Saturday, March 14, 2009

MLS and Public Goods: Grass Fields

Okay, now that I have been all rah-rah about MLS in Portland, I think it is a good time to look back at the league's history and future. The summary is: it is mostly a big success story but there are some troubling signs on the horizon - most importantly the move away from natural grass playing surfaces.

The league started as a single ownership structure with 10 teams and only a couple of wealthy backers, most notably, Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt. Play was mostly in football stadiums and, truth be told, neither the play nor the atmosphere was very good. For a little while the future was uncertain, the expansion Miami Fusion folded, but the expansion Chicago Fire thrived. Losses were common, but Lamar Hunt's construction of Columbus Crew stadium was seen as a glimpse of the future: soccer specific stadia in which the team controlled all the revenue sources.

Slowly the league became established, more stadiums were built and new teams added, but the most important change was the number of new, deep-pocketed, investors in the league that diversified the league and sent a signal that it was here to stay. Now most existing teams are stable, many have their own soccer-specific stadium, and more stadia are in the works, and the league has solidified the broadcast rights and most games are now shown on TV.

A number of very important decisions were made along the way that facilitated the rise of the league in my opinion. The first was to scrap the silly rules that made MLS an international oddity, most notably the shoot-out that determined outcome in the case of ties. The second was a steadfast determination to get the game out of NFL stadiums and to keep it off of artificial turf. The atmosphere in big stadiums is awful (I know from my time in Denver), and the game on turf is horrible: the ball bounces and skids, and players are reluctant to tackle - a key part of the sport - and in stadiums with football, the gridiron mars the visual experience. All of which degrades the spectator sport badly.

This is where my concerns come in. Recently, in the interest of expansion, the league has gone away from the last two criteria. The Toronto franchise built a soccer specific stadium, but it has a turf field. And the Seattle franchise was allowed to play in Quest field and on turf. Vancouver will likely be awarded a franchise and will play in a NFL-style indoor stadium on turf. The degradation of the quality of the product for the spectator is deeply troubling. The Seattle decision is especially so. In the beginning MLS was seen as a good way for NFL owners to get some revenue out of their otherwise idle stadiums. But it has been a terrible failure: most teams that started in NFL stadiums have either folded, left (or are leaving) or are struggling to fill seats. Seattle may be an exception in the short-run, but the long run impact on the televised product of these reversals in decisions will be painful - especially as TV revenue is the key to the future.

So, should Portland get a franchise, I hope (pray) that Paulson puts in real grass. It is expensive to install and maintain. Apparently Chicago spent 1.7 million on a state-of-the-art natural grass field with heating and drainage compared to about $1 million for a new turf field. Maintenance is more costly for grass and there are concerns about durability. But Chicago is a stadium that hosts football and concerts in addition to soccer so if they can do it, surely Portland can too. I know it is a more expensive short-term option and may even be the individually rational long-term option, but turf is a bad option for the league as a whole. It is time for MLS to insist on grass again and the Timbers should too.

[Note, here is a consenting view, and one that makes another point: if MLS teams want to make money by hosting major international clubs, it is likely that those clubs will refuse to play on turf]


Unknown said...

What kind of turf are we talking about for these stadia? The days of the old carpeting are gone, replaced--for instance at some of the new fields in Lake Oswego--by natural-feeling blades of grass with a padded underlayer.

I'm not a high-caliber soccer player, so I can't say whether it makes much of a difference--but as a layman, it's palpable compared to say, Riverfront Stadium circa 1976.

Is there any kind of rundown on the newer versions, and whether they are receiving a better review from players and leagues?

Unknown said...

PS--I would really love for you, as an economist, to have your review of the current MLS deal get wider exposure. The knee jerk reaction is to think of it as a fleecing, which based on past history both around the country and in Portland, is a reasonable one. But the facts surrounding this deal make it a differently colored horse entirely, IMO (and yours too, apparently).

Have you been approached for any interviews by traditional media? Need some help flacking? :)

Patrick Emerson said...

Artifical surfaces are hugely improved over the old stuff, and all current MLS teams that have turf play on Field Turf or equivalent, but it is stil plastic and still relatively bouncy. Thus the ball pings around and players rarely leave their feet to tackle. FIFA approves of the new stuff and sanctions it but top teams refuse to play on it (Brazil nat team for example).

There is no escaping the fact that it is a much different spectator experience and I think most fans agree that the game is simply not as full and beautiful on turf.

And, no, reporters only call to ask me to be dismal about the economy - something that is pretty easy to do these days.