Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Sans Gridirons?

Word on the street is the New England Revolution organization is hard at work removing the football markings as best they can for the playoff game on Saturday. This is another positive sign for a front office that has, in the past, been viewed as sacrificing the promotion of soccer in this country in favor of the bottom line. The upcoming game will be televised nationally on Fox Soccer Channel, and there is an outside chance of hosting the next round on ESPN2 on Thursday. Needless to say, it's a step forward for the Krafts to be spending the money towards the presentation of a showcase game. (click title to read more)

To acknowledge this as a positive sign, you must look at the environmental conditions which preceded our current circumstance. Robert Kraft was a charter owner in MLS. At first, the novelty of the league sold itself and the Revs had one of the league's best followings. As the new car small faded four years later, what was left was a league that appeared to be in jeopardy, a dwindling fanbase dejected over a poor team and non-existent customer service, and an owner bitter from the Patriots' Boston stadium fight.

It was around this time that AEG, Hunt Sports Group, and Kraft decided the league was worth saving. The first two joining with MLS to form Soccer United Marketing (SUM) in what would prove to be a very successful attempt to control all important soccer events in the United States culminating with the grabbing of TV rights to the 2002 and 2006 World Cup. Kraft, on the other hand, was content with financially backing his soccer operations, sharing losses with the other MLS owners, all while trying to run the Revolution as an entity separate from his other, more successful ventures. This meant running the Revs with a reduced budget while waiting for soccer to take off. The other two ownership groups weren't waiting for the sport to take off, they were trying to get it to take off, cost be damn. After all, they were backed by a recluse billionaire and an aging billionaire willing to take huge losses. That's just not how the Krafts do things.

How bad did it get? Well, there were years without replica jerseys in the pro shop, trouble getting walk-up tickets on game day (loads of seats, no ticket booth attendants), draconian security guards, a lack of any high profile import since Walter Zenga, unused allocations, and a downward trending attendance which seemed destined to be the league's worse sometime in the future. Luckily, the team's on field fortunes turned around with the permanent hire of manager Stevie Nicol in 2002 and they never looked back. The league signed a uniform contract in 2005 which largely lifted the merchandising burden from the team. Also, the growing numbers in organized supporter groups forced the front office to acknowledge some of the widespread concerns. Still, the Revs have always seemed to be the team resisting positive change in MLS. Such recent initiatives such as the designated player rule and the establishment of youth teams haven't been touched by the Revs. They are also the only team never to speak of serious concrete plans to build a soccer specific stadium.

The straw seemed to break the camel's back last November when it was announced the natural grass surface at Gillette Stadium would be replaced with fieldturf. Sure, it's the Fifa approved newer style, but one of the major gripes with the artificial surface is that NFL markings look gawdawful when soccer is being played on it. To make matters worse, front office personnel had stated that removing the lines require too much time and manpower to complete in short order.

With the word that they are at least attempting to dull the lines, it shows they are attempting to address the soccer fans' needs. Couple that with the rumored hiring of temporary sales personnel for the playoff game, and the Revolution appear to finally be "getting it". Now, if they can only sign a proven playmaker at midfield, announce the construction of a stadium, and loosen some select security restrictions, we'll be in business.