Monday, August 21, 2006

What to do about the US Open Cup

Every year I look forward to the start of the US Open Cup as I find it to be the absolute best sort of competition. Teams of all different backgrounds and talent levels have a chance to prove themselves on the pitch. Plus, just about every year gives us one or two games that result in the best outcome in all of sports, the upset.

However, upsets in the US Open Cup are different from upsets in any other US sports. There is no other tournament where pro players can end up playing against amateurs. The closest thing other sports have to this is the NCAA Championship, but even then, all 64 teams are filled with unpaid (hopefully) players.

So if the US Open Cup has the chance to have a 'Miracle on Ice' style game every year, why do most people not pay attention to it?

An easy answer to that one is that a lot of people do not pay attention to soccer in general in this country, so why would they tune in for a specific tournament? However, I think, in some ways, the US Open Cup stands a better chance of bringing fans to the game then the national team or MLS. My reasoning behind this statement is simple, there are more teams from more places then just the bigger cities playing in the cup, thus local pride can easily get involved. Put another way, everyone likes to cheer for the little dog especially if that little dog is their own.

The US Open Cup brings the game not only to LA, Dallas and New York, but also Des Moines, Somoma County and Laredo. Bringing high quality games to these areas of the US help grow the interest in the game.

So what can we do to make things better?

First, the lower level team should always get the choice to host the match. I can see this creating some problems, as far as pitch conditions, scheduling and the such, but I think that could be worked out. The reason I like this is it gives lower level teams a bit of an advantage, but it also gives smaller clubs something to promote to their fans. Having a MLS or USL-1st division club come to the smaller cities can create an event that will bring out people who might not normally go see a match (think of the Barcelona tour on a much smaller scale).

Second, SUM needs to get a better TV deal. Showing the final is not enough. There has to be a channel out there willing to broadcast at least one game per round. If there is not, then US Soccer needs to come up with some sort of internet broadcast like the MLS, because if it doesn't happen on TV or the internet, did it really happen?

Third, make it worth something. What motivation do MLS clubs really have for playing hard in this cup other then bragging rights? With no media exposure and no birth into some other higher profile competition, what good is it? In addition, the winning team gets $100,000 with the runner up getting $50,000. Even if all that money was just given to the players, they would only get about $3,500 each for winning. Don't get me wrong, for some players, that would be a huge increase in pay, but even for MLSers, that's not a figure that really motivates.

That's why I would love to see a 'People's Prize' for the final two. This prize would be made up of money donated by the fans. If just 100,000 US soccer fans dropped $5 into the bucket, the prize money would more then tripled. It would also be worth looking into finding a company willing to match the donations dollar for dollar. Add to it a stipulation that all the money has to go to players as bonuses and you suddenly have a major motivational tool.

As an example, let's say $1 million was raised with $750,000 going to the winner and $250,00 to the runner-up. That would mean a player on the championship club would get close to $27,000 as a bonus. For many in the MLS, $27,000 would represent a 50% (or more) increase in their salary. Now that's something to play for.

Finally, bring back the Dewar Cup Trophy (see picture). People love links to the past and the Dewar Trophy is just that. The new crystal cup is pretty and all, but there is something to be said about a three foot tall, 80 pound piece of art donated by a Scots Whisky maker.

The US Open Cup has so much promise, but, for various reasons, it never lives up to it and I fear it is only going to get worse over the next few years thanks, in part, to the new television deal MLS recently signed.

Now that Thursday night will be the big soccer night on ESPN2, where does that leave the Cup? The games for the tournament are usually played on Wednesday, but even if they moved them to Tuesday if a team is also playing a Thursday night game, most managers would bench their best for the Cup.

There can be work arounds like making sure Toronto FC gets the first Thursday match after a Wednesday Open Cup with MLS teams (Toronto will not be invited to the US Open Cup), but even with this in place, at some point a team will have to choose, Cup or MLS Thursday. If the past is prolog, then the Cup will be the one that suffers.



Post a Comment

<< Home