10 November 2009 ~ The professional women’s team in Washington DC, the Freedom, is running ads right now to attract season ticket buyers for the 2010 Women’s Professional Soccer campaign. As well as emphasising “fun, family entertainment at a great value” and excitedly promising “up-close, action-packed, fast-paced, intense, thrilling competition”, the team also notes that it allows full media access and is “welcoming of all coverage, positive or hostile”. It’s either a curious selling angle aimed at potential journalists or the team is trying to make a point at the expense of its male counterpart, Major League Soccer.
MLS, which began in 1996, has become very sensitive to criticism. In its early years it welcomed pretty much anyone with a pen and a notepad into the press box. Much of the US domestic game’s coverage was provided by unpaid or, at best, underpaid journalists playing their part in promoting a new league in a competitive sports market. But the transient media attention that came with the league’s two false dawns – the launching of Freddy Adu and the arrival of David Beckham – lead MLS to believe it was now a serious, international player. Although it varies from team to team, access and credentials for journalists previously embraced to make the press box look full are now often restricted or denied (especially to those who are critical). The league’s official site, meanwhile, has become the principal, but principally dull, media outlet as the game continues to struggle for space in the country’s mainstream press. It’s not saying much, but with one or two honourable exceptions, much of the best analysis of MLS can be found on internet fan forums.
That’s not the only reason why the Washington Freedom might be making its point. Yes, MLS has clamped down on criticism by effectively excluding unfriendly writers. But it has also slapped down internal rebellion. Two weeks ago it fined DC United president Kevin Payne $5,000 (£3,000) for “public comments deemed detrimental to the public image of the league”. His crime? He told the truth to the Washington Post about the quality of play in MLS this season.
Citing defensive tactics from the likes of the Colorado Rapids and Steve Nicol’s New England Revolution as the reason behind the league’s often unimpressive crowds, Payne admitted: “There are a lot of games in our league that I can't watch. Given a choice, we [DC United] would rather attack than cynically defend.” Payne conceded that putting ten players behind the ball was “sometimes… the best way to get a result, if you don't care about the product, if you don't care about advertising your league. Long term, who wants to watch that?”
If you set aside the fact that DC United played their fair share of dismal football this season, Payne’s comments are spot on. But he was forced to rush out an apology along with his cheque for five grand, expressing “deep regret” that he might have offended any of his colleagues. MLS, you see, is supposed to be one big, happy family. If they won’t let the journalists say nasty things, then they certainly can’t tolerate dissent from within. Because it’s a slippery slope from here to a sensible, adult discussion about why the league’s goal average was down to 2.54 goals per game this season, why there are so few exciting young players and why there was a dearth of attacking, adventurous play until this past week’s play-offs, when fear of elimination belatedly kicked the season into life.
It could be that MLS thinks it is following the example of the Premier League, which enjoys fawning, bland coverage by controlling the message. But the Premier League can at least claim that, in terms of commercial results and global attention, it has successfully “arrived”. What the Washington Freedom and WPS recognise is that a young league needs both praise and criticism to gain credibility and help it survive. They know their ABC of dialectics – a nascent league needs the questioning culture of a varied and knowledgeable media to help it prosper. Otherwise, as Payne noted, the result can be a stagnant product few will choose to watch in a market already crowded with four established major league sports. MLS needs to grow up and engage its critics by talking about radical, positive, long-term plans to escape the tactical rut that’s come with parity, a league obsessed with central control and a season format where poor, defensive and inconsistent teams can end up being crowned as champions. The alternative is to do nothing but cry over its wounded public image. Ian Plenderleith