Albert Camus, Don Garber, and the health of MLS / by Jared Young

By Jared Young (@jaredeyoung)

While all humans endeavor to seek truth, we are also drawn to the power of a good story. There is a potential conflict between a story and truth that gives a lot of power to the storyteller, as they can effectively communicate a truth through a story or they can choose to mask the truth, and it might be difficult to tell the two apart. Albert Camus said that “[f]iction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” Literature becomes classic when that truth resonates across cultures and generations, but as the #FakeNews and Russian hacker plot lines would indicate, this capacity to write fiction can also be harmful. Look no further than the sport represented by this website. The genesis of online fake news might well be the stories told during the European transfer market, where leverage seeking agents of information cohabitate to create what is generously referred to as “silly season.” Luckily, sports are harmless. Other areas of life are less so. So the dilemma persists: what is the best way to communicate truth?  Through the power of a story or with cold hard facts?

Don Garber recently appeared on Grant Wahl’s Planet Futbol podcast and told the following story - MLS is coming off it’s best year ever because both attendance and ratings figures were up. He didn’t offer any more facts than that, but cursory digging can validate both of those claims. Whether or not attendance and ratings increases justify the story of “best year ever” is certainly debatable.

But here is where the storytelling gets dicey. A slightly more rigorous look at the statement calls into question exactly how true the story might be.

MLS broke the 22,000 average attendance barrier for the first time ever in 2017, a two percent increase over 2016. However, removing Atlanta United FC from the stat changes the story. Simply removing the two expansion teams and only looking at average attendance for the twenty remaining clubs reveals a decline of 3.7 percent year over year. Baseball also saw a four percent decline year over year, but that is probably not company that MLS wishes to keep. The NFL, if you remove the two teams that moved to Los Angeles, saw it’s average attendance drop 0.3 percent.

In the inaugural MLS season 18,063 fans watched each game (excluding Tampa) and those same nine franchises still remaining averaged 18,443 fans last year, a two percent increase over twenty some years. Consider the fact that those same franchises lost the halo effect of the new league, and their attendance dropped to under 15,000 in the second year. The story that can be told is impacted by exactly how you choose to compare statistics.

While franchise level comparisons are more modest, the reality is that MLS has enough momentum to launch in cities like Atlanta and Minneapolis and draw solid crowds. They have every right to trumpet that success story, but at the same time there are underlying attendance issues with their core teams that might need to be addressed.

It’s much more difficult to find truth when it comes to TV ratings. The optimistic TV ratings story comes from Goal.com, while other sources reveal a decline in TV ratings. It’s worth noting that the only source with an optimistic story comes with a quote from the MLS front office, which implies that MLS also provided the data. Here is a table of various sources reporting television ratings for 2016 and 2017.

 Number of viewers per game and percentage change from 2016 to 2017 Sources:  Chicago Tribune ,  World Soccer Talk ,  Wikipedia ,  Goal

Number of viewers per game and percentage change from 2016 to 2017
Sources: Chicago Tribune, World Soccer Talk, Wikipedia, Goal

From this data, it’s definitely not clear that MLS TV ratings are up. The Goal article has significantly lower viewership for 2016. These figures also mix and match ESPN and ESPN2, FOX and Fox Sports 1 which have very different audiences. Any change in mix between these channels will have a large impact on the viewing audiences. MLS games on FOX sported nearly 700k viewers in 2016 according to Wikipedia and less than 200K for games on Fox Sports 1.

Looking at just a single channel shows that attendance peaked in 2009 on ESPN2 with 299,000 viewers. In 2017, looking at ESPN2/ESPN combined all sources indicate that number was not reached. Despite access to a larger audience, MLS ratings have been in decline for almost a decade. Add in the fact that the 2017 MLS Cup between Seattle and Toronto saw a 40 percent drop in viewers and the viewership story appears even less authentic.

I will leave it to you to determine if Don Garber’s story about MLS’ “best season ever” is more fiction than fact. Is it better for fans to hear the story of the good news of MLS or is it better we get closer to the truth? After all, the growth of MLS is a great story. More cities and owners want in. The league is investing in talent and the quality of play is improving. Maybe Don Garber’s story does reveal truth and that’s all we really need to know. But integrity in storytelling is critical, especially for the next time Don Garber tells a story, and that is where the danger lurks in this case. Camus has another quote that fits nicely by our MLS bedside story. The Frenchman said, “[a]ll that I know most surely about morality and obligations I owe to football.” Take note Mr. Garber.