Euro Coverage Hindering MLS Growth with Youth?

Despite getting the best coverage in years, MLS is falling victim to the best of Europe
by Herb Scribner   |   Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Euro 2012 Coverage in USA growing the sport with youth

For the purpose of honesty, I’m a member of the younger crowd. I’m in the age range of 12-24 that ESPN recently said favored professional soccer right under gridiron football, but above everything else. For a while, I boasted about that survey to everyone. It was great. People who called me crazy for believing in soccer were getting smacked with the undeniable truth that the sport was indeed growing in my age group and that pretty soon more people would catch the soccer bug, and MLS would take its place in the American sporting lexicon.

But then came the Euros, and I found myself right back where I started.

The thing with the Euros, like with any big international competition on English speaking American television, is that it reminds those elusive casuals about soccer. And by default it reminds them that Major League Soccer does exist. During ESPN’s coverage of Euro 2012, MLS started getting an extensive amount of cross-promotion. This was probably the best coverage MLS has gotten to date from "The Mothership". We’ve got ESPN hosting “Game of the Week”. We’ve got NBC Sports doing their new thing. MLS is showing up consistently now in the top highlights on SportsCenter. It’s in the general conversation for the most part. MLS is there, it’s real, and it’s happening. We all feel it. There’s no denying it.

What’s troubling though, is the younger crowd just isn’t all that interested in MLS. The majority of college and high school-aged kids can’t name beyond a few Designated Players – if that. They may acknowledge MLS, sure, but they’re nowhere near as educated, informed or interested as they are about the Euros.

During the last few weeks, I’ve had several young people ask me about what I think about Spain and a possible repeat. I’ve seen my friends post on their timelines about how Italy, their native country (at least for this week), advanced past England. I’ve read tweets about how the Greeks just didn’t have enough.

These are all people who most likely can’t name more than three MLS clubs (their hometown club, the LA Galaxy and New York Red Bulls).

Now I can totally understand why a lot of the younger people don’t care enough about MLS to follow it. Here you have this awesome, epic tournament in the Euros, pitting the best footballers in the world against each other. You have all the big and popular names in Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and basically everyone not named Lionel Messi. It’s a continental battle, it’s drama, its well televised, it’s sellable to most Americans if they find out about it. Americans have always pictured Europeans as the best in soccer, and here are they are settling who’s best in their neck of the woods. Next to the World Cup, this is what the American sports crowd sees as the top tier of international football.

Part of it has to do with advertising. ESPN does one heck of a job propping up their stage and making this tournament feel bigger than life itself. There’s highlight shows, there’s commercials, there’s interviews during highlight shows, and there’s even soccer running across the bottom ticker during other sporting events (something rarely, if ever, done for MLS games). Even during one of the NBA Finals games there was a preview of a Euro tournament game. ESPN is promoting this as a big thing. They’re right to do so, of course, but it’s really dumbing down MLS.

I’ve watched more ESPN in the last two weeks than I had in my entire life, and I saw only the rare advertisement for the “Game of the Week” between Portland and Seattle, which was why I was so surprised when it was on the television directly following the Euros. I’m willing to bet that a substantial amount of people switched off ESPN right then, too, because it was the end of the Euros tournament and, based on ESPN and the general media’s thinking, we shouldn’t care as much.

Can any of us really deny that we’ve received more coverage on the Euro tournament than we have for MLS all season? Has MLS gotten as much coverage in the last four years since the last Euros, as the European Championship is getting now? Doubtful.

So from a coverage aspect, MLS is being pushed back down the ladder. Fans watch the Euros and then they think that’s it for soccer. For them, it’s enough soccer for one day. And because it’s so epic and nicely presented, fans easily think that must be the greatest that the world has to offer. So why even bother with MLS? That’s just minor league stuff anyway. Right?

Fans are watching the Euros, seeing the top talent battle, and then they’re moved right into an MLS game with no primer or scaffolding. They’re watching England fall yet again in a penalty shootout, and then watch Jack Jewsbury prance around the field. For me and those who love soccer, or are getting interested in soccer, this is a dream come true – two games back-to-back. Nay, two AWESOME games back-to-back – but for the casuals, it’s like watching your local college basketball team after watching the NBA. Usually, it won’t grip you the right way, if at all.

Do I have a solution? Of course I don’t. This just shows us that soccer’s growth in America is actually, at least at this moment, a double-edged sword. Yes, new fans are growing in numbers and the game is expanding domestically. It is immeasurably better than it was in the mid-90s. But many of these newbies to the sport are falling in love with the best of Europe and South America and all those outside MLS. How is MLS supposed to become a legitimate league to casual fans when most can almost instantly watch superior European squads or Champions League-level games?

Fans are seeing, consistently, that the world’s game is better than ours. It’s hard for them to deem MLS credible when fans can see, right before their very eyes, that there’s much more talent and skill across the pond. How can we be accepting of an inferior product? How can we learn to take MLS for what it is? Most of you reading this are able to, but will the masses do the same?

Ultimately, I’m happy that North American soccer is becoming more popular by the second. I’m happy that there are those fans that do carry over and watch the MLS “Game of the Week”. I’m happy for those who have been inspired by the Euros to watch MLS.

But, that doesn’t erase the fact that so many, especially the younger crowd as far as I’ve witnessed, are going to follow the Europeans and the top squads in the world instead. MLS is losing a big potential fanbase as ESPN and the media covers these big tournaments.

Herb SCRIBNER

Nationality:
USA
College:
UMass Amherst
Club Domestic:
RSL
Club Foreign:
FC Barcelona
SN managing editor and award-winning journalist, Herb has always been known as "The Soccer Guy" wherever he goes. He's a leftback in most outdoor and indoor leagues. He also writes for Deseret News National.
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