Friday, August 21, 2015

Chap 12) Image Isn't an Issue

Considering all the negative publicity the 'big 3' have churned out over the years, soccer should be thought of as a refreshing departure for the American sports fan.  Pro soccer players in the U.S. are rarely heard of in the news.  The blotter isn't dotted with drunk drivers or domestic abusers from the sport of soccer.

It's amazing that the 'big 3' have maintained such a high profile with American sports fans.  College football and basketball have a morality problem that hasn't been solved for decades.  Young people are supposed to be taking classes as part of their scholarship in exchange for playing a sport and yet many of them aren't interested in academics.  And, cheaters are generally rewarded.  Coaches win championships and get their school onto probation with the NCAA and then simply move on to another university.  Recruiting violations are commonplace.

The NFL's concussion problems and MLB's steroids issues have been well documented.  The NBA has come around in recent years, but there was the 'Malice at the Palace' and a player guilty of murder not too long ago.

There's so much going for pro soccer in the U.S.  It is on the right side of so many aspects of American culture.  I wrote about how soccer should be able to conquer U.S. sports fans in 2011, 'Soccer as a Savior.'

There's been a litany of problems in so many American sports lately.  College football has an annual crisis of players, coaches and boosters scheming the system-Ohio State University being the latest. 

College basketball has its own share of problems as witnessed earlier in the year when the University of Connecticut got busted for recruiting violations only to bounce back and win the national championship a month later.

College football and basketball ethics are out of control and have been for years.  There are too many programs willing to do whatever's necessary to play for the 'big time.'  Its all greed and excess, from coaches trading jobs and violations, to players who never had any intention of studying for a degree. 

Whether its Bruce Pearl or Jim Tressel's doings or Reggie Bush, OJ Mayo or Cam Newton's takings (just to name a few), the sad stories of hypocrisy and entitlement need a major adjustment.  Integrity must become more commonplace.  

The NFL is suffering from a reputation of concussions, giving parents more thought on whether it's worth it to let their son even play the game.

Fans may be tiring of the same old pro football and basketball games, the bloated salaries, the manipulation tactics and the feeding of it all from mainstream sports media.  There's no loyalty in any of it.  Nobody can be trusted.  The adulation for these athletes is sickening at all levels.

Baseball has its own sad tale to tell.  Corruption, yes.  Drugs, yes.  The steroid era tainted baseball and inflated its numbers so much that owners built stadiums too big.  Empty looking stadiums are a daily scene in baseball highlights. 

Fans need an alternative to the cheating, unethical, repetitive, greedy nature of college basketball/football, pro baseball, basketball and football.  Of course, all these things happen in world Soccer, but MLS has a good record so far.  Sure, these things may take place in the future, but for now, MLS is able to distinguish itself from its sports counterparts.

Baseball's popularity trajectory has been a precarious one in recent years with American sports fans. America's pasttime let down society by allowing steroids to prevail for so long.  As a result, the problems of steroids effected MLB's bottom line as time and technology moved forward at a rapid pace.  Gone are the generations of people from baseball's heyday and many sports fans are no longer engaged with the slow pace of the game.  Also, foul balls have injured spectators and created fear for many who might want to attend a game.

I like baseball fine and there are many wonderful virtues in it to watch as a spectator sport, but it is definitely not as much fun to watch as soccer-in my opinion. I wrote twice about how soccer should battle baseball for summer's supremacy, once in 2009, 'Taking Advantage of MLB Dropping the Ball' and another time in 2011, 'Baseball's Steroids Era and Its Effects on MLS.'

The Barry Bonds trial is in full swing as baseball season prepares for opening day.  The trial continues to steal headlines from the purity of what baseball used to be and the Roger Clemens perjury trial looms ahead to steal even more.  The steroids era is over for boosting ridiculous player egos, but the disgraces continue.  As the healing goes on, the Clemens trial should put a cap on things.

Baseball has less superstars and household names than in recent memory and Soccer in the U.S. may be at a turning point in its history.  Many sports fans would argue that football replaced baseball as America's pasttime many years ago. Remember the commercial, "Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet."  That slogan was from the 1970's.

