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Can MLS Ever Produce A “Major League”?
4 years ago
For those of you not familiar with the term “MLS”, let me give a quick run-through before we begin. Major League Soccer is the name of the football league organised by the United States Soccer Federation. This league contains 19 teams: 16 from the USA and 3 from Canada. The league generally runs from March to October and consists of two divisions known as the Eastern Conference and Western Conference. The top five teams in each conference are entered in the playoffs at the end of each season, and from there they begin a knock-out phase where the champions will ultimately be crowned. There is no relegation or promotion in MLS.
The fact that I felt the need to offer this explanation goes a long way to highlighting exactly why this question needs to be posed. Without any intent to condescend, I must acknowledge there are many football fans around the world who just don’t know about MLS. “So why is it worth an article?” you may ask. That question itself is why it’s worth an article - the lack of worldwide exposure is simply not representative of the current state of MLS. By the end of this article, I hope to not only answer why it’s worthy of an article, but also give you the required information to answer the title question: Can MLS ever produce a “Major League”?
One more thing before we begin. To avoid confusion, and to reconcile with our American brethren who may feel a little peeved about the highlighting of how small their league is at an international level, we shall refer to our beloved sport as “soccer” from here on in. There will be references to “American Football” as we proceed, so this way will be much easier for us all to follow.
“Soccer” = Kick, kick, head, goal. “Football” = Throw, catch, run, dance. Got it? Good. Let us continue.
Before even attempting to look at MLS itself, one must first consider the American people. 85% of Americans claim to be sports fans, so as a nation of 311 million people, the potential national audience is massive. The problem, however, is that soccer has had to compete with American football, basketball, baseball, and hockey, which each have well established national leagues with solid fan bases.
So how does soccer compare to these other sports? First, let’s look at the grassroots: How popular is soccer in schools?
Rich Lurker, an ESPN statistical analyst, states that soccer amongst children under 13 years of age has been huge for quite some time. It’s suggested that at such a young age, the key to sports is to allow youths to bond with their peers, which is something that soccer excels at above most. However, when these kids reached middle school, there was traditionally an overwhelming pressure on them to “man up” and play American football, since soccer was often viewed as a sport that their moms wanted them to play. Add this to the pedestal that the homecoming football game is put on, and the pressure to drop soccer for football more often than not was too much to ignore.
It’s also important to note that while soccer is “the sport of poverty” all around the world, since anyone can kick a ball around without the need for any other equipment, America is virtually unique in the sense that poverty-stricken areas there are primarily focussed on playing basketball, yet another competitor for soccer to overcome when attracting youths.
Despite such competition, soccer is actually moving forward at a phenomenal rate.
According to the NFHS (National Federation of State High School Associations), between 1996 and 2010, the number of children in schools playing American Football increased by 19%. Compare that to an increase of 61% for soccer (an 86% increase for girls, and 44% for boys) and you’ve got a great example of how quickly the popularity of soccer amongst children can rise.
A major part in “selling” soccer to the general public stems back to 1988 when FIFA awarded the U.S the rights to host the 1994 World Cup. In its application to host the event, the U.S declared it would use the media attention it would bring to rally up support for a professional league, and that’s exactly what they did a mere two years after the World Cup.
And now, thanks to the huge success of the women’s national team, and the relative success of the men’s team in recent international tournaments, the last few years have shown vast improvements in interest from the American population.
So much so, that soccer is now the second most popular sport in America for those aged 12-24, outstripping basketball and baseball, falling short only behind football.
To find a greater understanding of the future of soccer in America, it is also wise to acknowledge the constantly growing population of Latin Americans and the kind of influence they can have both presently and in the future. Soccer amongst Latin Americans is by far the most popular sport.
In 1994, it was estimated that 30% of households in America played soccer, making it the most played team sport in the entire country. Add that to the ever-growing popularity in schools, the new-found ability to keep teens and young adults interested in soccer, and changing make-up of the American people, and the future of soccer in America looks bright.
Another point to be taken from the NFHS report is that for American Football, there was little increase, and even a slight decrease in its popularity in schools in the last four recorded years. Further statistical analysis from ESPN’s Lurker led him to announce that he predicts the popularity of soccer will soon be “four of five times more” than it is today. When asked about a specific time-frame, he said he believed it could take as little as one more generation of kids to swing the balance in favour of soccer.
It’s this kind of research that gives us solid grounds to state that the American people are very much ready to adopt soccer as a major sport, and possibly “the” major sport of the nation.
But let’s not get carried away here. Interest is indeed important, but not the end-game. Getting people interested is merely phase one of making MLS successful. Phase two is getting them out of their living rooms and actually attending games.
