The internet is a vast and wonderful playground that shares up-to-the-minute information and connects us all in ways not possible prior to its global implementation. It’s the all-encompassing everything of the modern era. Mixed in with cat pictures of course. It’s helped grow the American Soccer movement. Social media can help MLS bridge the gap with other domestic sports leagues and other top soccer leagues around the world.
The Internet Revolution: A Small Thing Can Now Become Big Easier
Beyond the actual technology itself, the internet has begun to develop tendencies and cultures. The mainstream media that exists through newspapers, TV channels, etc. tends to latch onto certain hot topics. Whatever is the big new thing that everyone is talking about is what they focus on. The internet however tends to give the little guy a chance. If he has something new, creative, catchy, or important, it can go viral.
Bo Burnham uploaded videos of songs he taped in his bedroom as a teenager on Youtube. He’s now on Comedy Central and tours internationally. Yoani Sanchez is a blogger and activist for reform in her native country of Cuba. She was abducted back in 2009 and detained by the Cuban government. A tweet and a Youtube video captured everything and helped drum up support to bring the plight of the people of Cuba under the Castro Regime. Outpouring public support and political pressure forced her release. She continues to write for her blog and independent media outlet in an effort to free the people of her country. Just this past year, the ALS Association raised more than $90 million from what amounted to a chain letter dare.
Maybe Burnham sends a demo tape to a record company and gets discovered. Maybe not. Suppose one of Sanchez’s supporters reports the head to a newspaper that never follows up. Suppose the ALS Association just chooses to run a few commercials on TV. Contemporary society sees the internet as the source of the next big thing, be it serious or trivial, for better or worse. This next big things can manifest itself in ways that were not possible prior to the internet. Furthermore, the next big things could most probably have gone unheard of without the existence of the internet. All it takes these days is something to catch fire to the point where people want to share, support, or comment it. The internet now acts as a magnifying glass and megaphone for everything from gossip to major social issues to the newest meme. Just ask Left Shark.
Now, what impact can the internet and social media have on MLS?
MLS Is In the Sweet Spot Right Now For Both Engagement And Growth:
When used properly, online social media can be a catalyst for getting the league, teams, and players positive exposure and marketing all while engaging fans on a fun and interactive platform. When not used properly, it can show some of the short comings the league still has to overcome and bring drama to the forefront. I personally love it when the strong personalities stir the pot, so not all of this is bad. “Any publicity is good publicity,” just ask Richard Sherman and Kim Kardashian.
Recently, MLS and its associates have made significant strides to up their presence on the internet and their social media game. Some of this has been intentional and planned, other parts have not, but for the most part it has worked out. Furthermore, much of this work has done a good job of entertaining existing fans while drawing in new ones as well.
MLS and soccer in America is in that perfect medium right now. The circle is small enough that there’s room for real interaction on a personal level. I can tweet at a new player who signs with my club, and unless he’s a multi-million dollar Designated Player who gets bombarded on twitter constantly, he’s going to read it and possibly favorite/respond to it. I personally can count 10 players off the top of my head I’ve experienced this with. Likewise, media entities within MLS have a large enough following that they get significant fan interaction but small enough that each fan can get their individual voice heard. Extra Time Radio almost always does a mailbag and only rarely do they get swamped with fans chiming in to the point where a quality email doesn’t get airtime.
The circle is big enough that it’s reaching a large group of people. The official MLS twitter account has 625k followers. For comparison the NHL has 3.12M followers, MLB 4.14M, the NFL 9.43M, and the NBA 13M followers. But that’s still over half a million people for MLS. If the league’s presence was dwarfed by the other leagues, the media exposure might not have helped to grow and sustain the league. The circle is big enough that it has a noticeably impact financially. It helped secure a new TV deal last year that is worth triple the previous TV contract. And the circle’s growing. MLS is like a medium sized city: big enough to have all the amenities you’d want but has that small town feel so you’re not bogged down with traffic and overstimulation.
The internet and social media can help MLS bridge the gap with the other American sports leagues and the European football leagues because the little guy has a chance. The internet is still a big pond just like older technology media, but the big fish didn’t have as much marginal gain from its invention. What will happen if and when MLS expands to that critical point where the internet doesn’t help as much? Where they’re on a closer level to the big boys, drawing bigger crowds, and better players? MLS 4.0. What that will look like, I have no idea. But every US Soccer fan I speak to wants the sport to grow and is excited for the future. It won’t be perfect, it won’t be as comfortable as MLS 1.0 might have been, but they’ll have made it. Social media, marketing, and the world wide web are going to help get there.