Baseball has had a problem getting its game familiar to newer generations of people who are accustomed to an elaborate variety of entertainment options.  The regular season has been 162 games, 81 at home for dozens of years, but that may need to change soon as talked about in Baseball's most recent Winter meetings.  A more compact season could help baseball to sell a higher percentage of seats.  Fans may be losing the patience to endure so many games.

The steroids era blew up the players and the statistics.  Fans bought in, so owners built bigger.  But now it looks like supply and demand may not be on baseball's side.  Baseball made the mistake to go bigger with their stadiums, starting in the late 1990's.  Empty seats during the week and at the end of the season are noticeable and give out the impression that not many people care.  Smaller more fanciful parks like Wrigley and Fenway might have been a better solution, so sellouts are the norm. An average stadium in MLB seats 45,000 people.  More than 12 of these stadiums were built years after the faux slugfest of Sosa, McGwire and Bonds.  These new stadiums made a mistake in judgment.  Stadiums really don't need to be bigger than 25-30,000 people.

Steroids were not inconspicuous, in fact, it was quite the opposite.  Steroids were obvious.  But, the slugfest and the ensuing asterisk years were accepted and tolerated because of baseball's strike in 1994-95.  Baseball's attendance was its best ever in the years after the strike.  The issue of steroids was ignored to make up for the strike year that disappointed so many.  The media fell in love with the majestically tainted homeruns, just like the owners, fans and every other ostrich with his head in the sand.

MLS had the unfortunate luck to start its league in the middle of baseball's inflated racket.  Its first 10 years, starting in 1996, were a blur, hidden from view and without too many Soccer-specific stadiums.  It's safe to say that MLS wasn't even a blip on MLB's radar.  A few years later though and things may be changing.

Is there any rivalry between MLB and its Soccer counterpart, MLS?  It would seem its definitely brewing, though there is hardly any mention of it in any mainstream sports media outlet.  It's hard to believe that baseball can make more money or its franchise values can go higher.  Economically speaking, logic would seem to dictate that baseball will trend down and Soccer will trend up.

This year for the first time, Soccer may be able to prove higher season attendance for when both a baseball and Soccer game are played on the same day in the same city.  This happens every so often over the course of the seasons for each of the metro areas; Toronto, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Dallas, Houston, Chicago, Washington D.C., New York, Kansas City, Denver and Seattle.

Television is the great equalizer.  Sports fans will take notice of empty stadiums just as they will take notice of full stadiums.  Watching loud, boisterous, full stadiums may lure new sports fans just as much as stale, boring, empty stadiums would lose old sports fans.  Television is the most prolific event marketer and teacher ever.  Television teaches what exceptional drama is and guides sports fans to choose one sport over another.

Though baseball has had its own recent decline in ratings, it still may not need to worry too much about Soccer.  A few years removed from the worst debacle in MLB history, the steroids era, and clearly MLS has not been able to take any major advantage when it comes to the most important indicator of success.  Last year's MLS television ratings were horrible.  According to MLS executives, it is a question of time for television ratings to go up.  MLS is still building its base and expanding regionally throughout the U.S. and Canada. 

If a battle is waged, than something will have to give.  If Soccer becomes more mainstream, then baseball may have to downsize.  Can both be successful going for the sports fan's dollar, similar to how the schedules of the NBA and NHL compete?  Is MLS willing to be the Hockey to MLB's Basketball?

It remains to be seen how each will define success for future years.  It's hard to predict the future.  But, the 'Beautiful Game' can be improved upon and fine tuned.  With ingenuity and attention to the sports fan's expectations, MLS could eventually overtake MLB as a more popular American spectator sport.

Soccer should act fast to get those sports fans that are dropping baseball, and get them introduced to the passion of soccer.  Maybe its time for a counter marketing campaign, one that focuses on baseball's downfalls and soccer's fun aspects of fandom.  

Every year, it seems many baseball stadiums are not even half full.  The empty stands may affect sports fans' interest in watching games.  This is a question in the psychology of fandom.  For fans watching on Tv, it seems better when the stadium is packed full.

Time will tell.  Baseball is a slow game for fans to watch, and with the right presentation, soccer can nudge itself more into the minds of U.S. sports fans.  These are America's two summer sports.  They are competition to each other, whether they like it or not.

