Americans Will Care About Major League Soccer ... SoonMLS’s modest TV ratings will improve as North American soccer supporter culture continues to develop and mature
by Nick Chavez | Thursday, April 09, 2015
Yesterday, writer Frank Deford offered a mercifully short piece on NPR.org called “Americans Don't Care About Major League Soccer.” Now to be fair, I think it is very accurate for him to claim that about the majority of Americans at the moment considering MLS’s “miniscule” TV ratings, but what’s more relevant to this discussion is how many Americans care about the sport of soccer in general, and how many more will in the future.
A major reason for the lack of TV ratings and interest in MLS is the fact that North America is very young in its domestic soccer supporting culture (a point we’ll get back to later). Hell, Major League Soccer itself has only been around for about 20 years, and only started turning the corner around the time David Beckham arrived with the LA Galaxy in 2007 and the MLS owners started figuring out a ways to actually make some money investing in soccer events in North America via Soccer United Marketing. Of course, increased profit and opportunity begets more investment, which is a big reason why MLS has expanded so much in recent years and is rightly planning on adding new investors and franchises in the coming seasons.
It also can’t be ignored that the internet, expanded TV channels and coverage of the sport, and the unprecedented accessibility of it all to Americans (which is also quite new), has changed the sporting landscape for soccer considerably within the last 15 years.
World Cup, Euro Cup, English Premier League and the Mexican League ratings all underscore the fact that a very significant portion of the United States and Canada care about the World’s greatest sport. Finally exposed to the game and the passion accompanying it, more non-soccer fans begin to “catch the soccer bug”, understand the game, and often find “the volume turned down” a bit with traditional American sports that they used to enjoy more, due to the intensity and unrivaled sense of consequence that soccer support engenders.
I mean, think about it: Would you prefer to be a “World Champion” facing the same 30 teams every year in a sport saturated with irritating commercials that only a handful of countries outside of the US actually play, or would do you rather actually be Champions of the World in, hand’s down, the World’s most popular sport, a game that nearly every nation on earth takes very seriously (football having both started wars and facilitated cease fires between nations), wearing the ultimate crown of human athletic competition for, at least, 4 years?
This is just one of the of the major differences between what we call “soccer” and the rest of the “major” sports that currently have higher television ratings in the US than MLS. So, why does MLS lag so far behind?
Deford thinks, “Soccer in America has a curious impediment to its popularity, and the problem is soccer — that is, everybody else's soccer.”
The reality that there is simply better quality soccer to watch in a few other countries is part of it, but there is much more to it than that. The deeper issue here, again, is the US’s immaturity in the standard of global football supporter culture. Just getting into the world’s game, as most Americans more or less are, we are enamored by the top teams in Europe, or if we he have ethnic connections to teams in Europe and South America, our allegiance may be to them as well before our local MLS sides, who we’ve perceived as being unimportant, “Mickey Mouse” and simply not “major league” enough for us to care about. But that perception has been changing dramatically in recent years, especially with the supporters of many of the MLS’s most recent expansion sides.
Clubs like the Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers, Toronto FC, Sporting Kansas City (and so far in their debut season, New York City FC and Orlando City SC) have all demonstrated a supporter culture that more closely resembles what is seen around the world with sold out home attendances, singing and chanting in the stands. An understanding that these are our clubs, in our local Cities. A realization that these MLS clubs are factories, ambassadors and congregations for our domestic soccer. And for the growing number of soccer fans that are starting to understand this, support our United States Men’s National Team, and begin to see how MLS and US Soccer’s destinies are very much intertwined, the more important and well-supported MLS will become.
In other nations, even with small national leagues that wouldn’t make anyone’s top 10 list, these people love and support their local clubs, and treat the big local match-ups (like Costa Rica’s Clasico Liga Deportiva Alajuelense v. Saprissa) like we do the Super Bowl, having family parties and filling up bars. These nations don’t have the best teams in the world. No one thinks they have the best players on the planet. But the clubs and players mean so much to the locals because they are theirs, represent their communities, and help develop and prepare the future pride of their nation --- their National Team.
US Soccer fans (and there are many and continue to grow in number) will soon realize that the USMNT will find it very difficult to reach its full potential in a country where its top-flight domestic league is ignored and isn’t respected. A robustly-supported MLS, with all of the monetary benefits through broadcasting rights and sponsorships it will provide our league, not only helps provide the means to move our soccer to the next level, but it will help change the culture domestically to make soccer the “go to” sport for children to want to play on their own during their free time, not just at soccer practice, as is the case in just about every nation where soccer is the most popular sport.
These are crucial cultural distinctions that continue to limit the potential of Major League Soccer and the US Men’s National Team. That said, more Americans are already starting to understand how important it is to support locally, being passionate about and taking pride in their home teams because they are theirs and it will inevitably improve their chances of seeing their country win a World Cup. They get to watch an improving product on the field at an affordable price live, only a short ride away, rather than trying to skip out of work to watch teams an ocean away in the Champion’s League mid-afternoon on your TV.
North American domestic soccer support is already in this transition, but it has only started, and growth will continue to be incremental until more soccer fans realize this. The soccer bug will continue to spread like the plague, and these realizations will sink in. This pride in our own will grow in North America, and MLS and US Soccer will both reap the benefits.
The perfect storm of improving perception of the league, the exponential growth of the popularity of the sport in North America, the increased investment and expansion in MLS (and NASL and USL), the soccer-friendly demographics in North America, the world-class facilities and training techniques being imported into our newly-developing academies from the best in the world, and simply the power of the world’s most popular sport, by which we are surrounded and already infiltrated, will all come to a head and Major League Soccer will become one of the best soccer league’s in the world, once MLS allows for the amount of spending it needs to get to that point. And it inevitably will.
Indeed, MLS and US Soccer still have much to improve upon. However, once the majority of soccer fans in North America realize their potential role in the process of this accelerated growth and changing the perception of what is our league, incremental change will become rapid improvement. But, it’s important for us realize that this is only the beginning.