Soccer is popular in the United States. Major League Soccer is not. This is a problem.
I am the fan that MLS needs to thrive. I watch too much sports. I spend too much money on tickets. I love watching soccer. I hate when Liverpool’s season goes to hell. I love when working from home coincides with the Champions League. I cannot be bothered with MLS because it’s an inferior product. Why watch the minors when the majors are on?
reach its potential here without the casual fan that ignores MLS. From the 20+ million who watched the U.S. in the 2014 World Cup to the 2 million that watched last year’s Champions League final to the 1+ million that routinely watch big Premier League matches on NBC and NBCSN, we know that casual fan exists.
Major League Soccer lags way behind. In 2014, the MLS Cup did not crack 1 million viewers on ESPN, though that was better than the mere 500k the country’s biggest domestic game did in 2013. This year, a move to Fox Sports 1 has not helped – a Real Salt Lake/Toronto FC match drew only 211,000 viewers on a Sunday night.
There are hotbeds of support for MLS. If you’re reading this in Seattle or Portland, you have a different view of the league than I do in Washington, D.C., where the team plays in an old football stadium that is literally crumbling. Still, the fundamental hurdle for MLS is the stubborn insistence is overlaying American-style sporting economics on a game that is ill-suited to serve it.
I was introduced to the league’s inability to truly grow the game in 2007 when I broke the story that a group in Hartford was denied an MLS team because Bob Kraft claimed Hartford as his territory.
Let’s be clear: Hartford is/was a perfect target for MLS expansion. Rentschler Field, opened in 2003, is an excellent soccer venue. It has hosted several U.S. men’s and women’s national team games, most notably Landon Donovan’s last USMNT game. It seats 40,000. Connecticut is a soccer-mad state – my high school won state titles in both boys and girls soccer when I was there yet didn’t even have a football team. Hartford is starving for pro sports, as you know when you hear a “Let’s Go Whalers!” chant break out during UConn games.
Regardless, Kraft blocked it by using language right out of the NFL manual – “my territory.” Hartford is 90 minutes from Boston. Kraft has his soccer team playing in an NFL stadium in front of 60,000 seats every time out.
This is where MLS is stunting the growth of American soccer. The owners – many of whom also own NFL teams or other pro teams – are borrowing from a playbook they can’t run yet. The stadium fiascoes in Minneapolis, Miami and here in DC are the most prominent examples.
But it goes beyond owners attempting a cash grab by overvaluing its product. The product, quite frankly, sucks.
Steven Gerrard coming to the LA Galaxy next year continues a legacy of older European stars coming to MLS to cash easy checks. Beckham was the first, but there will be more – Cristiano Ronaldo is rumored to be on his way in 2018. Acting a senior tour for older stars is not the way to build the league.
Even when American stars return, it is done through a secret process that no one understands. Sure, it’s great that Dempsey and Jones and Bradley are in MLS but it is way better for the U.S. Men’s National Team that DeAndre Yedlin is playing for Tottenham. Why do you think Jürgen Klinsmann has been so adamantly opposed to national team stars playing here?
In MLS, the salaries for the rank and file are a joke. How can the media say that MLS is a legit goal for young American players when so many make the same salary – less than $50,000 – as a newspaper reporter? Newspaper reporter is the worst job in America, by the way.
The Designated Player Rule, which exists only to save owner’s money, essentially prevents from the league’s overall talent level to rise or for dynasties to emerge. America needs its power clubs. Where would MLB be without the Yankees? The NFL without the Dallas Cowboys? College football without Alabama or Notre Dame?
Let’s look at Seattle – if they are successful enough to draw twice as much as anyone else in the league, they should be able to spend twice as much. Instead, MLS has a salary cap borrowed from the NFL with a fraction of the revenue.
We have to address the league’s setup, which eschews common sense and has 60 percent of the league making the playoffs. What’s even the point of watching the regular season? I guess that helps explain why no one does.
Did you know the Montreal Impact was playing the CONCACAF Champions League final last week? Doubtful, since it was on Fox Sports 2. Did you know the U.S. Open Cup is the American equivalent of the FA Cup? Doubtful, since the latter is on Fox proper and the former is never acknowledged by MLS.
These are issues that don’t need to exist. Pay the players. Pay players in their prime big money to play here. Promote the Champions League. Promote teams fighting to qualify for the Champions League. Promote the U.S. Open Cup. Make the regular season mean something.
Much of what I just wrote has been boiled down to a single issue facing American soccer: the lack of promotion/relegation. It’s too easy to say that would fix everything but it would clearly and obviously do something to change the staid culture of club football here. The growth of soccer has led to clubs with rabid support popping up in cities like Indianapolis and Jacksonville. They deserve a chance to play top-level soccer.
Think – would the Green Bay Packers exist if the NFL was doling out franchises today? Of course not. But could you imagine an NFL without the Green Bay Packers? Of course not!
Nothing will change because MLS has convinced the soccer media that the status quo is working, though the league has never made money. This attitude permeates throughout, particularly on the issue of promotion/relegation. It leads to this tweet, which properly sums up why MLS will always be minor league:
@stholeary @jessespector Sorry Sean, no offense, but you're totally out of your depth here. Honestly, just go enjoy the Prem. No big loss.
— Robert Burns (@RobertWFD) April 24, 2015
Can’t you feel the arrogance dripping from that tweet? It is this type of “love it or leave it” attitude that hurts MLS. They expect American soccer fans to blindly support the domestic league out of an obligation. That’s not how things work in this country. You have to earn our fandom, you have to earn our money and you have to earn our appreciation.
I do watch the Premier League. And it’s a really, really big loss for American soccer because I’m not the only one. Until that changes, our domestic league will never be the major league our country
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