MLS Expansion Continues, Are We Witnessing The Rise of America's Next Major Sports League?

By Ty Duffy
Mar 24, 2015, 11:58 PM EDT
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MLS has reached its 20th season. Once desperate for owners, the league now charges a nine-figure entry free. Once a 10-team league, the move to Minnesota United will bring it to 24 by 2020. The league has not ruled out further expansion beyond 24. Many are optimistic. Brazilian (and now Orlando FC) star Kaka, for one, thinks that the next five to 10 years could see MLS become a major player, both domestically and in the international game.

That’s around the time the NFL could start experiencing fallout from its concussion crisis. MLB’s median fan age keeps creeping upward. Could we be witnessing the rise of America’s next great sports league?

It’s natural, for those unaffiliated, to take one look at MLS TV ratings and “LOL Nope” that prospect. But, sporting tastes change. The NFL’s rise seems preordained now. Though, few in the 1st half of the 20th Century would have seen the league wresting the spotlight from MLB. The league lost college stars to law school and other life endeavors. No one would have foreseen horse racing’s irrelevance and the mainstream populace unable to name Boxing’s Heavyweight Champion.

Changes in American soccer consumption have been dramatic and rapid. Twenty-five years ago, soccer was a foreign punching bag for newspaper columnists. Fifteen years ago MLS’ marketing firm had to pay to get the World Cup on English language television. Heck, five years ago on this site we were complaining about Sportscenter anchors mispronouncing names and giggling through the odd soccer highlight.

Today, the World Cup is a television property worth hundreds of millions in the U.S. Once shunted to niche, limited distribution networks, major European leagues and the Champions League provide staple programming for mainstream sports channels.

Soccer has been flowering in the U.S., except for MLS.

The league has done well cultivating the live experience in soccer-specific stadiums. But attendance in many extant markets has stagnated. TV has been worse. English language viewership on ESPN has seen a slight decline since 2006. The MLS Cup Final has not drawn a 1.0 rating since 2001. The EPL, on weekend mornings, is outdrawing the NHL. MLS, on in prime time, has been outdrawn by the WNBA. The league has agreed to “record-setting TV contracts.” Though the fees paid included a package of more valuable USMNT matches.

MLS does face a unique challenge. Unlike soccer in most other countries, MLS has to compete for TV attention with four or five other major sports. Unlike other sports leagues in the U.S., there isn’t a better, more established product readily available. The NBA doesn’t have to compete for ratings with a richer, flashier Euroleague. Still, the league has made almost zero progress in two decades since its inception.

Some factors augur strongly for MLS. The U.S. is experiencing demographic change. Projections vary wildly and, perhaps, view population groups as too monolithic. But, broadly, the U.S. Hispanic population will grow. Hispanic viewers are a strong component of MLS’ core audience.

Another factor is instability elsewhere in the soccer world. In Europe, perennial Champions League clubs do well. Many others struggle. Clubs in top leagues are tens of millions in debt. Clubs in lower leagues struggle to operate, much less make long term infrastructure improvements. That is discounting economic instability outside the sport. France nearly implemented a 75 percent millionaires’ tax. Spain, once a tax haven for players and clubs, has been pursuing both players and prominent clubs for unpaid taxes. South American leagues are in even worse shape.

MLS is not a viable option for many European-based players now, with a median salary of around $80,000. But, the higher that median salary creeps the broader and better the player pool. If the money is the same, one could see destinations such as New York, Los Angeles, Miami and Orlando be more appealing than Stoke and Sunderland.

MLS has potential. But, potential is not guaranteed success. The league has yet to figure out how to market itself for a mainstream American audience. There’s no clear answer for that.

Stars help, but their effect is overstated. David Beckham, perhaps the world’s most famous athlete, did nothing for TV ratings. Thierry Henry did nothing. Neither did U.S. stars Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley returning in their primes. It’s hard to see David Villa or Steven Gerrard creating much mainstream buzz. Even if MLS attracts Cristiano Ronaldo when his Real Madrid contract expires, how much does that move the needle? This isn’t 2007. Every match Ronaldo plays is on American TV. Ronaldo plays here live every summer. The U.S. is even on his underwear mailing list.

It’s possible the American Messi could emerge. It’s probable said Messi would bypass MLS entirely, if Jurgen has anything to say about it.

World Cup bounces don’t happen. Tournaments have come and gone. MLS gets promoted heavily. MLS players have starred for the U.S. team. Tangible impact has been negligible. The league surely isn’t waiting around for the potential bump from a U.S. based World Cup in 2026. Youth soccer may be on the rise. It has been for decades.

Expansion could be more impactful. MLS has little penetration outside local markets (even within local markets where the transportation is inconvenient). Most of those markets are concentrated in the Northeast or along the West Coast. Broad swaths of the country have no connection with the league. This Fox Sports/Facebook fan map isn’t scientific. But, it supports the notion much of the country has heard of David Beckham and that’s about it. It’s not surprising TV ratings have been more “Mad Men” then American Idol.

MLS expansion will help fill in those gaps. The league has added (or will add) three franchises in the southeast: Orlando, Atlanta and Beckham’s Miami experiment. If the league moves beyond 24, Tennessee and North Carolina would also be rational targets. MLS is also filling blanks on the map elsewhere where there is strong minor league support, such as Minneapolis. (Come to Detroit, please.)

The league also should examine the way the season is structured. Some will argue winter over summer. Some will suggest two tiers and relegation. But, the ultimate problem is the playoffs. MLS Cup detracts from the regular season. It’s bloated. Seeding is irrelevant. It has little upside to outweigh the downside. Few people watch it. Fans and players are confused whether MLS Cup or the Supporters Shield is the real title. How does one sell that to casual fans? Watch this playoff final! It’s sort of important, maybe. 

MLS is stable. It’s just broaching adulthood. Comparisons with leagues with a 60-70 year head start are unfair. It has tremendous potential as an investment. It’s indicative that entities such as Manchester City and the New York Yankees paid good money to get involved and others are interested.

That said, potential is not a path. The league that would sell itself to America and the world still has a ways to go selling itself to what should be its core audience: American soccer fans.

[Photos via USAT]

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