Eight by Eight’s Chase Woodruff reports from the “brandstasmagoric” MLS All-Star Game, which holds up a black mirror to the league’s bright future
It’s a hot Sunday afternoon in downtown Denver, Colorado, and on my walk from Union Station down the 16th Street Mall, the city coughs up evidence that the 2015 Major League Soccer All-Star Game will be played here in three days. Banners hang from lampposts. A giant plastic soccer ball rises from the pavement. That distinctly American hodgepodge of international club kits begins to appear in in the crowd.
I know I’ve arrived at my destination, though, when I see the brands.
More than a dozen of the league’s corporate partners are packed tightly into Skyline Park, announcing themselves with brightly-colored branded tents awash in sunlight and buoyant indie rock. The park—a narrow polygonal jumble of concrete planters and small patches of grass, bisected by a public transit route and a famous clocktower—isn’t terribly well-suited to hosting large public gatherings, so it’s a good thing that the All-Star festivities being held here have attracted a decidedly medium-sized crowd.
Over the course of the afternoon, New York City FC’s Andrea Pirlo will make his MLS debut in a wild 5–3 victory over Orlando City at Yankee Stadium. Orlando’s Cyle Larin, the No. 1 pick in the 2015 MLS SuperDraft and the odds-on Rookie of the Year favorite, will record a sensational hat-trick. D.C. United will complete a dramatic 3-2 comeback win over Philadelphia; Vancouver will defeat San Jose. Didier Drogba will sign with the Montreal Impact, and Shaun Wright-Phillips will join the New York Red Bulls.
None of this seems to register with the crowd at Skyline Park. No screen that I saw displayed any of the three MLS games being played today. The only soccer players in sight, for most of the afternoon, are cardboard cutouts; for reasons that will remain opaque, Landon Donovan is five miles away in the suburb of Stapleton, signing autographs at a Home Depot and setting a world record for the orangest photograph ever taken. And while none of this really makes sense, it begins to seem a lot less strange when you realize that whatever is happening today at Skyline Park is much less a celebration of American soccer than a carnival of corporate thirst.
Hip young brand reps corral passersby with enthusiasm so masterfully performed you almost believe it’s genuine. Want to enter to win prizes? A free upgrade to Windows 10 (tagline: “10s Do Great Things,” with a picture of Kaká)? Want to play bubble soccer? Soccer billiards? A weird motion-capture game in which you kick an invisible ball? For the price of an email address, an app download, the completion of a survey, a tweet with the right hashtag—and, let’s be honest, a little bit of dignity—you can do all of this and more. The first-aid station, should you meet with an unfortunate soccer billiards injury, is sponsored by Johnson & Johnson.
For a brief time, the brandtasmagoria at Skyline Park is interrupted by some honest-to-goodness soccer, in the form of a Gold Cup Final “watch party,” though most of the assembled crowd appears entirely uninterested in doing either of those things. They’re waiting for the MLS All-Star Concert Presented by AT&T and the Samsung Galaxy S6 Active, featuring electro-pop duo Capital Cities—whose 2013 hit “Safe and Sound” you may remember from that Mazda commercial, or that Coke commercial, or that Vodafone commercial.
Getting ready to leave, I pass an MLS employee on my way out of the restroom. I ask him how it’s going. He asks me if it’s Wednesday yet.
Few things earn more regular scorn from writers than the insipid, mechanical language of digital marketing: brand, content, platform, engagement, optimization. We fashion ourselves tastemakers, gatekeepers, producers and arbiters of culture; to watch the information economy relentlessly commodify and systematize functions that have long been exclusively ours is an unsettling experience. There’s a latent anxiety to it all that anyone, not just media types, can tap into if they’re neurotic enough: will technology reduce all of life’s once-ineffable cultural riches to cells on a marketing analyst’s spreadsheet? Are our tastes and loyalties just patterns waiting to be identified by an algorithm? When everything is data, measurable and manipulable, what’s left?
It’s a feeling not entirely dissimilar to one sports fans know well—a lesson we learn from a young age, the first time one of our heroes leaves town and a patient adult must explain to our young mind the finer points of free agency or Bosman rights or salary caps or release clauses or mutual options or the non-waiver trade deadline. You can’t be a sports fan without having confronted, on some level, the cold reality of sports as commerce: the dollar-driven rationalism, the purposefully abstract vocabulary, the merciless encroachment of capitalist logic onto the mythic ideal of sports as transcendence, as beauty, as pure, simple fun.
