Tag Archives: MLS

Viva Las Vegas: The future home of US sport

“It’s hard to imagine a bigger desert oasis than Las Vegas,” according to author Cinnamon Stomberger.

For the best part of a century, the neon-lit Nevada watering hole has drawn gamblers and pleasure-seekers in their millions.

On my flight to San Francisco late last year, Canadian tourist Jenny told me visits Vegas at least three times a year and has done for the past decade. She said there is nowhere else like it in the world and that it has everything that she could ever want from a city break.

But while boxing and, more recently, the UFC have thrived on ‘The Strip’, the one thing Vegas has never had historically is franchises from the big four US sports – the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL.

For many years, its ‘gambling capital of the world’ identity – with its shadowy connotations and clear links to organised crime – served to deter the major leagues.

But Las Vegas is now the 28th largest city in the US, with a population of well over 600,00 (and still rising fast), with that number swelled year-round by hordes of visitors from around the globe.

The saying ‘What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas’ now seems to (mostly) belong to its sleazy past – its future is a lot shinier and corporate, making it prime territory for the big four sports.

Fight night

But those big fight nights are still a major part of the sports scene in ‘America’s Playground’, and being there in early October for the UFC 229 clash between Conor McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov was like nothing I had ever experienced before.

Legions of Irish and Russian fans filled Vegas, having spent small fortunes on tickets, hotels and airfares to see their respective idols fight at The T-Mobile Arena.

The bad blood and feuding in the build-up to their bout almost inevitably led to ugly scenes in the aftermath of Nurmagomedov’s victory, with the Russian brawling outside the octagon with McGregor’s team, and the Irishman fighting inside it with his opponent’s entourage.

Both men received bans and fines, having sullied the UFC’s reputation – and by extension that of Vegas as a newly emergent location for respectable sports.

Afterward, the T-Mobile Arena went back to its regular role of hosting home games for the city’s first major league franchise, the Las Vegas Golden Knights.

The Knights made their NHL debut in late 2017 amid the backdrop of one of the most horrific massacres in American history, which occurred when a gunman opened fire from the Mandalay Bay Hotel on music fans attending the Route 91 Harvest Festival, killing 58 people and leaving 851 injured.

‘Vegas Strong’

Perhaps inspired by their mission to represent the city in the wake of this atrocity, the Knights went on to reach the Stanley Cup Finals.

Becoming the first expansion team for half a century to reach the NHL showpiece, they lost the series 4-1 to the Washington Capitals.

The T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas

But as head coach Gerard Gallant, reflecting on that first season, said: “It wasn’t about our team winning, it was about the first responders and the tragedy that happened the week before [the Knights inaugural home game].”

Knights forward James Neal said: “You’re suddenly playing for a lot more than yourself and the team. It goes further, it means more.”

The slogan ‘Vegas Strong’ became part of the city’s mantra and hangs on a flag as you enter the arrivals gate at the Macarran Airport. It’s on every other car’s bumper and has even become a popular choice of design in local tattoo parlours.

Driving around The Strip with ‘Native Las Vegan’ Brian Wall, it became clear just how important the Knights had become to life in Vegas.

“Growing up here, you would occasionally visit The Strip perhaps for a special occasion like a birthday. But now all that’s changed because of the hockey; every week you have 20,000 people coming out to support their team.

“Almost everyone in Las Vegas is originally from somewhere else, and we all bring our sports loyalties – Cubs, Cowboys, Lakers – with us. It’s great now with the Golden Knights to actually have a team that feels like it belongs to all of us.”

Raiders arriving

We drove past where the Route 91 Harvest Festival had been held; it was really just a massive parking lot. The thing that struck me was the distance that the attacker had been able to fire on it from was at least 400 yards. He fired more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition before killing himself.

The new stadium for the Raiders takes shape in Vegas

His murderous deeds could have destroyed the optimistic feel that permeates Vegas but failed to do so. Certainly, its sporting future continues to look bright.

