First, Happy 16th Season MLS!
I am a voracious reader. For several years, I commuted to Boston on the train every day. During that time I would go through a book a week (sometimes two depending on how quick a read the books were). I know that this might not seem to be linked to MLS starting its 16th season, just hear me out. Due to my love of reading and immense amounts of reading time, I’ve read countless books on one of my favorite topics – soccer.
The books ranged from the encyclopedic (The Ball is Round by David Goldblatt) to the quirky (Bloody Confused by Chuck Culpepper). The most recent book to catch my attention was Soccer in a Football World by David Wangerin. In the book, Wangerin charts the convoluted and often dispiriting path of fútbol in the United States. From the little documented early days under the auspices of the United States of America Foot Ball Association (now the United States Soccer Federation) and the American Soccer League to the 2006 World Cup, Wangerin provides a great background for anybody interested in soccer in the United States. In addition to filling in some historical blanks, Soccer in a Football World got me thinking about how MLS fits into the American sporting landscape.
As MLS enters its 16th season, which kicks off on March 15 in Seattle (Sounders v. Galaxy; should be a good one), there are reasons to believe that the league and the sport are finally gaining some true traction in America.
Positives Signs -
Successful Expansion – MLS has added 5 teams since 2007 and will add the Montreal Impact in 2012. Montreal’s introduction will bring the count to 19, with MLS looking to expand to 20. Toronto, Seattle and Philadelphia were all extremely successful at the gate in their first seasons. Toronto has averaged more than 20,000 fans per game in each of its first 4 seasons. Seattle draws crowds that many European soccer teams would envy (36,000+ last season), and Philadelphia continued the trend of successful expansion by averaging over 19,000 fans in their inaugural season. Portland and Vancouver both look primed to continue the trend, with Portland selling more than 12,000 season tickets and Vancouver more than 15,500.
As mentioned before, MLS is looking to expand to twenty teams, and Don Garber has made it known that he would love a second team in the New York City area. To wit, perhaps the most famous name in US soccer, the New York Cosmos, has been revived in an attempt to become that 20th team. With Eric Cantona as the Director of Soccer, Pelé as Honorary President, and Giorgio Chinaglia as International Ambassador the club has some heavy hitters promoting its interests (both Pelé and Chinaglia played for the previous incarnation of the Cosmos).
Attendance - Thanks in large part to the success of the recent expansion teams, 2010 saw MLS attendance rise to 16,675 fans per game. Only two prior MLS seasons top that number (2007 and 1996). While the NFL and MLB both average far more fans than MLS, the NHL and NBA average only slightly more. While these numbers might be slightly outdated, MLS ranks 13th in average attendance among world soccer leagues. Not bad for a country that supposedly doesn’t like soccer. Attendance has been on the rise and should continue that upward trend, on the strength of a new soccer specific stadium in Kansas City and the addition of the Timbers and Whitecaps. As Geoffrey Arnold of The Oregonian writes (citing an article from the Wall Street Journal), there are several cities where MLS outdraws NBA teams. Of the cities listed, only The Galaxy outdrawing the Lakers doesn’t present the full picture (the Lakers would certainly sell more tickets if the Staples Center could accommodate more fans). The general upward trend in attendance over the past several years is certainly a positive sign for MLS; however, the attendance situation isn’t entirely rosy, there are some disconcerting signs for several clubs. More on the negatives to come.
Performance of the US Men’s National Team (USMNT) – As important as domestic soccer is around the world most (if not all) domestic leagues are set up to help the national team perform on a higher level. While soccer fans enjoy watching the Champions League, the World Cup is what matters most. The creation and continued growth of MLS has given US soccer talent a place to develop and the performance of the USMNT has benefited from its existence.
MLS is the first domestic soccer league in the US to make developing American talent a priority. The ASL and the NASL both relied heavily on imports (MLS is starting to trend this way as well) while neglecting native talent. Since the creation of MLS, the US has qualified for all 4 World Cups, advanced from the Group Stage on two occasions, beaten the World #1 and been ranked as high as 4th in the FIFA World Rankings (I still can’t believe this, but it’s true).
While MLS hasn’t turned the USMNT into a legitimate threat to win the World Cup (yet), the investment in soccer (the USSF’s Project 2010, which didn’t work quite according to plan) along with the growing competitiveness in domestic soccer has transformed the US from laughing-stock to CONCACAF power and occasional giant slayer.
Interesting side note: The US is one of only 7 teams to qualify for every World Cup since 1990. The others: Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Italy, Spain and South Korea.
Bad Signs -
Profitibility – MLS continues to expand and more fans (on average) are attending games; however, these positive signs haven’t translated into profitability. According to most reports, which are difficult to find as financial transparency is not an MLS strong point, very few teams turn a profit. Thanks to some awesome work by Dave Clark at Sounder at Heart we can draw a few conclusions. Using data from a 2007 Forbes study in conjunction with a study conducted on behalf of the Portland Timbers, Clark came to the conclusion that 2 clubs (Seattle and Toronto) were profitable in 2009. The long-term stability of the game and the league will require teams to move toward profitability. Teams can only stay afloat while incurring losses for so long. See the NASL for proof of that.
TV Ratings/Contract – If MLS ever wants to make a collective turn toward profitability, the league needs to establish itself on television. No professional sport can survive in today’s market without a TV deal. MLS just agreed to an extension of its previous TV contract with Fox Soccer Channel that will pay the league $6.25 million this season (MLS has a contract with ESPN that pays the league $8 million per year through 2014, and includes rights to USMNT games). For the sake of comparison, the NFL earns $3 billion per year, MLB earns nearly $500 million, the NBA earns $930 million, and the NHL earns at least $75 million. While comparing MLS to the NFL, NBA and MLB is certainly unfair, comparing the league to the NHL isn’t entirely ridiculous. While TV ratings remain poor (an average of 249,000 viewers for games broadcast on ESPN2), those numbers actually are comparable to the numbers the NHL records on Versus (297,000 per broadcast in 2009-2010, scroll to the bottom to see a table of the ratings numbers). So the question that needs to be asked is: why the NHL can get $75 million per year from Versus and MLS can only bring in a fraction of that amount? If MLS wants to remain a viable league and grow its brand, it will need to secure a better television contract.
Attendance – As mentioned above, MLS attendance has been on the rise over the past several years, but that doesn’t tell the entire story. While there are successes, several clubs have woeful attendance numbers. Sporting Kansas City, FC Dallas and the San Jose Earthquakes all hovered around the 10,000 mark. Several other teams saw drops in attendance from 2009. There is some hope for Kansas City, as they are set to open their new soccer-specific stadium this season. For a league that doesn’t derive much revenue from a television deal, it is vitally important to put fans in the seats.
An extremely interesting story will be if MLS can capitalize on the labor strife in the NFL and a potential NBA work stoppage to grow its brand. While soccer will never replace football or baseball in the hearts and minds of American sports fans and likely will never challenge the NBA, why couldn’t the beautiful game could supplant the NHL in the American sports pecking order.