Compared to the major sporting leagues in America, MLS is very much new. The first MLS season was in 1996. The next youngest league, the NBA, is over 65 years old. So right off the bat, MLS was playing catch-up.
Since 1996, MLS has grown from a 10 club competition to a 19 club competition, with Canadian club Montreal Impact adding to the growth at the beginning of 2012. This has led to an expansion in the number of stadiums throughout the country, and then, of course, an increase in national attendances.
Comparing last season to the previous, stadium attendances rose to an average of 17,872, a seven percent increase in one year. The previous year, there was a four percent increase. Constant growth.
In 2006, the total number of season ticket holders in MLS was just over 74,000. Now, the most recent estimations show a significant increase of 146%, taking the total of MLS season ticket holders to almost 180,000.
So once again, we find significant progress and growth in an important area for soccer in America.
We’ve examined the American people thoroughly. Their kids clearly enjoy the sport and households are playing in huge numbers. We’ve acknowledged the substantial growth in MLS fandom, attendances, and club numbers. Which now brings us to the third and final chapter of our examination: Television and Media.
If we can learn anything from major European leagues like the EPL or La Liga, it’s that TV deals are king. It’s all about public exposure. Getting the MLS brand into the living rooms of as many of the 311 million population as possible is the most sure-fire way to increase the importance of the product. But that, unfortunately, is where MLS struggles.
The American public’s demand for soccer is indisputable. They have as much thirst for the game as any other nation. The problem, however, shows itself when we examine what kind of soccer they are being offered on TV.
When we examine the money being spent by TV companies on soccer, we find that MLS receives a measly 7% of that share ($9 million). That’s miles behind Mexican soccer ($50m), the EPL ($20m) and La Liga ($16m).
Let’s compare this to what American soccer fans spend their cash on. MLS rakes up a massive 45% of the market when it comes to Americans spending cash on soccer games. That adds up to $62 million. This shows us that local soccer fans are contributing almost seven times more revenue than TV deals for MLS through ticket sales alone. There are two things to take from this. Firstly, MLS is absolutely dependent on its fans attending games. In the current economic climate, one just can’t tell how much expendable cash the American people will have at any given time, which is a potential for disaster. Secondly, these TV figures are pathetic. America possesses more media giants than any other country, and as such can more than afford to improve on TV deals, and therefore give a boost to at-home viewership.
It’s not like Americans aren’t watching other soccer games on TV. The 2012 European Championships showed a 300% increase in ratings from the 2008 tournament. In 2010, 24 million Americans watched the World Cup final, a figure greater than the average viewership of the previous year’s World Series baseball games. It’s also not a case of American TV channels simply ignoring soccer. In 2005, FIFA announced a $425 million deal for World Cup TV rights up until 2014. FIFA called that deal “the biggest TV deal in a single country in FIFA’s history”.
And to add some anecdotal evidence to the mass of stats and figures that have been thrown at you, the online media has eaten up every single moment from both the US women’s national team, and the men’s. One only needs to take a look at twitter during or after a game to see the sheer masses of support American soccer players and teams get.
Clearly, America’s youths are ready to adopt soccer as a major sport. Clearly, America’s people are attending soccer games at an increasingly promising level. Clearly, US TV channels are willing to fork out fortunes to provide the American people with soccer coverage. But why isn’t that translating into the big TV bucks for MLS? That, my friends, is a question for another day.
So there we have it. I hope I’ve gathered enough information for you to make your own minds up about whether or not MLS can move on to bigger and better things. But one thing I believe we should all agree on is that MLS and US Soccer in general is thriving under its own momentum, and at least the strong possibility lives that MLS can one day produce a Major League.
This blog does not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of footytube or its partners.
4 years ago
First, thanks for this article. Second, while you have some insight, you've missed some key points about football (soccer is this boring game where players punch the ball hard down the field and run after it, whereas football is a beautiful sport played with the feet), it's growth in the you. S. and how modern sports are watched.
While traditionally, soccer has been a rich mans sport in the you. S. that is changing. I live in Houston, and if you drive anywhere outside the major urban and suburban centers, it is the game being played, for free, on any field available. It is played the same way it is played in the rest of the world, and the impact is going to be huge.compare the Houston population to that of many countries, 10 million, and you can see that just the development here is going to drive the sport (remember, we have a huge Hispanic and international population). Take into account every other major urban area with a large Hispanic and international population and, well you do the math. If you go to a Dynamo game you will find a mix of fervent fans from every racial group, and every nationality. In other words, it doesn't really matter that those who traditionally watched American football, and other you. S. Sports didn't participate after the age of 13, the sport is being driven by immigrants from all over the world who have come to the you. S. For reasons other than football.