Just 10 minutes drive down The Strip from the Mandalay Bay Hotel is the construction site for one of the most expensive stadium ventures ever undertaken.

In early 2017, the NFL’s Oakland Raiders announced that they would move to Las Vegas, building a stadium that will cost more than $2bn.

The move has met with some criticism, especially from the West Coast fans. However, NFL followers in Nevada and Utah are ecstatic about the changing sports landscape in Vegas.

The cost of the Raiders’ new home, due to open for the 2020 season, will eclipse that of the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, home of the Atlanta Falcons, which ran to around $1.6bn.

It will have a capacity of up to 72,000 and plug yet more visitors into the massive range of surrounding hotels and attractions in the Vegas area.

More to come?

The arrival of the Raiders may not be the end of expansion by the major leagues into Sin City.

In the summer of 2018, rumours began to circulate that an NBA team could relocate to the Mojave Desert.

I was assured by Brian Wall that these rumours have been swirling around for some time but have only grown stronger with the success of the Knights and the incoming Raiders.

‘It’s clear there’s a love for the unique culture on offer in Las Vegas, perhaps the last city where the American Dream still feels real’

Adding substance to them is the fact that the MGM Group has a lot of partnerships in the NBA along with massive investments in Vegas.

The new Las Vegas Stadium (awaiting sponsorship naming rights) could also be home to an MLS team in the near future. In Atlanta, the Falcons share their stadium with Atlanta United FC.

With the MLS and NFL seasons running at different times in the year, it isn’t a stretch to see a ‘soccer’ team move or be founded in Vegas.

Whatever happens in the future, Las Vegas will surely stay good on its promise to never do anything in a half-hearted manner.

Sport has been a healer for this desert oasis; it has united a city probably for the first time in its history after something that could have torn it apart.

Speaking to visitors and locals alike, it’s clear there’s a love for the unique culture on offer in Las Vegas, perhaps the last city where the American Dream still feels real.

It is also very obvious that it is a united city pulling forward towards a bright and dazzling future.

Hunter S. Thompson, the author of Fear And Loathing in Las Vegas, said that “A little bit of this town goes a very long way.” This statement is probably truer now than it ever has been.

How Twitter is leading the digital sports broadcasting revolution

When Twitter was launched in 2006, its founders surely never imagined that the platform would end up broadcasting live sport.

However, set up as a social media service, Twitter, in recent years, has made huge moves in the sports industry, signing deals to show live events including tennis from Wimbledon, golf from the PGA Tour and football from the MLS.

On the surface, all of their partnerships have worked extremely well, which has led many to believe that we are now in the midst of a move away from traditional broadcasting to social media platforms in terms of watching sport. But, is it really true?

Shift from television

“It’s possible that there has been a shift from traditional broadcasting in the sense of watching sport on a television,” says Elizabeth Stranges, sports partnerships manager at Twitter UK. “But fans are still consuming sport via broadcaster’s digital channels, as well as on social media, where available.

“Sport remains to be one of the few viewing experiences that thrives in its real-time nature and that unique format lends itself well to continued support from fans while the event is live, regardless of the channel it is streamed or broadcast on.”

As television ratings for live sport decline, one thing, for sure, is that sporting authorities are beginning to anticipate the potential weight digital outlets could hold in the commercial future of their sports.

And, with 319 million monthly users, many of whom are sports fans, and a platform which makes it easy to network with others, it’s not hard to see why Twitter is currently being preferred as sport’s primary digital broadcasting network.

“I think sporting authorities have recognised that Twitter is the perfect companion to their content,” says Stranges. “The largest topic of conversation on Twitter in the UK in 2016 was sport; bear in mind this was also the year of Brexit and Trump’s election.

“So, it’s hard to ignore that Twitter provides them with one of the best ways to reach their fans, grow their audience and join the conversation around their brands.”

World Cup coverage

With the 2018 World Cup in Russia around the corner, social media companies will be all looking to showcase the power and potential of their platforms. And Twitter is no exception.

