Major League Soccer is not the most confrontational of professional sports organizations, but commissioner Don Garber showed this week that he is prepared to fight if his league has been slighted.
Garber came out swinging following the ill-thought criticism of MLS supporters by television pundit Michael Wilbon, co-host of ESPN's "Pardon the Interruption." Wilbon's case was that the practice of throwing streamers onto the field before corner kicks, which happens with regularity at Toronto FC's BMO Field and sporadically elsewhere, is "minor league" and "garbage" and harmful to soccer's reputation.
Now, it would have been easy for Garber to ignore these comments and go about his business of trying to continue MLS' recent and ongoing growth. However, the issue of fan involvement is one guaranteed to raise the ire of those at MLS HQ, as the powers-that-be realize how crucial the phenomenon is to the league's future.
Heavily borrowed from European and South American examples, the involved and interactive fan experience that soccer provides is unique and undeniably special. It is a huge part of why the game is by far the most popular in the world and a factor that Garber and his colleagues believe will, over time, give their league a crucial edge over competing sports.
Garber did not come from a soccer background, but in this episode he showed he firmly is in tune with his fans and the unique selling point that soccer offers. In his weekly blog, he stormed back at the criticism, defending the fans' right to express themselves.
"This is a unique phenomenon that happens all over the soccer world," he said. "We're playing soccer, not baseball, football or basketball. Our fans are a part of the game experience. That's one of our points of difference and part of what will drive our future success.
"There are plenty of sports leagues in the U.S. and we are not trying to offer the same in-stadium experience. We need to embrace the passion and electricity that makes soccer the world's most popular sport."
There are some who will claim that the practice of throwing items – even tiny pieces of paper – simply is a prelude to some of the less savory aspects of soccer fandom around the world, namely hooliganism. But it is a ridiculous stretch to try to draw a link between the two.
All the marketing companies and demographics experts can do as much planning and research as they like. The simple fact is that if fans enjoy themselves they will return.
Toronto FC fans took no time at all to learn how to express themselves once their franchise was founded in 2007, and that example is rubbing off around the league.
They have built their own traditions and superstitions and turned their club into an integral part of the city's sports landscape in about a year. The critics need to calm down and get used to it.
- Major League Soccer
- Michael Wilbon
- Don Garber