MLS had a big week. Portland defeated Columbus 2-1 in the MLS Cup Final. The league announced plans to expand to 28 teams. Those developments highlight two very different league narratives.
Expansion has gone well. Average MLS attendance is up 12 percent over last year. Five of the top six drawing teams were added since 2009. Overall, 13/20 teams averaged more than 19,000 fans per match. The league ranks behind only the NFL and MLB in average professional sports attendance.
Multiple cities want to buy into MLS. They are willing to pay handsomely, hence the expansion to 28. NYCFC and upcoming Los Angeles and Minnesota teams paid $100m or more in entry fees. Atlanta paid “between $70 million and $100 million.”
However, despite investor interest, the biggest American stars playing at home, and some of the sport’s biggest names – Gerrard, Pirlo, Kaka, Villa, Lampard – arriving, the league is still drawing a very small television audience.
Per World Soccer Talk, the 2015 MLS Cup Final drew its lowest rating ever and the second fewest number of English language viewers in the last six years. Viewership was down nearly 40 percent from the 2009 final. The MLS Cup Final has not drawn 1 million English language viewers since 2011.
That dip can be explained to an extent. Columbus and Portland are small markets. The league, for some reason, keeps running its “Super Bowl” against the NFL. MLS also faces a unique challenge on TV. The NBA isn’t competing with three or four better basketball leagues.
Still, it’s clear the league has not penetrated the mainstream sports marketplace. Regular season TV viewership is roughly on par with the WNBA. We’ll be nice and not poll our audience to find out what percentage could name a single player on the Portland Timbers or the Columbus Crew.
This stagnancy has come at a time when soccer elsewhere has had tremendous success. The Women’s World Cup semifinal between England and Japan on FS1 drew more than three times the viewership of the MLS Cup Final.
The league did sign “landmark” TV contracts with FOX, ESPN, and Univision worth around $90m per year over the next eight years. Small footnote: USMNT matches were included in that package. So, we don’t know how much networks valued MLS.
TV is where the money is. MLS’ fundamental challenge is figuring out how to increase that audience. Will the recent expansion help or hurt that endeavor?
MLS has world-class players. But, the league was not brimming with depth before expanding. MLS has added six clubs over the last six years. Cities, dates, and stadium deals have not been finalized. But, present plans could see the league add another eight within the next 10 years.
Diluting the talent pool is not good news. The starkest difference between MLS and the EPL – drawing nearly twice the viewership on weekend mornings and earning $166 million per year in American TV revenue – is the talent depth.
Adding more teams complicates structural issues further. 28 teams makes it impossible to play anything resembling a round-robin schedule. The best competitive option may be to create two divisions with promotion and relegation. But “investor-operators” aren’t spending nine figures on expansion fees and new stadiums to be placed in MLS Division II.
Would MLS Cup expand as well? The current, bloated 10-team format completely undercuts the regular season. Once into the playoff, higher seeding offers almost no advantage.
The league has self-consciously not been NASL. But, adding eight more teams for the short-term windfall to offset operating costs feels a lot like NASL expanding in the late 1970s before it went belly up.
Trends bode well for MLS. Buying into MLS expansion at $100m seems more sensible than buying into the NHL at $500 million. But the league’s potential has to become reality at some point.
Soccer may be “the sport of the future” in the United States. But, as we’re seeing in the present, that doesn’t mean MLS will be a major part of it.