When every game matters: What MLS can learn from NFL

When reaching the playoffs becomes the thought that consumes every MLS fans' mind, you'll see even more moments of raw, unhinged emotion -- like this one last year at Dick's Sporting Goods Park.

A binding NFL-MLS link will always exist. The Hunt family and Kraft family were early MLS pioneers, of course. Later, Paul Allen (Seattle Seahawks and Sounders) showed everyone how an NFL-MLS partnership should look. Those two, to borrow from Forest Gump, go together like peas and carrots.

So I’m a little perplexed about why one element that makes NFL so special has completely escaped MLS ownership, which, again, are one in the same to a certain measure:

Earning a playoff spot in the National Football League is a special thing. Just 12 of 32 teams gain a post-season pass, and fans look forward to those evocative, white-knuckle, winner-take-all contests like Christmas, Thanksgiving and Halloween all rolled into one.  

I thought of this on Monday, watching the Cowboys and Redskins play in Week 3.  The announcers talked about how few playoff games Dallas has won in recent years, and how few playoff opportunities the Redskins have experienced during that same window.  So, even this early in the 2011 campaign, a lot was riding on this one. On all of them, really.

Yes, the Cowboys and Redskins are old NFL rivals, and that tends to weaponize the interest. And obviously, the brevity of a 16-game regular season adds weight to each kickoff.  Still, you always (always!) get the feeling that NFL games are critical. Lose just one and the view of the playoffs dims a little. Even in Week 3.

I thought of all this again while watching an unbelievable sports night unfold Wednesday. I’m not much of a baseball fan, but the theater of Red Sox collapse, all knotted up strangely with the need for Yankee success, was simply irresistible. It was all about making the playoffs. After all, just 8 of 30 teams get that opportunity in Major League Baseball.  

NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball will never get the opportunity to make each regular season game as meaningful as those in NFL. Generally speaking, regular season games in NBA, NHL and MLB fall equally under the headings of “competitive professional sporting event” and “nacho cheesy entertainment event.” In baseball, the season is just too damn long, so upping the ante for individual dates over a 162-game slate game is a lost cause.

Pretty much the same for hockey and basketball, so they don’t even try to make the playoffs special. They more or less just eliminate the particularly terrible teams and then open it up for “tournaments” that last almost three months. Yes. Three months.

Take away the rivalry contests and the games electrified by big stars, and one kickoff/tipoff/faceoff in the regular season is pretty much like all the others.

MLS has a chance to be more than that. It won’t be the NFL in my lifetime, and that’s fine. It doesn’t need to be NFL XXL in terms of media and fan appeal to reach a tipping point in terms of individual match significance in the bigger picture.

Read on for where MLS owners are missing the boat …

Major League Soccer can certainly get to the point where all 34 regular season contests – or 32 or 36, or wherever they land; I understand it’s still in flux – come attached to a certain weight.

I know why they added two clubs to a playoff field that was already too big. (This year, 10 of 18 sides earn one of those water-down MLS playoff berths.)  They want to create exciting races at the end. And they want as many teams as possible involved in these breath-takers. They want everyone to remain relevant in September.

So right now, with just one team officially eliminated (with three others on serious life support, only mathematically alive), MLS owners are probably patting themselves on the back. The Eastern Conference is jammed up like the 405 at rush hour, and the Wild Card races remain a roll of the dice.

So, yes, owners have succeeded in driving a few more September fans to a few more stadiums in a selected few markets.

But all this still strikes me as short-sighted, as a reach for nearby coins when dollar bills can be had with just a little more patience.

What if every match came attached to a little more meaning? What if next year, the growing legion of real MLS supporters – as opposed to the “family” set, the model that drove MLS marketing 1.0, the ones who will show up for just one or two matches a year no matter what – develops a richer and richer appreciation for how every match matters? Every. Single. Match.

How to achieve that (or get closer, at least)? Make the playoffs more selective. Go back to 8 teams. For next year, that would mean 8 get in, 11 stay out. When MLS adds club No. 20, the element of discrimination would move even further in the right direction. Then, in ever more markets, over ever more dates, every match would truly matter. More and more fans would wake up on match day with a little nervousness in the pit of their tummies. 

We already see it in Seattle and Portland. We would probably see it in Toronto if the BMO brain trust hadn’t gone all FUBAR about 16 different ways over the years. We’ve gotten bits and pieces of this awareness through the years in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Chicago and perhaps elsewhere.

How great would it be if matches in May, June, July, etc., all came with an earnest tension? After all, each club has just 16 home matches at the moment. Win the majority and the playoffs are in sight.

Of course, the playoffs have to be truly important in the fans’ eyes. They have to covet those playoff spots badly – and die just a little when they don’t get one, the way Red Sox fans died just a little last night.

Last year before MLS Cup, Don Garber talked about the atmosphere around DSG Park as the Colorado Rapids hosted a conference championship match, seeking their second MLS Cup appearance. He talked about how those “moments” drive MLS forward, creating these invaluable mile markers across MLS markets. Clubs, and the clubs' relationships with fans, are never the same after they cross these emotional thresholds. 

It's a great thing and he’s got that part right. Every market needs those moments. I just think you get more of them, and they reach a deeper level, when breaching the playoff barrier becomes a true accomplishment – not just a weak indicator that your middling team was just a little less middling than a few others.

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