MLS announced it is contracting Los Angeles-based Chivas USA, in favor of a fresh Los Angeles based club to enter the league in 2017. Unlike the league’s previous contractions of Florida teams, this move is a mark of the league’s health and stability.
Chivas USA is a blight on an otherwise healthy league. Inept ownership forced the league to buy back the club and saddled it with an ethnic discrimination lawsuit among other PR issues. The club’s attendance, around 7,000 per game, was less than half the next worst team. Without Chivas USA, MLS would have averaged nearly 20,000 fans per game. That would make the league the 7th best attended worldwide, 3rd in the United States behind the NFL and MLB and 4th among soccer leagues behind the EPL, Bundesliga and Primera Liga.
Starting fresh in LA is a more attractive prospect for investors and not terrible for the league. The going rate to buy into MLS has reached nine figures. Getting a new stadium built in California isn’t fun. But the new club could offer another sought after destination for European stars, such as Cristiano Ronaldo whose Real Madrid contract expires around then.
Logistically, cutting Chivas USA keeps the numbers even for scheduling. The league will have an even 20 when NYC and Orlando join next year and an even 22 when Atlanta and the new LA team follow suit. Miami (potentially) and another market would put MLS at 24.
While MLS is reeling in billionaires and charging gaudy investment fees, there are still major concerns moving forward. Attendance is great. But, in 2014, sports is a televised entertainment industry. MLS is a non-entity on television. As soccer has dramatically raised its profile in the United States, MLS TV ratings have declined. Last year’s MLS Cup Final drew the same audience as a concurrent Everybody Loves Raymond rerun on TBS. The league has not had an MLS Cup Final rate 1.0 since 2001.
MLS had its best possible regular season match last weekend. Seattle and Los Angeles met in the final game, with the winner earning the Supporters’ Shield. Clint Dempsey vs. Landon Donovan. Anyone watch? See any mainstream sports coverage of it?
Part of this is a chicken vs. egg scenario with TV. The league needs television revenue to resolve outstanding labor issues, to attract foreign stars and to both develop and keep higher level players. But, it’s hard to see the league earning the television revenue until it has accomplished those things.
Part of it is competitive. The playoff undercuts the importance of the regular season. Nearly half the league makes it. Once in, teams with the best records have little discernible advantage. This would be okay, if the playoffs were providing compelling theater like the NBA or NHL playoffs. The MLS playoffs are not and no one is watching them. Dedicated MLS fans aren’t sure whether to celebrate the Supporters Shield or the MLS Cup Final winner as champion. It’s no surprise the sport has struggled to find an in with the casual American sports audience.
[USA Today Sports]