Indeed, earlier this year, in yet another huge coup, the digital media company announced that it has signed a partnership with Fox Sports to broadcast the sports channel’s coverage of the World Cup. Undoubtedly, it sounds good, but how will it work?

“We’re very excited about the partnerships with Fox Sports,” says Stranges. “They’ll produce a daily 30-minute show on all 27 match days during the tournament, to be live-streamed exclusively on Twitter and available to logged-in and logged-out US users via @FOXSports and @FOXSoccer.

“Rachel Bonnetta will host from Moscow’s Red Square, and the show will include match previews, recaps, Twitter reactions and original segments produced by Fox Sports’ team in Moscow.

“Fox Sports will also provide “near-live video highlights” from every match to Twitter, including every goal scored, as well as videos from question-and-answer sessions with talent, interviews with players and coaches and press conferences.

“Looking at the upcoming World Cup as a topical benchmark, back in 2014, there were an incredible 672 million Tweets sent across the month-long tournament.

“And in fact, back in November we shared that there were already 50K Tweets sent purely about the draw alone at the back end of 2017. So, the momentum on Twitter is continuing.”

Competition

Indeed, the momentum is certainly in Twitter’s favour at the moment considering it has also recently signed a three-year deal with Major League Soccer to broadcast live matches, highlights and features.

However, at the same time, with the likes of Facebook, Google and Amazon, who already own the UK broadcasting rights to ATP tennis from 2019, all looking to expand their own sports broadcasting portfolio, Twitter could be forgiven for feeling anxious about the rising competition from other digital media outlets.

“It has been, and will continue to be, interesting to watch how various platforms will evolve in this space,” says Stranges. “But I think Twitter has a unique positioning when it comes to sport.

“People come to Twitter to see and talk about What’s Happening and rarely is that more relevant than with live sporting events given the real time nature of the conversation.”

Future

The broadcasting deals Twitter have been able to pull off and successfully implement within their platform over the last two to three years should send a shiver down the spines of the big television broadcasters as it suggests that TV may no longer be king in terms of watching sport.

Clearly, the ability to view sport and interact with others at the same time online is something which appeals to the younger generations and Twitter have shrewdly used that to their advantage.

Whether, Twitter will seek to be the host broadcaster of sporting events down the line remains to be seen, however, it’s evident that sport has now become hugely significant to the brand and its future.

“Sport partnerships are very important to Twitter,” concludes Stranges. “And we’re excited to continue working with our partners on new and innovative initiatives in the coming years.”

Feature image courtesy of Digital Sport

Will Major League Soccer ever be taken seriously?

The profile of Major League Soccer in America has certainly grown in recent years, but will it ever be able to compete with its European counterparts?

When it comes to other sports, the United States boasts some of the top leagues in the world. The National Basketball Association (NBA), National Football League (NFL), Major League Baseball (MLB) and National Hockey League (NHL) are unquestionably the world leaders in their respective sports.

But considering the size of its pool of players and the resources available, America’s domestic football league is still a poor relation.

The men’s and women’s national teams have both impressed on the world stage in recent years, and the Premier League continues to be extremely popular, but as for MLS? It is still some way behind its rivals in other countries.

European imports

One way in which MLS clubs have tried to strengthen themselves and ultimately the league as a whole is by importing some of the biggest stars of the European leagues as they come towards the end of their careers.

The prime example of this remains former England captain and ex-Manchester United and Real Madrid midfielder David Beckham, who,  in 2007,  joined LA Galaxy at the age of 31.

beckham_la_galaxy_cropped
©Wikimedia Commons: David Beckham

This coup opened the door for other clubs, and the likes of Freddie Ljungberg, Rafael Marquez, Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill followed suit by ditching Europe for America, keen to try out a new footballing experience, live in some of the world’s most exciting cities – and pick up a decent pay cheque for doing so.

One of the MLS’ more recent high-profile signings Frank Lampard, however, who joined New York City from Chelsea in 2014, believes players such as himself have the responsibility of trying to improve football in America instead of just going there to pick up their wage packages.

