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Revive us again with World Cup fever

6/30/2014

The World Cup's ability to spread soccer fever throughout the United States reinforces my belief that the NBA and MLB need to adjust their postseason formats.

The most effective way to grow any congregation is with an annual revival. FIFA puts on its revival every four years, inviting the 32 best teams in the world to compete in one location. It's the Woodstock of soccer. It's impossible to ignore. Trust me, I've tried.

Truth is, we've all tried to avoid catching the fever here in America. We were the world's soccer heathens, the last converts. We ridiculed and laughed at the rest of the globe, believing we were too cool for futbol. Look at us now. We gather by the thousands in open spaces to watch and cheer and live and die with every corner kick, free kick, penalty kick and header.

I've spent a week wondering whether Cristiano Ronaldo's crossing kick that propelled Portugal to a tie with Team USA was more athletic, clutch and impressive than Joe Montana's pass to Dwight Clark in the back of the end zone.

How did I get here? How did I reach the point where Tuesday's match against Belgium is as anticipated as a real football game?

The revivals have worked. Over the years, the World Cups have created just enough noise for me to stop what I'm doing and figure out why all those soccer worshippers act so crazily, joyously and fanatically. I've sampled enough that I finally understand the sermon. Moving forward, my faith in soccer should grow more intense, and if I ever backslide, the every-four-years World Cup revival will renew my commitment.

The NBA and MLB need an annual revival. The leagues need an annual event where fans and the sports media can come worship and party while watching the best and brightest compete at the highest level. This is the most effective way to market your sport.

The NFL does it with Pete Rozelle's Super Bowl. Invented in the late 1960s, the Super Bowl is the showcase for the NFL. Fans and media can plan years in advance to attend the Super Bowl at a predetermined location. The host cities can plot entertainment years in advance. Non-attendees can plan local watch parties at their homes or in bars. The Super Bowl has been the primary catalyst in driving the NFL's American dominance.

Why has college basketball remained relevant despite a significant slippage in the overall quality of play? March Madness and its annual revival, the Final Four. College basketball throws a massive party at the end of the season to showcase its best teams. Fans and media gather in one location to worship. The much-maligned BCS title game has done the same thing for college football.

The NBA and MLB falsely believe their midseason All-Star games are their marketing showcases. They're not. They've built their revivals around an inferior product: noncompetitive exhibitions. Imagine the NFL believing the Pro Bowl is the best way to market the league. Watching players loaf through an exhibition and participate in skills competitions does not grow the congregation or renew passion.

A smart sports league builds its revival around its most important competition.

The current format of the NBA Finals and World Series does not lend itself to a revival. Revivals are not spontaneous. They're planned at least a year in advance. The host cities for the NBA Finals and World Series are not known until just days before the events. There's no time for basketball and baseball fans to prepare to attend. There's no time for the host cities to prepare the huge entertainment spectacles that make a revival special.

Here's my suggestion: Games 1 and 2 or Games 3 and 4 of the NBA Finals and World Series should be played at a predetermined neutral site. For the sake of this column, let's argue the San Antonio-Miami series played Games 3 and 4 on a Friday and Sunday in St. Louis. San Antonio, having secured home-court advantage, would host Games 1, 5 and 7. Miami would host Games 2 and 6.

With a year to promote and plan, St. Louis could easily sell 35,000 tickets for basketball fans across the country to watch the games inside the Edward Jones Dome. Media outlets that do not cover the NBA Finals because of the prohibitive travel cost would now be more likely to cover Games 3 and 4 because the travel could be booked well in advance.

A predetermined location and date would make it easier for the NBA to attract important tastemakers/celebrities to attend the NBA Finals. Rather than constantly showing rappers sitting courtside, the NBA could place prominent college basketball coaches sitting in the best seats. This would cut down some of the competitive hostility between NBA fans and college basketball fans. It would also kill the myth that NBA play is inferior to college play.

Again, the point of a season-end revival is to showcase a sport as the best. The World Cup, the Super Bowl and the Final Four are primarily gigantic marketing events. They entice fans and media to come and worship for a month, a week and three days, respectively. These events are impossible to ignore. They help grow and maintain soccer, football and college basketball congregations.

It's puzzling, and counterproductive, that the NBA and MLB haven't constructed a season-end revival. Eight years ago it was still fashionable to laugh at and ridicule soccer in this country. And now the World Cup is drawing NFL-size television ratings and a lifelong football groupie is analogizing Cristiano Ronaldo to Joe Montana.