It's all about the ratings, right?
MLS is oh so close to becoming relevant. The league has made huge strides based on nearly every metric that its own fans will tell you. However, the casual sports fan is oblivious to nearly all these metrics.
Casual sports fans don't analyze games, so they don't cares that the quality of play has drastically improved.
Casual sports fans don't care about the intricacies of polling data, so they don't cares about ESPN polls that are apparently relied upon to make any comment on soccer's popularity in America.
Casual fans don't go to games, so they don't care about the "atmosphere" or "attendance" numbers.
Atmosphere, analytical studies, and quality of play mean nothing to anyone but us, the hardcore Major League Soccer fans. What casual sports fans, and notice I say casual sports fans and not casual soccer fans, care about is a good time. They care about a short investment. They care about something they can latch onto. Something where they can see an ultimate winner and loser. This is why MLS wants to add playoff games at the expense of the season.
Clear-cuttedness is why the Super Bowl receives astronomical ratings. Most people do not care about the playoffs, nor do they care about the teams playing in the NFL's showpiece event. They just want to know who won, who lost, who moves on, who goes home. It has less to do with the common complaint of casuals about soccer having draws and more to do with our country's bloodlust and need for clear-cut story lines. We want elimination, and we love the drama. Nothing is better than the desperation for that final goal to tie it up or break the opponents back- even if it means watching atrocious route one soccer to the more nuanced observer.
A regular season is too long for a casual fan. There is no closure. It plays out like Lost where the first few stories were good, but you grow impatient for the answers to questions that may or may not ever come. Yes, these folks want closure! They need closure! They must have it! If there is not a clear-cut winner and loser every time, some team that has absolutely gained something, and some team that has absolutely lost something or put their neck into a noose, casuals lose interest. This is why all television ratings in all sports get higher as a season wears on. It's why no one watches a mid-year matchup between two teams that have no chance on making the playoffs in any sport.
Now imagine having to watch 34 games of something you don't understand. 34 games worth of, I don't know, curling? Wouldn't that make it worse? Casuals want the comfort of knowing that within 8-12 games it will all be over. Especially if they have to learn new things like positions, and player names, and the difference between yellow and red cards, and - God forbid - offside. That is too much effort, energy, and time spent learning something, when it ultimately comes down to a mere moment to determine the winner.
This is partially why the World Cup does so well. More importantly, and the model that MLS seems to be going after with the news leak of a 12 team playoff, this is what College Basketball does.
Let's be honest. No one outside of Kentucky and North Carolina especially cares about college basketball. The season is too long. There are too many players who don't have NBA quality. They play in weird markets and for schools most have never heard of. Very few know who won the American East Conference. Few care about the end results of the Colonial Athletic Association tournament. The Horizon League? The Ivy League? The MAAC? Does anyone who isn't a hardcore supporter of these schools really care? Probably not.
But then the real season starts. March Madness exists outside of sports. It is bigger than sports. It is in the cultural lexicon. The time from the start of March to the beginning of April, which typically runs just over four weeks, is the biggest showpiece for college athletics. It may, perhaps, be even bigger than the BCS Championship.
Why? March has become the college basketball season because it is a short time commitment. You learn to love new players, new teams, new coaches; but you don't need to learn everyone's of some of the lesser cared about intricacies of the NCAA system.
This, seemingly, is what MLS is trying to do. Will the 34ish game regular season be there for the supporters? Absolutely, but the main product will be the playoffs. Look at the attendance for the Revolution over the playoffs. Over two games, the Revs had an average attendance of 26,441. That is nearly 10,000 more butts in seats than their regular season attendance. In the semifinals, taking the reported numbers of the LA Galaxy, Seattle Sounders, New York Red Bulls, and New England Revolution, the teams averaged 32,864 people. Granted those numbers were buoyed by Seattle's attendance, but even taking Seattle out, the teams averaged 28,232 people. That's impressive.
Then there are the TV numbers that MLS is always struggling with. What we are starting to see is a slight uptick in those ratings during the playoff. When we see things higher than a 3.0 share in New England, or the final is getting well over a 1.0 share when combining Spanish and English language broadcasts nationally, we can see progress being made in the playoffs. Part of this progress has to do with a low level of commitment to take to learn a few things in just over a month of games.
We want the entire season to matter, but like NCAA basketball it may just not be meant to be. If MLS can take this current years of playoffs and build a must watch event over a four-week period, one that gets people excited, one that gets more television money due to the win-or-go-home nature of casual sports fans then they need to do it. Maybe giving up on the season to build an enormous showpiece event is the best thing for the actual season.