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Relying on Controversy is a Foolish Way to Grow the Sport

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Sometimes there are good messages that have to be delivered by the wrong people. In this case I feel the need to counter some of the ridiculous jubilation about the teapot tempest triggered by the comments John Spencer made yesterday regarding Sigi Schmid. Unfortunately, since I'm a Seattle fan it will be too easy to dismiss any opinion I have as hopelessly biased. But I'm not writing about Spencer's comments. I'm writing about the reaction to them. And you'll have to trust that I'd feel the same way if Schmid incited the same controversy in the same way.

Everyone around the game in the United States knows that the league is and should be desperate to grow the visibility of the sport. The mission of the league from day one has been to so enmesh soccer into the consciousness of the American sports fan that it would be inconceivable for it disappear, just as it would be inconceivable to imagine a sporting landscape in America that didn't include football, basketball, or baseball.

But like in all walks of life there's the quick, foolish, dangerous way to get something done and the long, hard, responsible slog to get it done. The long but ultimately sustainable way to grow the game in this country is to continue to make the game beautiful; to respect the fans — both the diehards and the new fans — as we've taken to new heights in Seattle (and in Portland and Vancouver as well); to increase the quality of the product on the field with increased talent and better officiating; to increase the visibility of the game by marketing the product well and holding broadcast partners to the highest standards; and so on. But that's work. And it's work a lot of MLS fans don't want to wait for.

Attention Seeking Behavior

Judging from the odd exultation arising from MLS observers across the Internet, for many people the lure of the quick attention hit is too much to resist. Attention from the prancing jackals on Sportscenter is like a drug. A fan or an executive gets one hit and starts to believe that their team, sport, league, or whatever is just one more Top 10 Play from hitting the big time. But people who watch top ten plays to see hockey fights and NASCAR crashes don't turn into long term hockey and NASCAR fans, no matter what commissioners pray for in their secret moments. And people who think that America will become a nation of soccer fans because of titillating chest-thumping among coaches and press conference tirades are deluding themselves. Those create more Sportscenter fans, not more soccer fans. Wayne Rooney didn't create any Premier League fans when he cussed out a camera lens, but he sure as hell sold a lot of newsprint.

It's not a phenomenon limited to sports, of course. The term 'media whore' is well-worn for a reason. And any parent will be familiar with the cycle of a child learning that they can get attention with negative behavior. Spencer was acting like a child yesterday, and he should be embarrassed. And the league would be acting like a child if it invested in the fool's gold promised by those shouting for more like a pack of school kids chanting 'FIGHT! FIGHT!' around a couple of shoving classmates.

MLS will succeed or fail on the backs of its fans, not on the number of times it can show up on a national media freakshow. Fandom is built on love for one's own team. When the Cascadia rivalry gets attention for the incredible amount of love the fans have for their team — evidenced by the enormous crowds, the chanting, the tifo displays — that grows the game more than 10,000 controversies and spats of the kind so many are foolishly jonesing for. And we've seen so many times how that love for one's own team can easily drift into hatred for another. Less than a week after speaking to MLS's Extra Time Radio and expressing his frustration and dismay over the shocking threats and attacks on Celtic manager Neil Lennon by Rangers fans, maybe Spencer should more carefully think about his own responsibility in fomenting those kinds of hatreds. And observers calling for more of the same should think more carefully about whether press conference slapfights will actually put a butt in a seat or turn a TV dial to a game.