves back to those periods of time because the memories are worth cherishing.  In many ways, Ed Sabol is the foundation and roots that have complimented the development of the NFL.  His style of film and his ideas helped popularize the sport.

It's hard to predict how somebody may create the same magic for MLS and in what shape or form it might come in.  Definitely, there should be people in MLS working to someday accomplish similar feats to match the impact Ed and Steve Sabol had with NFL Films. 

The voice of NFL Films, John Facenda, had also dabbled some with pro soccer.  His voice is synonymous with drama.  He can be listened to in this video from the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Miami Toros of the NASL in 1975.

If soccer is ever going to catch up with the other mainstream sports in the U.S., it's going to need more characters.  I captured this sentiment in 2011 when I wrote about how other sports' Halls of Fame were light years ahead of soccer's, 'Agassi, Deion, Rodman Put Pressure on Soccer's Hall Of Fame.'

Call them showboats or call them fluff, call them arrogant or call them hype.  It doesn't matter because these athletes produced.  Andre Agassi, Dennis Rodman and Deion Sanders gave the sporting public some of the best drama of all time.  They talked the talk and walked the walk.

Championships are part of their highlight films and part of their resumes forever.  But, they may not always be remembered for what they did on the courts or on the field.  Their actions outside of the arena or stadium attracted more attention than their playing exploits did.

They transcended sports because of their trendsetting ways.  All of them were flamboyant in how they played and how they dressed.  Each of their styles was unique and unpredictable.  There may never be a trio like this ever again inducted in the same year into different halls of fame.

Each of them should be appreciated for their sporting talents and what they brought to the athletic contests.  They boosted sports in ways that are difficult to describe.  They made the sports fan want to watch.  They always gave their best and played to the peek of their potential.

Agassi bursted onto the scene with crazy hair and denim shorts.  He was a lightning rod at times with his temper, but he thrilled sports fans with his comebacks and 'never say die' attitude.  He won championships on all surfaces and played to the crowd all over the world.  His image was indelible as a hip youngster and then again as a husband and father.

Deion is most famously remembered for coasting into the end zone with a high-step or showcasing the football after punt-returns or interceptions.  As a two-sport star, he played in baseball's World Series and then came back soon after to play in the NFL regular season.  He provided plenty of interesting quotes to the press during his playing days, mostly telling them exactly what was on his mind, unlike 99% of other pro athletes.  His other callings, preacher and rapper, seem to match up well with his loquacious ways. 

Rodman made his mark by out-hustling every other player on the court with him.  His thirst and desire to prove himself is what made his mark.  He didn't take anything for granted.  His love for the game is immeasurable, as he showed when he tried to play in the minor leagues well into his 40's. 

Each sport, football, basket and tennis, will never be the same again without these characters.  These careers were ageless and timeless.  Their personalities gave sports fans much more to talk about than other hall of famers.

It wasn't about the numbers for these guys, except one, television ratings.  This is what separates them from others.  The charisma they brought to the game, along with their preparation, tended to make for compelling television.  2011 was a banner year for eccentric hall of famers.  In many ways, these guys are the essence of sports.

It is rare to find winning talents with such controversial personalities.  These are the athletes that are able to cross cultural boundaries and become pop culture phenomenons.  Can Soccer or MLS say it has ever had a player like one of these guys before?  Probably, Beckham is the only candidate.

Cobi Jones and Eddy Pope, this year's Soccer inductees, are both worthy of hall of fame stature, and in many ways, both did transcend cultural boundaries when they played, but they weren't able to galvanize the public's attention in iconic ways like Agassi, Deion and Rodman.  Soccer and MLS in the U.S. need more winning characters.

It's not just the winning characters that make Halls of Fame compelling.  In sports media, the arguments for who deserves to be in the Hall of Fame are what really gets the opinions of sports fans roiling.  For American pro soccer, the selection is limited for any arguments on who should get in.

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