Carnival atmosphere at MLS matches pushes the envelope

The carnival atmosphere at MLS games is accepted by fans, but risks overwhelming the game. The quality of players varies greatly in MLS, but fans are always provided with a good display of talent and competition on the pitch. Although unnecessary, it’s become standard for stadiums to employ a wide range of distractions from the game.

A paradise for attention deficit spectators

Mascots (grown-ups in animal suits), choral groups, sketchy cheerleaders, children’s shooting contests, bands, award ceremonies, and the junk food feeding frenzy are the usual amusements downloaded into MLS stadiums to make soccer games sensational, to amuse spectators with very short attention spans. Americans are programmed for this spectacle, an essential component of the consumer economy.

Americans like to be entertained by as many simultaneous technologies/sideshows as possible. When the senses are thoroughly saturated by random input, the overall experience is perceived as positive through a combination of shock value and elevated blood sugar.

MLS caters to wide demographics – middle-aged men, young men, Hispanic men, teenagers, children, and women – by offering various amusements. The fans accept the sundry spectacles because no matter where they look, there’s someone enjoying at least one aspect of the circus.

Merchandising over the top

The children are adorable. They slap hands with the mascot, buy jerseys and merchandise, line up for shooting contests, and clamor for autographs. They’re the future of the game, excited about the game, but also obsessed with eating as much well-advertized junk food as possible, stumbling back and forth across rows of knees to get yet another load of chicken fingers, French fires, soda, burgers – obstructing vision, dripping catsup.

To keep the men from punting the snacking kids into the mezzanine, some MLS clubs like Chivas dumped American football cheerleaders onto the pitch. This is a bit of a disconnect from the former MLS all-out promotion of boys and girls youth soccer, in which girls were encouraged to be athletic, competitive, and successful, as opposed to erotic dancers in the middle of a stadium of drinking men. It’s a poignant picture to watch a young girl player watching a man watching a cheerleader. It’s an uncomfortable, sometimes insulting experience for many girls and makes WPS that much more appealing to them. To the extent the skin-oriented marketing increases, perhaps in the future girl and women soccer fans will mostly attend WPS games and men MLS, but that doesn’t seem that healthy or that much fun.

Sometimes there are bands, with a decent amount of talent and a massive amount of equipment, that makes the players in shorts and jerseys look well, rather insignificant. But apparently bands lend to the festival-style atmosphere, attract that key 18-25 demographic, and carry well on TV.

The American splash carried over to the Disneyland-style spectacle of the Euro 2008 ceremonies with performance artists rolling on the ground, balloon “art”and people on stilts dressed as countries – in case the international element wasn’t made clear by the competition itself. It was odd, over-the-top, something to worry about more than enjoy.

The future of MLS entertainment

All these thoughts came together at halftime of the St. Louis Athletica match against the Boston Breakers at Harvard Stadium. To the tune, Who let the dogs out? two border collies – “Blue Dog Group” – dashed onto the field to play Frisbee and do tricks with their owner. The crowd loved these dogs – they had skill, speed, enthusiasm, and probably performed gratis.

But it wasn’t enough – they weren’t big, shiny, noisy, sexy enough – they needed to kick it up a notch. There is a videotaped performance of extreme LED shepherding that could show them how to upgrade their act, take the Frisbee thing to the next level – the choreography of sheep and dogs and lights is visionary, probably conceived after many, many pints.

Extreme LED shepherding could be the next wave in MLS halftime entertainment. Loud music, stampeding animals, flashing lights, and the sheep could wear some kind of flashy bra and panty affair (sheep aren’t housebroken) to pander to erotica.

But it’s best not to think too much about complex demographic marketing ploys, because the shiny toys start to look old. In fact, it makes you want to go outside and just watch a good game of soccer.

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