Thirteen years into the life of Major League Soccer and for all the signs of progress on the field, the league continues to operate more or less in vacuum as far as the general American sports landscape is concerned. For those people who love European football and do not feel MLS is worth their time, no MLS or even a weaker MLS which is distinctly “minor” in its marketing and visibility threatens the amount of European football available on TV here without paying exorbitant pay per event fees. Soccer’s upsurge in popularity in this country owed itself more to MLS than any other factor but right now the league faces challenges and unacknowledged problems that threaten its continued upswing. Moreover, the amount of European football available to those who do not purchase premium channels is currently at its lowest point since the dark pre MLS days.
Last night’s MLS action felt like 1998 or 1999 all over again in some ways but not in others. My American Soccer Show co-host Dave Denholm has rightly pointed out that the worst teams in MLS in 1998 were worse than any team today in the league. But I have, I believe rightly pointed out the best teams in MLS in 1998, DC United and the LA Galaxy would fairly easily beat any top MLS side today on a regular basis. Sadly, many other fans seem to have come to the conclusion I have about the quality of the league. Don’t let MLS’ clever PR sugarcoat things: Attendance is nowhere near where it should be in some markets, and in the case of Columbus in particular the interest in the club is probably half of what it was locally in the 1998/99 time period. It is a pity because the Crew are playing as well as anyone else in the league right now.
San Jose’s return to the Silicon Valley/South Bay area had a distinct 1998/1999 feel. For some reason I thought the Quakes were going to break out the old Clash jerseys and Dario Brose, Jeff Baicher and the incomparable Richard Gough were going to dawn the pitch. While Buck Shaw Stadium is clearly a better venue than Spartan Stadium, the football was of the unwatchable variety the Clash and then the Quakes became known for pre Landon Donovan and DeRo.
Unlike 1998 or 1999, I didn’t see a dominant team like DC United anywhere last night. In those days I would think to myself, “take this DC team to Europe for six months and see them surprise people.” No current MLS team gives me that level of confidence. So in some ways the interest may have waned because despite all of the talk of better play, the top teams are less dominant than they were in the league’s early days and thus less capable of competiting outside of MLS at a high level.
Another factor is Television. While MLS achieved a breakthrough by getting the Disney networks (ESPN and ABC) to pay for long term rights to the league in 2006, ABC currently shows fewer MLS on over the air affiliates than it ever has. In the 1999 season, ABC Sports carried 15 MLS matches all on weekend afternoons. In 2008, ABC will carry only two MLS matches, and a similar pattern has occurred with less and less US National Team games being on ABC. With England out of the Euro Championships, I fear that the ratings for that event could poison the supportive top brass at ESPN against Soccer beyond the MLS Thursday Night matches. While it is true that cable and satellite are more mainstream than they were in 1998, less and less MLS games are available on the Disney Channels and beyond that less and less soccer is available as ESPN has dumped the Premier League and La Liga right as well allowing them to fall to premium soccer specific channels. While this is great for those of us who pay to get FSC, GOL TV and Setanta it ultimately leaves the sport less accessible to mainstream sports fans than ever.
So if the football in many cases hasn’t improved over ten seasons, fan interest is lower than ten years ago in many markets (including the nations largest market) what exactly is MLS accomplishing? Many things: First off the player pool for the US National Team is deeper than ever and the US’ 2002 run in the World Cup which is what made Soccer even remotely mainstream in this country (not the success of Liverpool or Manchester United in European Competitions, despite what many may profess) was created by a team entirely developed in MLS with the two notable exceptions of Claudio Reyna and John O’Brien. MLS has also developed a much stronger reputation abroad than it had in 1998. In fairness part of that reputation was fostered by the fine play of DC United against clubs from South America and England in the 1998 to 2002 period. MLS has also brought top class football to the US shores by bringing in some top foreign players like Roberto Donadoni, Carlos Vaderrama, Lothar Matthaues and now David Beckham, Macello Gallardo, Guillermo Baros Schelotto and Claudio Lopez: the type of footballers we never were able to see for sustained period of time on American shores. MLS has also developed decent foreign talent on our shores: Ryan Nelson, Stern John, Shaun Bartlett, Ben Iroha and others all used their time in MLS to secure lucrative European club contracts and to become fixtures on their respective national sides.
But where is MLS headed? While new markets like Houston and Salt Lake City appear to have been naturals, the league is over expanding while having failed to have made a dent in many of its original core markets. For every Washington DC, we have a New England. For every Los Angeles we have a Columbus. As someone who has seen a team taken away from my market even though the intensity of fan support was in my humble opinion far greater than it is even today in Boston, New York and Kansas City, I have hard time not feeling that MLS has failed in the most fundamental way. Fans in New England can make whatever excuse they want, but the Kraft family has failed even through remarkable on the field success to engage the local population. In Northern California, I feel Lew Wolff’s ideas will create a success with San Jose that the club quite frankly did not have in its previous stint. San Jose had intense fans but not enough fans quite frankly to sustain itself in the current environment. That was due to the absentee ownership of first the Kraft’s and then AEG.
Saturated sports markets aren’t an excuse. Quite frankly, last year I was shocked by the amount of interest the Colorado Rapids have garnered in the mainstream sports community since Stan Kroenke bought the team. In other words, AEG was the reason the Rapids never broke through locally. Denver is the market that has the smallest metropolitan population yet has teams in each of the four major professional sports leagues. (NFL, NHL, NBA, MLB) The Rapids, despite struggling for years except on the 4th of July which served to spike attendance every season, now have found their local niche in quite possibly the most over saturated team sports market in the country. Toronto FC clearly has made a major dent in a hockey driven town with a semi successful NBA team and an MLB team as well. Real Salt Lake has done alright in a market that is small and has a highly successful NBA franchise. But Salt Lake has an owner in Dave Cheketts that knows the American sports landscape from more angles than most and he has helped RSL find it local niche.
The lack of committed local ownership is why I will give New York a semi-pass without giving the same deference to Columbus and New England. However, the lack of general fan interest in New York and the lack of local media coverage in the largest and most cosmopolitan market in the country (and a market that was wildly successful in the NASL even some years averaging close to 50,000 fans per game) continues to be alarming.
Let me be quite frank: MLS has made great strides particularly in quality of play but its failure to become more than a minor player in some of its core markets after thirteen seasons and multiple marketing strategies has me extremely concerned. Unlike five years ago we are not talking about whether the league will survive or not, but I am asking what form will the league survive in? How long can attendance remain flat in certain markets while costs of operating a team and marketing a team continue to increase? Will multiple teams have to move to markets that like Houston and Salt Lake City that were neglected for years even though proving to be natural for the league?
These questions ultimately need to be answered. I’m anxious to hear feedback from you, the fans of this league and the game here in the United States as to where you see this train going.