Speaking to The Drum in March, Lampard said: “As a player now you come to America to play but also you have a responsibility to improve the brand of football, which means taking the MLS to bigger levels.

“I think as a player coming from Europe, myself, David [Villa] and Andrea [Pirlo], we have a responsibility then to get out in the community and do these things [promotional events] and make people want to come and support us.

“I think you’ll see more [foreign] players come here as the league improves.”

Designated Player Rule

As for Beckham’s move to the States in particular, it had repercussions.

Repercussions that may need to be looked at should the MLS one day hope to have its top team teams filled with stars to rival the likes of the Premier League, La Liga and the Bundesliga.

Beckham’s signing ushered in the Designated Player Rule, also known as the “Beckham Rule,” as part of the MLS salary cap regulation.

It means MLS clubs are only allowed to sign up to three players (the third resulting in a fee of $150,000 (£120,000) being paid and split between teams without three designated players) whose salaries will exceed the MLS salary cap of $436,250 (£350,000).

As a result, there is an obvious limit to how many big names a team can sign, considering they are the candidates for the designated player slots.

While such deliberate limitations do help keep a level of parity and competitiveness in the league, some modifications should at least be considered if the MLS truly wants to mix it with the big boys of Europe.

Retirement home

The signing of players such as Beckham definitely brought publicity to a competition which people may not otherwise have seriously considered paying attention to.

“The MLS will never be able to shed its unwanted tag until it can attract world-class players who are yet to reach their peak.”

However, whilst Beckham still had a few good years in him when he joined as a 31-year-old – Real Madrid tried to re-sign him before he joined the Galaxy, and he went on to have spells at Milan and Paris St Germain – many of the signings that have followed in his wake have given the MLS a reputation as a retirement home for ageing European stars.

That does not necessarily mean that those who have joined the MLS in recent years are not up to scratch.

©Nigel Wilson: Frank Lampard(L), Steven Gerrard(C) and David Beckham(R)

The likes of Henry, Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Didier Drogba, Ashley Cole and Robbie Keane, have all made an impact during their stints in the MLS.

Additionally, New York City’s Villa and Orlando City’s Kaka have also impressed and could probably have played at a higher level for at least one more season instead of joining the MLS in 2015.

But the MLS will never be able to shed its unwanted tag until it can attract world-class players who are yet to reach their peak.

‘A league that doesn’t count for much’

Regardless of the calibre of its foreign imports, the overall standard of quality across the league seems to be its biggest problem.

Earlier this year, former Juventus midfielder and Italy legend Pirlo, criticised the MLS for involving too much running.

The 2006 World Cup winner told Reuters: “It’s a very hard league to play in. It’s very physical, there’s a lot of running. So there is a lot of physical work and to me, in my mind, too little play.

“What I’m talking about is actually a system or culture. I don’t mean that the level of technical skills are low. I just mean there is a cultural void that needs to be filled.”

And Pirlo is not the only Italian to have questioned MLS football.

Despite his red-hot form since joining Toronto in 2015, Sebastian Giovinco missed out on Antonio Conte’s Italy squad for Euro 2016 because he plays in the MLS, and the former Juventus forward’s exile has continued under Giampiero Ventura.

©Wikimedia Commons: Sebastian Giovinco

“I have done everything to help him [Giovinco] but the reality is that he plays in a league that doesn’t count for much,” Ventura was quoted saying on ESPN FC.

“And the number of goals he scores is less important because with the quality he has got, he is bound to make a difference in that league.

“The problem is that if you play in that type of league, and you get used to playing in that type of league, it becomes a problem of mentality.”

Does Ventura have a case? It is debatable, although some MLS fans interested in the affairs of the Italy national team will be quick to remind Conte’s successor that he has not been afraid to call-up Graziano Pelle – who is currently playing his trade in China.

Will MLS ever be taken seriously? Perhaps one day but, until something changes, it seems destined to remain deep in the shadows of Europe’s elite leagues.

Featured Image: ©Matt Boulton