The business of marketing and the business of sport have never as strangely intertwined as they are under the umbrella of Major League Soccer, LLC. It’s not enough for MLS to run a financially stable soccer league in the third largest country in the world. It’s not enough for it to convince the third-largest country in the world to embrace a sport to which it has long been indifferent. Success, as defined by the league and its fans, means doing both of these things—keeping millions of existing soccer fans happy while working to attract tens of millions more—at the same time.
That’s not only an immense challenge; at times, it’s a self-contradictory one. There are no guarantees that MLS can grow into what many of us want to see it become without betraying (or at least selling) the culture that drew us to it in the first place, and the league deserves more credit than it’s often given for the way it’s negotiated these pitfalls and cross-purposes to get where it is today.
Its communications operation—part marketing arm, part PR team, part media outlet—may have stepped on an ethical landmine or two, but its coverage is generally terrific, from the nuts and bolts of match reports to intelligent analysis to its fast-paced, forward-thinking social presence, all of which is exactly what the league needs at this stage in its development when many national media outlets pay infrequent attention to it. Some early concessions to American norms have endured, but the silliest of them have been dropped; the arc of MLS history is long, but it bends away from the countdown clock. And for all the flak it catches for its byzantine and ever-evolving roster rules, the league’s talent pool has consistently improved even as expansion has accelerated; while the phrase “Targeted Allocation Money” may be laughable, the arrival of Giovani Dos Santos is anything but.
But there are times when the wires get crossed, when the cart comes before the horse, when the league seems a lot more interested in telling us what it wants to be than showing us what it is. That’s clear every time league officials hand-wave about “MLS 3.0” or being a “league of choice.” It’s clear every time Commissioner Don Garber tweets enthusiastically about a “brand event,” or you run across a GIF from the league’s “Director of Content Experience.” And it has rarely been clearer than it was in the days leading up to the All-Star Game.
One can only imagine how the league’s annual midseason pause for a glitzy exhibition was received by new arrivals like Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard—both of whom, in case anyone doubted the absurdity of the whole affair, were named to the All-Star roster by Garber before either had made their league debut. (Both eventually dropped out due to injury.) The problem is not just that the All-Star Game is an empty spectacle, but that it’s an empty spectacle masquerading as something profound—I heard one league official call it “the only competitive All-Star Game”—and collapsing under the weight of its own cross-promotional hullabaloo.
In that last regard, MLS is not unique—not in world football, and certainly not in American sports. It’s true that even the league’s basest commercial impulses are a gentle purr compared to the jet-engine roar of the NFL’s relentless synergized hysteria. But the NFL and its overlords know they can bury their product beneath layer after exhausting layer of loud, crass nonsense, and the masses will claw their way towards the gridiron anyway.
That’s simply not the case for MLS. Recent sponsorship agreements with the likes of Audi, Heineken, and Coca-Cola have been widely viewed as positive signs of growth, but they also put added pressure on the league to monetize its properties and its fanbase. When combined with a tendency towards top-down artifice and marketing hokum—and a media ecosystem that depends heavily on official league sources—the result is something like late June’s MLS Heineken Rivalry Week, which can be described with only a slight degree of unfairness as a five-day-long soccer-themed beer commercial. Did you miss Heineken Rivalry Week? Don’t worry; there’s another one later this month.
Ceding so much ground to corporate sponsors is problematic for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it can make the league appear quite small—when, for instance, the greatest player in American soccer history is posing for terrible orange-hued photos at a Home Depot in Stapleton. Most of all, though, it’s simply not very pleasant for fans to constantly feel like they’re being sold to, baited, data-mined—not for the most loyal supporters and certainly not for those on the margins that the league wants and needs to capture in the long run.
World football, American football, baseball, basketball—all thrived organically for decades before the post-war, post-industrial economy, with assists from television and air travel, gradually turned them into big business. They’re cultural monoliths that can bear the weight of just about anything the marketing industry can think to burden them with. MLS, for all the progress it has made, is a building that’s still under construction, and the more it’s built out of hollow exercises in brand engagement at the expense of the inimitable thrill and passion of the game, the less people are going to want to come inside.
