As the World Cup glow fades and millions of us find alternative excuses to avoid productive behavior, it is a good time to assess soccer’s future in the United States. Even with the increased media attention and tantalizing growth potential, soccer faces formidable competition from long-entrenched and successful sports enterprises, including MLB, NBA, NHL, NASCAR, and of course the current king-of-the-hill, NFL.
The main professional soccer entity in the U.S., Major League Soccer (MLS), is now in its 19th year. Yes, that’s correct, 19th year! MLS continues to grow, albeit modestly, in terms of attendance, number of teams, soccer-specific stadia, television ratings, player salaries, quality of play, and international respect. Several international stars, while admittedly sometimes past their prime, have chosen MLS to continue their careers. These stars have included the Frenchman Thierry Henry, Cuauhtemoc Blanco and Rafael Marquez from Mexico, Englishman and global icon David Beckham, Columbian Juan Pablo Angel, Australian Tim Cahill, Americans Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey, and most recently Spanish international David Villa.
MLS has shrewdly grown their enterprise with a keen eye on controlling costs, especially with regard to player salaries. The league’s Designated Player Rule has been instrumental in permitting localized control for bringing in respected brand-name talent from higher profile leagues around the world. But MLS can cost-effectively get to the next level by making incremental yet creative changes to the game. Prudent adaptations to the sport will differentiate American soccer and draw in millions more attention-deficit-disordered fans craving more action and more goals. And while they may loathe confessing it, scores of purists from the soccer cathedrals of South America and Europe would surely praise changes that would resurrect “the beautiful game” from the evil clutches of the often ugly, rough and tumble style that currently dominates global soccer. Alas, here are some tangible improvements that should make soccer more comely to not only Americans, but fans worldwide:
1) Allow more substitutes. Permitting only three substitutions just makes a game’s late stages a sluggish, frustrating crampfest. More substitutions bring in fresh legs, tactical options, and opens up the game for more scoring chances, rewards team depth, and allows coaches to coach more.
2) Clamp down on goonish, overly physical play. In the spirit of promoting skillful, possession-oriented, creative attacking soccer (a.k.a. beautiful soccer), referees need to clean up the game and give out more cards. Perhaps soccer could borrow the “sin bin” concept from hockey for suppressing violent or reckless perpetrators. Although defenders in the NFL have long complained about preferential treatment given receivers and quarterbacks, the result has been an impressive, fan-friendly exhibition of high scoring football.
3) Honor-up the sport with post-game video review. Penalize players with cards, suspensions, fines, and public scrutiny when they are found to cheat, flop, dive, bite, fake injuries, etc. Knowledgeable sports fans appreciate an honest effort on the field. At a 22:3 player-to-official ratio (excluding the clerical fourth official), soccer referees are blind to many of the infractions being committed on the field. Compare soccer’s player-to-official ratio to American football at 22:7, basketball at 10:3, hockey at 12:4, and boxing at an intimate 2:1 (excluding judges), and you can see the imbalance. So rather than muck up the game with more on-field officials, just police it with post-game surveillance. Much of the bad behavior will change in short order.
4) Use technology for offside calls. While FIFA recently approved goal line technology (GLT) for the 2014 World Cup, the most common and gravest adjudication dilemma in soccer is not with goals but instead lies with offside rulings. Games are often impacted by wrong offside calls. Like all humans, an assistant referee’s eyes track together, which makes accurate judgment on offsides often impossible, especially on long balls. Even a first base umpire in baseball has the benefit of sound (ball hitting glove) and proximity (foot-to-bag is only a few feet from ball-to-glove). Nevertheless, fans and players want fair, accurate calls. Coaches should be allowed two or three challenges to offside calls. Video review works very well in tennis (Hawk-eye technology) and is usually conclusive in the NFL (all scores reviewed in booth; coach may challenge other calls), so why not adopt technology for arguably the most maligned and difficult calls in all of sports.
5) Revamp the penalty kick. The former North American Soccer League (NASL), which peaked in the late 1970s, utilized a unique and crowd-pleasing penalty kick format. The shooter gets the ball 35 yards from goal and has 5 seconds to score. The goalkeeper now has the advantage in this format since he can legally come off his line as far as he wants. This certainly beats the current format where the keeper is essentially a guess-making hostage to a spherical missile fired from just 12 yards away.
6) Implement clearance restriction like hockey’s icing rule. Currently, defenders can clear a ball aimlessly when under pressure from attackers. Late game drama would increase exponentially if the team under siege could not clear the ball in the air past the midfield line if kicking it within 18 yards of their own goal line.
7) Fix overtime. Many soccer fans and sports journalists have a visceral hatred for games that end without a clear winner, and they abhor games decided by penalty kicks. So for tournament and playoff games requiring a winner, start the first overtime period with nine players a side instead of eleven. Then after 15 minutes go with seven per side. Couple all this open space with unlimited player substitutions (see Item #1) and you have a better chance of having a winner before having to resort to penalty kicks.
8) Clean up or replace FIFA. Let’s face it, we all know corruption exists nearly everywhere, but FIFA breaks the mold for blatant bribery scandals and unscrupulous hijinks. Ironic to have such a habitually disreputable governing body in charge of such a great, wildly popular sport. Fans and sponsors deserve honesty and transparency, or at least an attempt at virtue. Let’s start with an independent regulatory group charged with monitoring this all too powerful money machine.
About the author:
Dr. Wayne is an Associate Professor of Business Administration at Rivier University in Nashua, NH. His research and teaching interests include sports and entertainment marketing, new product development, entrepreneurship, and strategy. He also serves as the Faculty Athletics Representative for Rivier University.