So what's U.S. Soccer got to do to get Joe Fan interested in the Open Cup?
That remains the question as the tournament began its second 100 years Tuesday with the Philadelphia-Seattle final at PPL Park. Despite significant changes in the format this historic knockout competition is plagued by apathy and a general lack of appreciation, awareness and, consequently, attendance.
It seems that if the Lamar Hunt Open Cup is to survive the next century, it must aspire to do more than just slog along. There must be an intentional effort to reinvigorate this event. Failing that, it will remain just a niche attraction, valued by pockets here and there who respect it for either history's sake or the least path of resistance to a CCL berth.
As it is, only about 60,000 folks are interested in the tournament's outcome. Thirty-five thousand of them live in the Puget Sound region. Another 15,000 ventured to Chester. Judging from the obscure broadcast provider, GolTV, the rest are scattered about in soccer pubs around the country, or wherever else that elusive signal rebounds to earth.
How to make the USOC relevant to the rest of the soccer community? That begins at the top: U.S. Soccer. Now, to be fair, U.S. Soccer took some significant steps toward legitimizing the tournament last year. The winner's share increased from $100,000 to $250,000. Sure, money helps. Also, the sealed-bid process-which had allowed clubs to essentially buy home games-was scrapped in favor of coin-flips to determine hosts. That's more in keeping with formats of other all-comer cups elsewhere in the world.
Taking it to the next level requires redoubling that effort.
Some squawk about USOC dates always falling midweek. What if some early rounds were held on weekends of FIFA dates (those which MLS chooses to recognize, anyway)? After all, MLS clubs' big guns are already held out of early-round games. At any rate, at least some weekend dates might build crowds and offer new fans an entry point to sample the competition.
Obviously, the USOC needs greater exposure if it's to be truly considered part of the American holy trinity of trophies, along with the MLS Cup and Supporters Shield.
Either directly or indirectly through its member clubs, US Soccer has our email addresses. It knows when and where we show up in numbers to watch matches either in person or via TV/online. God bless Josh Hakala. His website has served as the meeting point for diehards who follow the USOC. However, this is a US Soccer event and they need to own it.
Could US Soccer produce a year-round campaign of spots to educate and build anticipation of coming rounds? Could clubs of all levels and MLS broadcasters drop those spots or round-by-round highlights into their websites and productions throughout the season?
Is it reasonable to think the Open Cup final (and maybe five years down the line, latter-round games) could be packaged with TV rights to US National Team games? That's how lacrosse, wrestling and other NCAA sports championships end up on ESPN; they're part of the D1 women's basketball tournament and College World Series contract.
Whereas MLS Cup hosting is decided by highest standing in the Supporters Shield standings, there's really no method other than the coin-flip to determined the site of the USOC final. That is, unless it's a pre-determined site.
Who in their right mind would bid to host the USOC final? In the formative days of the Pro Era (since 1996), neutral sites did so. Indianapolis pulled nearly 10,000 while Columbus struggled to get 4,000. But things have changed.
Now cities are competing to get MLS expansion teams. There are teams in the NASL and USL Pro who draw decent numbers, who might entertain a signature event. Maybe an existing MLS market would be tempted; a few years ago San Jose's Dave Kaval expressed interest. In addition there are communities seeking USMNT and WNT games. Coupling the USOC final to a second game allows for packaging and cross-promoting both events.
Those in Seattle, those who witnessed the 2010 and 2011 finals and postgame celebrations, you have a sense for how big the Open Cup can become. There is room to grow and no reason a national event must settle for being niche.
Those are just a few thoughts. Maybe you have some as well, and you're welcome to fire away.