I keep thinking of all the people who must have stumbled upon Skyline Park during All-Star Week and had little or no experience with MLS. Maybe they’d been to a game or two years ago, but never really got into it. Maybe they’d heard about this Gerrard guy, or this Pirlo fellow, or maybe the Women’s World Cup had piqued their curiosity in the sport again. And so they strolled under the MLS banners and into the park, only to find a receiving line of bright-eyed Experiential Brand Engagement Optimizers asking them to participate in a bit of transactional hashtaggery, and not much else.
Commerce City is the world’s most aptly named municipality, an industrial netherworld northeast of Denver that’s home to two large oil refineries, a landfill, a Waste Management facility, a sewage treatment plant, an endless, colorless expanse of railyards and truck depots—and a soccer stadium.
From a distance, it’s hard to tell whether the distinctive tiered sheet-metal awnings of Dick’s Sporting Goods Park belong to the home of the Colorado Rapids or just another factory. On the inside, though, you’re far enough away from the refineries and the garbage dumps that the stadium itself is perfectly lovely, and it was particularly so on Wednesday night when the All-Star Game finally arrived, a crisp summer evening with a Rocky Mountain sunset that even the brands couldn’t ruin.
Which is not to say they didn’t try. Unfathomably, the league’s annual exhibition still lacks a skills competition like baseball’s Home Run Derby or the NBA’s Slam Dunk Contest—and yet there was time enough during the pre-game ceremonies to treat both the viewing audience and stadium crowd to an extended tire commercial featuring one of the league’s most gifted young players driving a sports car in a Top Gear-style time trial. Would you like to see 13 more extended tire commercials starring MLS personalities and branded sports cars? You’re in luck; they’ll air on Fox Sports 1’s post-game coverage for the rest of the season.
It was all enough to drive even typically restrained New York Times reporters to a breaking point, and while it’s tempting to say the game that followed made all the muck worth wading through, the reality is more complicated than that. I don’t think I’d ever seen a match that felt so utterly cleaved in two. The first half was as much as anyone could hope for under the current format: an unfamiliar MLS squad in lively conversation with a leggy and imprecise Tottenham Hotspur side, the former scoring through nifty combination play by its biggest stars, the latter through a spectacular individual effort by Harry Kane.
But MLS head coach Pablo Mastroeni swapped his starting lineup for an entirely new XI in the second half, and the match itself seemed to settle into one long, collective shrug, as if players on both sides had finally realized just how little was at stake. All of them except for one, perhaps; in what was by far the second half’s most noteworthy moment, the Columbus Crew’s Ethan Finlay, a late injury replacement, clowned Spurs youngster Josh Onoma on the touchline and nearly produced a third MLS goal. The DSG crowd erupted; it was exactly the sort of spectacle the All-Star game should deliver. It was also, of course, shareable content.
The final whistle blew, and within 72 hours the league returned to regular programming, which would have been a welcome relief even if Saturday’s action hadn’t provided thrilling, end-to-end action that shattered the league’s single-day goals record. Cyle Larin netted a double to move within one goal of the league’s rookie record. Frank Lampard made a long-awaited debut for NYCFC in another entertaining fracas at Yankee Stadium. D.C. United and Real Salt Lake tallied ten goals between them, including five in one caffeinating 14-minute stretch. It was a far better advertisement for the league than any tire commercial.
Now in mid-season form, the playoff race is alive and well, competitive from the top of the table to the bottom. The summer transfer window has been the most eventful in league history, and the amount of talent—young and old, American and foreign—that the league has assembled heading into the fall and beyond is exhilarating.
There is, in other words, a great deal that’s more important to the league’s future than the All-Star Game. But as bright as that future may look, there was a dark undercurrent running through the proceedings in Skyline Park and Commerce City last week, a vision of the league at its worst: a product less of genuine grassroots passion for soccer than of the astroturfed, market-driven ambitions of its sponsors and rightsholders grasping at the league’s young, diverse audience.
The millions of us who support MLS weren’t drawn to the league by a free giveaway or a trending hashtag, and neither will any of the millions of new fans that will fall under its spell in the months and years to come. True rivalries and lasting traditions won’t be created by beer companies or slickly-produced videos. The next great thing about MLS won’t be an idea hatched in the boardroom of a Manhattan creative agency, and it won’t need to be expressed through corporate buzzwords. It won’t need to be told; the game alone will show.