MLS And Company Are Helping Their Own Cause:
Before MLS was able to gain momentum and become bigger, it had to have something to build on. As much as the internet has helped, the product had to be made marketable. There’s something to be said for a league or a club that is entertaining on the field, in the community, and online. Even when the results aren’t going your way, keeping everything fun helps maintain and grow the fan base.
Columbus could have just posted something simple for match day, but adding in a Top Gun gif gives twitter followers a chuckle. Pop culture references always help. The Union could have just tweeted “Andrew Weber finishes his chance to give the Union a lead,” but this was so much more fun. Press releases announcing fans can tailgate is one thing. Adding in a commercial with Alan Gordon grilling with a beer in hand makes it memorable. There’s an art to doing media this way, making it entertaining and keeping it fresh. It’s very different to impersonal and neutral press releases of a decade or two ago. It appeals to millennials, who are tech-savvy and enjoy this type of humor. They are the x-factor in soccer’s growth in this country. Marketing to them can have tremendous results. Ask Sporting Kansas City.
Players and personalities have bought into this as well, out of their own enjoyment in social media or their ridiculous personalities. Jokes and comments that would previously be exchanged in the locker room or via text are now available to the public. As long as it’s not offensive or inappropriate, it’s all in good fun. And it gives fans a closer look at the players they cheer for. It gives them personality. Brad Evans pokes at Dan Kennedy, and they have a good laugh. A Dax McCarty comment on anything is worth a glance. Most of the league is young enough that they are into technology. There are enough personalities out there, that every team has a player worth keeping up with for some good (albeit trivial) content.
MLS and friends haven’t necessarily done better than the NFL or the EPL in their social media marketing. They don’t need to either, because they’re still the smaller fish and get a bigger bump from this style of social media. While being an athlete/celebrity in the digital age can expose you to a lot of unnecessary and illogical criticism, such as Mean Tweets, MLS is again at the boundary. It’s big enough to where a player can decide to make their lives, adventures, and weird personalities public and it help grow their following. It’s small enough to where the criticism and trolling is not as big as others would get. Twitter search “LeBron James” and any profanity of your choice. Now do the same thing with Obafemi Martins. Not nearly the same.
A Brief List of Productions And Personalities Who Have Helped Move The Needle:
Beginning with the most general and widely known (even to the casual fan), I would say MLS and US Soccer did a fabulous job marketing the 2014 World Cup. The internet and social media buzz around US Soccer has gradually grown in recent years. Almost all of the sports leagues and teams established themselves online by then, with most of them getting started on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc. between 2007-2010. This came perfectly in time for the 2010 World Cup, when there were a noticeable number of converted soccer supporters.
US Soccer and MLS went all in on the USMNT in 2014: Big names returning to MLS, an American poster boy on half the teams in the league, Jürgen Klinsmann bullish on getting out of the Group of Death. This movement centered around one chant: I believe that we will win. ESPN ran ads from the moment Dos A Cero went final. Celebrities like Spike Lee posed in bomb pop jerseys. Everyone got it stuck in their heads. Everyone got behind the team.
Keeping with the national team theme, the disturbing and lovable Deuce Face may be one of the most well-known memes surrounding US Soccer. Clint Dempsey is one of the faces of the national team and has been captain for the past several years. He goes and makes this face during a game, it catches fire, and now there’s a blown up face sign of him at every USMNT home match. Fittingly, it’s usually held up by a guy dressed as Uncle Sam, Captain America, or a bald eagle.
KICKTV has put on their own mini Outside the Lines/E60/30 for 30-like productions, MLS Insider, the past few years and done so fabulously. Great research, quality interviews, and good post-production have resulted in many excellent behind the scenes looks at stores in MLS. From in-depth looks at big headlines to little known tidbits of history to humanizing the athletes we love or hate, this is a must watch for any MLS fan. And for a new fan who wants to play catch up, they’re great condensed documentaries and narratives of the league and the people who make it. New FC Dallas fan? Take seven minutes and learn what your team is all about. Then there’s the work of art that is Judah Friedlander’s MLS Storytime Theater.