The popularity of the sport is moving to those who traditionally spurned the sport. No, it's not American football, but the passion for the sport is growing. There are a lot of reasons for that. First, MLS has done it's job. They slowly and patiently built a small vocal fan base in this country. That fan base shows it's pride. I see more Dynamo bumper stickers and Dynamo shirts here in Houston than I see Texan shirts and stickers. Second, the last World Cup and the expectation that the you. S. Would make the final 16 caught on with that fervent crowd and spread. It didn't matter that the you. S. Underperformed, that just made the fan base mad that the team let them down. A mad audience, is still an engaged audience. Third, media saw that the sport was growing and jumped on the band wagon. They weren't addressing the non-international crowd, but rather the Univision crowd. That's where the money was. However, that made the sport available on T. V. To the whole American audience. Even more so, the sport has become available on line. Yes, on line access has allowed American viewers to see the sport as it's played in the rest of the world, and they want that same sport here. That access to the international game is driving people to watch MLS, poor as it might be. From that, the MLS has been savvy in bringing those same teams, albeit the be team, for matches here in the you. S. Thus driving more interest in the process of how the sport plays around the world. Fourth, the organic success of a few American players in Europe, Dempsey, Bradley, and Howard being the most notable, builds on the attention that American audiences are paying to the sport overseas, which again feeds back to the MLS (and yes, I'm P. Oh. Ed at Liverpool for not getting Dempsey on their squad and displaying him when they came here this summer). Finally, the fact that football is a year round sport makes a huge difference. The off period when the major American sports are shut down is a drag on a fan. I can tap into football year round. After the European season is done, players go to their national teams for friendlies, and the MLS starts. There is very little down time.
All of these factors, and more, are driving the sport. It isn't some concerted plan, or savvy on the part of MLS, it is simple the observance of small opportunities by players, fans, the MLS, and the media, both traditional and on line. That's the way that all success stories happen.
My prediction, American football will be surpassed by football with in twenty years. There's a lot of reasons for that. It isn't mom that has noticed that American football is severely damaging the brains of it's players. It's doctors. The sport has a limited lifetime without some serious changes. Remember boxing? The truth is that internationally there are going to be two major sports, football, and basketball. Each can easily be played with limited equipment and training. Basketball requires even less than football and may end up catching football in the end. Regardless, the MLS is going to succeed in a big way. That is why Les Alexander, the owner of the Houston Rockets is buying the Dynamo. He sees the writing on the wall and is buying the team while he can still get it cheap
4 years ago
Great article. For some time now, I have been very confused about why major media companies have refused to recognize the popularity of soccer and the demand to view soccer games (both foreign leagues, and to a lesser degree MLS matches) on television. Personally, I can't even begin to count the number of people I know who have been frustrated by limited access to games. FoxSoccer is great but not broadly available, thank goodness we can stream games online but that's not mainstream enough for a big audience. I had the chance to speak to a pretty high level NBC sports executive who shat all over the idea of soccer's ability to competitively entertain lots of people.... Shocking to hear in the face of a lot of clear cut evidence. My best guess is that it will really take off when a younger generation obtains those decision-making positions in big media corps, and truly understand the value of soccer (granted some members of older gens do see it, but definitely not across the board).
Anyway, the lack of coverage is unfortunate for the development of an informed soccer following in the US, since being able to easily watch games is an obvious way to expose more people to the game, which is fairly likely to convert them into fans.
Cheers to what MLS has accomplished thus far, and the bright torch it carries for the future of the game here
4 years ago
Thank you, and yes, Fox Soccer Channel can only do so much in terms of brining in audiences. Free-to-air national channels need to start picking up games more often, or at least produce a decent highlights show or two to get started.
America is very much set up to embrace soccer as a top sport in the next 15-20 years, but whether or not that translates into proper MLS coverage and a competitive league is a question way above my pay grade.
One thing is for sure.... Soccer in America has been taking a hit from "traditional" fans of other sports for so long, always trying to put it down.... But it just keeps progressing. To steal a quote about MLS from elsewhere:
20 Years Ago: "It'll never happen. "
15 Years Ago: "It'll never last. "
10 Years Ago: "They'll never grow. "
5 Years Ago: "They'll never fill those stadiums. "
Today: "They'll never get big ratings. "
5 Years From Now: you fill in the blank
4 years ago
Fanatico, the way NBC totally s--t all over the London Games with their p--s-poor coverage, NBC doesn't know ANYthing about covering sports. They are the Worst network. They are run by straight morons. Why wouldn't you air Michael Phelps Live? Take whatever a high-level NBC sports executive says and Do the Opposite
4 years ago
As an American and footy fan, I applaud the MLS for putting clubs in smaller markets where other pro sports have either one or no other team. When you are the only game in town, it makes it easier for the fans to go to the games.