I think the concussion crisis is a paramount one for the sport of American football.  I am convinced it will be the downfall of the sport unless there are drastic changes made.  But, I'm probably way ahead of the curve on the issue.  It may take quite a while for sports fans to make the adjustment to the fact that American football and the NFL are too dangerous to the minds of the athletes playing them. In 2013, I met with the founder of 'Gridiron Heroes' and published, 'Is Teaching Proper Techniques for Tackling the Best Method for Making Football Safer?.'

Last week, a high school American football player died as a result of injuries sustained on the field. Damon Janes ultimately died from a helmet to helmet collision. His death was the 39th since the year 2000 for high schoolers playing football according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research.

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of meeting the co-founder of Gridiron Heroes, Eddie Canales. Gridiron Heroes is a non-profit organization dedicated to assisting high school football players who have long-lasting spinal cord injuries.  For those who watch Bryant Gumbel's Real Sports on HBO, you might remember a segment that featured the work of Eddie's son, Chris, Eddie and the foundation.  It can be watched again here.

There's so much to be said on this topic.  I just learned there's a spinal cord injury Hall Of Fame. More information can be learned on the Gridiron Heroes website.  My meeting with Eddie was respectful and courteous, but we did not see eye to eye on core issues that should be addressed for the organization moving forward.  Eddie relayed to me that there have been 47 spinal cord injuries from playing high school football nationally in the last 10 years alone, 22 in Texas and 25 outside of Texas.

Eddie started the foundation after Chris was tragically injured in a game.  Since the injury, it is obvious that Eddie and Chris found a calling to help other fallen players and their families.  Chris is a powerful living example of positive thinking.  Chris is a person who doesn't feel sorry for himself and carries himself as a role model for others.  All of the players affected by these disastrous injuries are going forward with a love for the game, still. This is part of the mission of the foundation to keep the spinal cord injured former players close to the sport.

It is an inspiring organization.  So much so, that many all-time great NFL players fully support Gridiron Heroes.  They are active participants and do their best to personally get to know the spinal cord injured.  Where Eddie and I disagreed is on where to place the top priority for helping football to become a safer sport.

Through his foundation, Eddie has become a person of influence for the future safety of the game. Eddie says the most important element is to teach the proper techniques for tackling.  While I agree teaching proper tackling techniques is extremely important for young players' safety and definitely a major priority, I don't think it is the top priority.

I think the most important aspects for helping the sport to become safer is to go back to the roots of the sport and play it with no helmets or leather helmets and play it on natural grass.  I'm not alone on the topic of going helmetless.  Troy Aikman has said it is the best idea for football to be safer, too.  I said it long ago, but I was glad to hear Troy say it a couple years back and he has stuck to it.

Also, playing on natural grass just makes common sense.  The reverberation of any difficult hit to the helmet can be softened by grass.  With artificial surfaces, hits to the helmet can get enhanced and made worse.  I believe teaching good tackling techniques is incredibly important, but I don't think it is ever possible for helmet to helmet collisions to be avoided.  They are part of the game.  The way players are moving on impact, no matter how much they try to avoid it, as they contort their bodies before impact, helmets will collide accidentally and often, unfortunately.

Eddie wouldn't come around on the helmetless idea and disregarded Troy Aikman's input.  Eddie did say he likes the idea of the sport going back to grass, though.  Overall, Eddie wouldn't budge on his tackling technique theory as the biggest priority, which is fine.  It's okay to disagree and I'm glad to get it out in the open.  This topic is obviously that important.

There have been studies on concussions in soccer that show the sport can be damaging to the brain with too many collisions among players or the pounding from headers with the ball.  But, soccer players are beginning to integrate headgear (that looks like a bandana) into their uniform and this should alleviate the problems of concussions.

Generally speaking, pro soccer in the U.S. carries a glowing reputation compared to the 'big 3.'  There aren't inherent issues with the sport or with the athletes playing it.  The athletes playing soccer are genuine and humble with fans. They haven't become completely spoiled and inaccessible yet like most NBA, MLB and NFL athletes.  Pro soccer players are easy to root for when they are on the field giving it their best efforts.

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