KickTV’s Mike Magee’s Day Off:
Continuing with KickTV, they won the internet last year with a spoof of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off featuring Chicago native and MLS MVP Mike Magee. It follows the plot of the movie to a tune (including locations), features a blockbuster cast of MLS cameos, and Magee plays the role perfectly. This golden nugget had MLS fans falling out of their chairs with laughter and fun. Oh, in addition to being an MVP and DP, Magee is a pretty righteous dude on twitter. Just ask Jonathan Klinsmann.
Game of Thrones:
Every sports league in the world could have their own Game of Thrones analogies, and while the NBA playoff parity ‘Game of Zones’ was probably the best of them, MLS has a good one too. Pop culture analogies are great ways to catch someone new up on the league. Have some first year members in your supporters group who love Game of Thrones? Use the show to help them learn the league quickly. Kyle Beckerman as Drogo wins any individual analogy I’ve seen.
If anyone in MLS can prove the internet gives the little guy a chance to be famous, it’s Horse Guy. With his first sighting at a New England home game back in July of 2014, this Revolution Super Fan (who wears a horse head mask) has made an appearance or two at Gillette Stadium. He’s Phantom of the Opera mystery meets the Chik fil A’s cows bizarre. No one knows who he is or when he’ll strike next, but his message to the world is clear: “Horse.”
The Benny Feilhaber Show:
Imagine a Freddy Mercury look alike. Now make him a quality MLS tempo-setting midfielder. Give him a hilariously quirky personality and a few good dance moves. Now convince his club’s PR department to let him make his own public access style late night talk show and you’ve got The Benny Feilhaber Show, hosted by Benny Feilhaber. Featuring good taste in music, not so serious teammate interviews, and the #AskBenny segment, this is program keeps it light and fun with just the right amount of awkward google search images. This show is perfect for SKC supporters. Unfortunately for the show, long time cohost and pseudo-keyboard player Sal Zizzo left SKC in the off season. Fortunately, Benny brought on a new cohost, striker and teammate . . .
The unofficial Instagram and Selfie Champion of MLS. An artful striker with cool hair on the pitch, a bubbly and articulate person off the pitch. From starting the most beloved controversy SelfieGate, to taking over MLS’s SnapChat account, Dom Dwyer can entertain fans as many ways from his smartphone as he can inside the 18. A solid offseason pickup for the Benny Feilhaber Show, Dwyer knows how to have fun and make it fun for those who keep up with him through any form of social media. The striker lost his best friend and roommate, Soony Saad, in the off season. Feilhaber and Dwyer are a kindred spirit power team in the making for the show. I hope Dwyer’s a good mime keyboard player.
If Dwyer ever gets on MySpace, the site would make a noticeable comeback. Oh, and sorry Sporting fan girls, he’s off the market. It hasn’t been all fun and games for the 24-year old. Check out his Twitter fight with Nick Rimando. Regardless, Dwyer continues to be one of the top stars and personalities in the league. He’s had a whole off season to scheme his next move. I doubt he’ll disappoint in 2015.
Not all of these personalities have had mostly good internet PR. Eddie Johnson has been known to stir the pot in the past. He’ll make a goal celebration get a bit out of hand after the fact. He’ll get into it with a fan on Twitter. While he’s still capable of being a quality striker in MLS and a borderline national teamer, he can’t seem to get out of his own way. His hot headedness has gotten him in trouble in the past. It was so bad, Clint Dempsey even called him out for it. But as MLS Insider documented, where he comes from and his past runs deep. This is who he is. Many fans are tired of him. Some hate him. But it’s hard for me to not root for the guy. Regardless, I don’t want him to go away. MLS wouldn’t be as entertaining without him. Hopefully he gets well soon.
Quincy Amarikwa had a breakout season in his own right in MLS circles last year. He found a way to get off the bench and started scoring goals regularly. He also became an MLS personality by breaking the MLS Fantasy Manager fourth wall with #BeatQuicy. Amarikwa became the first ever fantasy league personality in MLS and even started giving fans tips. Who knows the players of the league better than one of them? This lead to his own spin off show, #QuincyTime. It’s a bit more of a pop culture ‘what am I watching?’ segment than the Benny Feilhaber Show, but absolutely worth checking out. Between his show, fantasy team twitter bets, and scoring goals, the future is bright for the 27-year old on the pitch and the computer screen.
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