TV, on the other hand, requires more than a local interest. Living in between Baltimore and DC, I am completely inundated by teams in a variety of leagues trying to capture my attention. For American Sports, right now, Baseball is King in my home.
When it comes to football, the MLS still retains the stigma for me that the quality is nowhere near UEFA. So, when I look for footy action, I'm looking for European games, specifically searching out Atlético matches and Champions League action.
With regard to the playing of football in America, the numbers are vast. Drive by any field and you will see organized games in every age group from 3 year olds to old ass men trying to relive some glory.
I coach high school football (14-18 years old)and the desire to play is immense. In my squad, however, there are only three clubs that are favored: Real Madrid, Barcelona and Manchester United. No one ever talks about an MLS side. Hell, even when I go bananas about a Falcao Hat-trick for Atleti, my players look at me with bewildered stares. Still, the interest in foreign sides and players now is far greater than it was 10 years ago. Thanks in part to EA's FIFA series.
We don't get many fans in the stands. American football brings the gate, we do not. We get the frequent drive-bys during practice with the usual shouting of "Soccer is Gay!" It will be tough for football to achieve greatness in America, but it has gained quite a foothold amongst our youth.
Five years from now: "Due to the influx of young, quality American-born footballers, the MLS product will be vastly improved. "
4 years ago
5 years from now I think MLS will have become fairly mainstream. While the quality may not be top tier quite yet, that is absolutely the next stage of the league's development. Having survived its infancy and had success in expanding, the quality of play should begin to catch up with Europe (hopefully MLS academies will soon play a larger part in this). While the country's youth structure is not really that well adapted to developing players (and that's a whole other can of worms), the interest and foundations for it are there.
By providing inspiration and role models, broader and more available media coverage would be a major factor in convincing a greater % of young players to stick with soccer rather than switching to football/basketball/etc in their high school years - in turn gradually improving the level of play.
While I am absolutely biased and my social circles are more soccer-oriented than average, I am fairly certain that the interest is there and that a channel willing to take the "risk" of showing more soccer games (or highlight shows - that'd be awesome!) would see substantial returns. Even if it is NBC
4 years ago
I'm American and I definitely think it's an exciting time for soccer in the USA. I think the next big hurdle is the kind of negative circlejerk mindset that sports media and older generations mindlessly hold onto against soccer. They are obviously afraid of soccer's potential to overtake baseball which is the primary competitor in terms of overlapping seasons. It poisons younger people's opinions of soccer without really giving it a chance and they end up parroting the talking-heads. When we can get the next generation into those positions as mentioned earlier that's when MLS is going to get more tv time and really explode.
On a different talking point. We really need to evolve our style of play and put a greater focus on the technical aspects of the game. Since 2002 the USA has always been near the top in terms of fitness/conditioning but unfortunately the technical side of the game is extremely lacking and I've seen it at every stage of our system. The development system needs an overhaul so we are giving more technically gifted players the chance they deserve and bringing the quality to the next level. This all starts with Klinsmann and the usmnt spearheading this evolution. Even with our huge population I honestly think we won't have a world class calibre player until this system changes.
As a huge soccer fan I think a decent sized demographic can relate to my situation. I've been playing the sport my entire life. Participate in the online community. But the nearest MLS team is 8hrs drive and the quality of the MLS is so low compared to Europe that it's very difficult to watch at times although it is getting better
4 years ago
Just to give an example of soccers growing popularity in the United States. Close MLS rivals Seattle and Portland played in front of an audience of 66, 000 in a regular season game, almost selling out the American football stadium they always play in.
Seattle's MLS team consistently out preforms Seattle's baseball team in terms of attendance by over 10, 000 people
(FK Partizan Beograd)
4 years ago
As a former college soccer player, here are my top two reasons why MLS has limitations to reach level of strongest European leagues:
1. Football is not part of American sports culture! There is a huge growth in popularity of this sport in US in the past decade, but still American passion for football (in terms of numbers, not love for the game) cannot compare with European and South American. In my opinion, this is the main reason why US national team cannot make further than best 16 or best 8 in WC, because you are competing against nations which has football in their genes. Rest of the world is one century ahead of US on this one.
2. Not having continental competition as strong as champions league! Champions League is a main reason European top leagues have raised the quality of football on highest level in the world. Number of strong clubs (historically and financially) on a smaller territory than US itself, is something you cannot produce, and this congestion of quality is the main reason champions league is the strongest club competition in the world. Elaborating on financial power and potential of competition like champions league is not necessary.
These are the reasons which limit potential of the MLS as an league. I believe football in US has a more room to grow, but will never be able to reach level of top European leagues
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