The bosses at Major League Soccer in America thought it necessary to spend millions on a new web presence. Ian Plenderleith points out why it has been a disaster

“The days of the 800-word think-piece are over,” a football journalist recently told me as we discussed the state of internet writing. With all that content being condensed into ever shorter formats, readers want easily browsed headlines, Twitter snippets, news-based blog entries that end with a question, controversial quotes and a space at the bottom where they can launch in with their opinions. Those long paragraphs just give us a headache and take up time better spent watching that shaky YouTube clip where the loco ref scores with an overhead kick in a Paraguayan Fourth Division game before taking a out a handgun and opening fire on the crowd.

It didn’t appear to be a message taken on board by MLS when it relaunched its official site in March. Fans watched with some dismay as a serviceable, reasonably user-friendly site was closed down and replaced by a basket-case. MLS had seen the need to move on and make money from its site but rather than reforms it opted instead for a complete revolution. Thanks to abysmal planning, atrocious execution and being utterly clueless about the trend towards social media, its new website turned into a disaster.

Why should UK readers care about the MLS website? You probably shouldn’t, but the whole episode instructs us anew about the way that football authorities can hire as many marketing and business gurus as they want but can never quite get the hang of this idea that communicating with fans and understanding their needs may be of benefit to their expertly honed business models. 

The old MLS site was hardly a thriller in terms of editorial content, but then no one expects cutting edge commentary from the league mouthpiece. On its front page you could at least glean an overview of the standings, the latest results, the live match tickers and links to all the league’s individual club sites. Current and historical team and player stats were a simple click away, along with well edited game highlights. But the site needed bringing up to trend in terms of social networking and reader interaction.

MLS president Mark Abbott admitted that it cost “millions” to hire a “digital media consultancy” called Rocket Fuel Sales, as well as marketing, sales and technical staff. This investment would eventually bring money back in – through subscriptions to games broadcast online, syndicated content and, in the long term, by providing the infrastructure for football sites across the US game. A new team of editors was also recruited, reportedly to hire a team of writers that would make the content more lively and independent.

Things started badly with an ill-advised name change. The easily memorised mlsnet .com changed to the awkward, effectively making the site’s name majorleaguesoccersoccerdotcom, almost implying that the league doesn’t know what its own acronym stands for. Naturally, there were teething problems when the site went live. Most famously, mlssoccer managed to post the wrong kick-off times for all the season’s opening fixtures, with the San Jose Earthquakes and Real Salt Lake slated to get under way at two in the morning.

Such bugbears weren’t isolated. On a typical morning, three weeks in to the site’s reincarnation, all of its main news stories linked to empty pages, including one headlined Is South Africa Ready? Well, perhaps not, but they’re organising a World Cup. What’s MLS’s excuse? All they had were six months to get a website up and running, and let fans know what time the games were supposed to start.

A surfer’s first impression will not, however, be the informational gaffes. The site’s design is an absolute horror and drawing up a list of criticisms is like starting a single-handed bomb site clearance with nothing but a brush and a bucket. It’s an uncoordinated mess, as though the first attempt to get something, anything, on screen was adopted as the final template because no one could be bothered to try anything better. All in all it’s a navigational nightmare and it’s no exaggeration to say that a school kid could have opened a Typepad account and quickly come up with something more eye-catching, original and at least ten times more functional.

In terms of editorial (when you can actually access the stories) MLS has sailed with the prevailing trend of publishing shorter, less substantial stories and little by way of opinion (so much for the semi-independent content). A reporter goes to the training ground, interviews a player, then types up how much that player is looking forward to the new season. The site has also run lead stories with the latest European news, prompting the question: why would anyone go to the MLS site for news on Bayern Munich v Man Utd?

An anonymous blogger called Fake Sigi ripped the site to pieces in a sprawling, highly articulate, multi-screen indictment. The redesign, wrote Sigi, represented “a lost opportunity and a monumental failure in execution. For an organization [of] the stature of MLS, one that relies so heavily on publicity to bridge the gap to profitability, one that is run by marketing professionals, such a misstep is unforgivable and inexcusable.” And that was just the intro.

The MLS director of digital strategy, Chris Schlosser (“a man who needs to be removed from his position,” according to Sigi), called the problems “manifestations of a single, but important, technical problem”. This reaction summed up why the project was so spectacularly botched. Did a technical glitch cause the predominantly grey background? Did a bug prompt the decision to allow no reader comments? In the words of one of Sigi’s respondents: “I don’t think they ever asked themselves the #1 question: Who is this site for? And #2: What do they [fans] want?”

From MLS fan reactions across the web, it’s clear what they want. Like all latter-day cyber-consumers, they want to be involved, they want to be heard, they want to know what’s going on NOW, they want to interact and they want to Twitter away with the left-back. A site that speaks to them and lets them speak back. While we hacks can maybe deal with the fact that few readers still want to wade through our 800-word pontificating, MLS likely has to sit down, wipe the screen clean and start all over again.

From WSC 279 May 2010

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