Major League Soccer (MLS) wants to be popular. Looking at the professional sports landscape in the United States, the market is arguably already saturated. Instead of just competing through measured, strategic growth, MLS may need to think outside of the box to make its mark.
In the history of MLS, steps have already been taken to think outside the box. Remember the thirty-five yard penalty shootout? Yeah, I’m trying to forget it too. But at least it showed a genuine interest in devising ways to make the game more user friendly to a new market. I’m of the opinion that the game on the field needs to be left alone. It seems the league now gets that too. But there is much to be done off the field to change how soccer is perceived by the general public. The game needs to be cooler and needs to lose its suburban feel.
So where should MLS start? Start by hanging out with some reputable celebrities who have actually already expressed an interest in the game. Enter Brooklyn’s Finest, former street pharmacist and current businessman, Shawn Carter, aka Jay-Z.
Jay-Z likes soccer. In fact, he’s a self-proclaimed Arsenal fan who has expressed an interest in chatting with Cesc and the guys over lunch. (Side note: I would seriously consider paying to sit in on a conversation between Jigga and Emmanuel Eboue.) Jay-Z has also reportedly explored the possibility of buying a stake in Arsenal, but who knows whether there’s any truth to that. The point is, clearly he respects the sport.
But the question is, what can Jay-Z do for soccer in the U.S.?
Jay-Z’s presence could help in two concrete ways that are tied to two of soccer’s biggest challenges in the U.S.
First, from a public relations perspective, Jay-Z can give U.S. soccer a needed facelift. Soccer needs to be grown and sexy. For years the league catered to teeny boppers. As an adult, there was nothing cool about sitting in a stadium on pizza night next to an eight year old in a SpongeBob t-shirt or a fourteen year old girl screaming at the top of her lungs whenever (fill in the blank) touched the ball. But times are changing.
The league already grasps the need for quality players. A quick look at some of the league’s acquisitions shows that acquiring star power on the field has been one of the league’s priorities. And they’ve had some success. Beckham and Blanco are names that come to mind. In the early days, Valderamma was a great acquisition. But the acquisition of name-brand players is not enough to grow the game. Star power and sexiness are also required off the pitch.
U.S. Soccer is understandably quite weary of the star power/sexiness combination. The old NASL was Hefner-sexy and had NBA-like star power. For a period, the New York Cosmos were one of the sexiest brands around. My favorite shirt growing up was a Cosmos shirt that listed all the players. The team list ran like the sexiest galactico side ever assembled. But sexy didn’t breed success for the league in the long run. This time around, MLS is interested in measured growth. But MLS should not categorically discard star power and sexiness off the pitch. It just needs to learn to be more sophisticated in how it attempts to incorporate sexy.
Jay-Z would bring a level of coolness to soccer by simply expressing an interest in the league, or wearing a jersey, or going to matches. He could begin to give the New York Red Bulls an aura befitting a team from New York. And we all know how Jay-Z feels about New York, or in this case hopfully Harrison, NJ. He could help create the type of aura that would be a natural fit for a player like Thierry Henry. Someone like Jay-Z needs to be involved if the soccer powers want to reach a broader audience in the United States. I am confident that his presence alone would show how quickly perspectives can change. Which brings me to my second point …
Soccer needs to strengthen its urban, multi-cultural presence. Soccer already has a cultural place in the Latino community. The U.S. needs to do a better job developing this talent pool. But there is also serious work to be done in the African-American community where, from a cultural acceptance standpoint, soccer is an afterthought. Obviously, this needs to change. But how?
One way is to develop programs in the Latino and African-American communities. There are organizations doing this throughout the country, although additional resources are always needed.
The other way to give soccer an urban-friendly facelift is by engaging a public figure with street cred to make the game official. Jay-Z can do that by simply blessing the game in this country. He can make soccer go from off the radar to cool in a heartbeat for millions who previously ignored the best sport on the planet. For decades, soccer has been a largely suburban sport in the United States. Suburban growth must continue, but developing the urban appetite for soccer is just as important in raising the level of play in the U.S.
Jay-Z is uniquely positioned to help soccer go urban because he genuinely likes the sport. Acknowledging his appreciation for the game could lead to a greater profile for soccer in urban communities that have historically been excluded from the sport. This would benefit communities by providing additional activities and opportunities for kids, and will ultimately enhance the U.S. player pool by expanding the player base into communities that sometimes produce amazing athletes, but mostly for other sports. You might have to be over six feet tall to be a professional basketball player, but you can be 5′7″ and be a professional soccer player.
Surely someone is exploring ways to add personalities to the U.S. soccer landscape that would make soccer credible in communities that have traditionally ignored the sport. Someone has thought about how to use Jay-Z before, right? If Thierry Henry comes to play in New York, think of what the two of them could do for the profile of the game, not just the African-American community, but for young people watching the game in communities across the country. I’m sorry to be the one to say this, but many people in communities that are underrepresented in U.S. soccer haven’t and won’t fall in love with David Beckham. Beckham works with a certain demographic. But to broaden the game’s appeal, you need personalities who appeal to different demographics. MLS understands this concept if you look at the Beckham and Blanco acquisitions. But it’s time to take the step into the African-American community and into popular culture.
So yes. That’s my final answer. Jay-Z. The league needs to tap a prominent minority celebrity who can influence a younger generation. And no one fits the bill better than him. Once he gets on board, others will follow. What was it about the game that made Jay-Z fall in love? What made Kevin Garnett fall for Chelsea? Getting these guys to share how they fell for the game will take MLS one step closer to being the cool kid, which is essential for the move from totally suburban to partially urban. What Jay-Z says is cool will have a difficult time not being cool.