THE BLOG
12/19/2012 01:44 pm ET Updated Feb 18, 2013

After Beckham, What Next for North American Soccer?

There can be little doubt that the departure of David Beckham from Major League Soccer leaves a large vacuum to be filled in the league's marketing strategy. It is perhaps an even larger vacuum than the one he leaves in the Los Angeles Galaxy midfield.

Commissioner Don Garber tells the anecdote that when he travels overseas, the two names people mention to him about MLS are David Beckham and the New York Cosmos.

2012-12-16-DSC_4170.jpgI suspect the latter is not mentioned by too many people under-30 but this goes some way to explaining what appears to some critics as his obsession with recreating the Cosmos despite there already being a team in the New York area.

I don't happen to agree that artificially creating a New York derby match will be as powerful a magnet to attract new fans as the Commissioner thinks. He cites the desire to replicate the local derby atmospheres in Cascadia but those rivalries go back 40 years.

Fans of all age groups watched the Vancouver Whitecaps battle the Seattle Sounders in one league or another. The owners came and went, as did the leagues, but the fans coming were the same people who had always loved watching football in Cascadia.

It's not that I necessarily think the New York Cosmos is a bad idea for MLS's 20th franchise. I just think expanding the league to the south east is a more important prerogative. I also do have concerns that fans of the current clubs may feel that the league, whose administration is supposed to be impartial, is too close, perhaps too personally invested, in the Cosmos project.

I'm prepared to be proven wrong and it's really the only decision where I don't think MLS is doing a pretty good job stewarding the sport. Sticking up for Don Garber doesn't win you too many friends in Seattle, but the proof of his success is in that big NBC contract.

If I am right, what alternatives are there to "Queens FC" as the marketing men's hook for the next growth spurt in soccer?

In a recent article on Prost Amerika, "Are Supporters the New Beckham?", I expounded the theory that the next most marketable phenomenon to attract new people to soccer may not be another superstar international player like Robbie Keane or Thierry Henry, but the supporters themselves.

There are two different but parallel movements here.

One is the increase of soccer specific stadia, which have rejuvenated the atmosphere in Kansas City and Houston. A new stadium is set to rescue San Jose from their tiny and outdated Buck Shaw Stadium to something far grander. When completed, I believe that their already noisy fans will provide a match day atmosphere that will rival the best Cascadia has to offer.

The other parallel movement is the growth of organized supporter culture. It has always been present in MLS and fans of the early clubs still respond with justifiable indignation when people on the west coast claim it all started in Seattle.

So let me try and slide a sentence somewhere in the middle of that conversational cul-de-sac in the hope that my description offends no-one. The arrival of Portland and Seattle in MLS was sufficiently impactful on the quantity of supporter culture that the executives in the soccer and television industries began to see it as a marketable commodity.

However, it is not just a Cascadian phenomenon. It is not even confined to blue state progressive America. When Sporting Kansas City built their own stadium, the crowd noise generated by their Cauldron Supporters Group became raucous and, not only that, it transmits fantastically on television. Houston also moved to a new stadium and that has improved the televisual aspects of a home game broadcast from 'Deep in the Heart' immensely.

Even at the much maligned LA Galaxy, where the crowd was often an uneasy and unbridgeable gap between a knot of hardcore and noisy organizations such as the Angel City Brigade and the LA Riot Squad on one hand, and teenage girls screaming at David Beckham on the other, there has been a sea change. Their crowd now seems to be a far better mix of all ages, and the level of soccer knowledge among them easily on a par with those elsewhere.

At present though, it is Portland and Seattle that are catching the television camera's eye with their massive banner displays although I think 2013 will see others emulating them. These banners often cost five-figure sums and the amount of man hours that go into them is incredible. They are not made or even funded by the clubs, but by the fans themselves.

2012-12-16-chesspieces.jpg
A Seattle Sounders banner at a home game with LA Galaxy

Photo: Melissa Brassard / ECS

Occasionally humorous and often with a side swipe at a rival club, they are as much a part of the derby day atmosphere as the pre-match drinking and the chanting. Images of the banners are used almost as frequently as actual sport in the match previews scattered around the networks in the days before a big game. Television loves them.

The chanting does present a little of a problem though.

Supporters swear. Players swear. Everybody at a soccer game swears. However the league does not want swearing in organized chants coming across on television.

Any attempts to sanitize supporter culture for the benefit of a family audience will be met with resistance from supporters.

And that will be the subject of my next article. You have my word.

I swear.