Rough Times For Soccer in the US?

etcher Rough Times For Soccer in the US?

Marco Etcheverry’s DC United teams gave MLS international respect /photo from MLSNET

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.

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19 Responses to Rough Times For Soccer in the US?

  1. Peter says:

    I agree with your post. People were bashing this on bigsoccer, but you make very good points. Just today I posted something on that site about relocating some teams.
    New England and Columbus were the two teams I mentioned, because I look at attendance every week. Those two franchises suck in that department. I think that MLS sees and will hopefully make these teams move. Columbus just doesn't seem to have it and like you said, the Kraft's are failing.
    NY gets a pass on my end because of the stadium. I would go to Red Bulls games if they didn't play in the Meadowlands. I will go to Red Bulls games once they open the new stadium. It takes time, but I think the bad markets will eventually weed themselves out.

  2. Peter says:

    I agree with your post. People were bashing this on bigsoccer, but you make very good points. Just today I posted something on that site about relocating some teams.
    New England and Columbus were the two teams I mentioned, because I look at attendance every week. Those two franchises suck in that department. I think that MLS sees and will hopefully make these teams move. Columbus just doesn’t seem to have it and like you said, the Kraft’s are failing.
    NY gets a pass on my end because of the stadium. I would go to Red Bulls games if they didn’t play in the Meadowlands. I will go to Red Bulls games once they open the new stadium. It takes time, but I think the bad markets will eventually weed themselves out.

  3. Liverpool John says:

    This is an outstanding post. One of the best you've ever written, and a real case for why many like me who previously watched football because of our love of a European club, in my case Liverpool FC need to embrace the culture of MLS.

  4. Liverpool John says:

    This is an outstanding post. One of the best you’ve ever written, and a real case for why many like me who previously watched football because of our love of a European club, in my case Liverpool FC need to embrace the culture of MLS.

  5. Jonathan says:

    Coming from someone who used to work in MLS, and who still works in the sports industry, I must say that while your assessment of the on-field quality isn't god-awful, your analysis of the business of MLS couldn't be more off base.

    In short, you know little of what you speak.

    And why won't people finally realize that people don't sign on with ESPN/ABC to achieve high TV ratings? It is for the cross-promotional platforms, accelerated media coverage in recap form, branding, and revenue generation streams that ESPN provides that lure sports broadcasts off of network TV. Monday Night Football did it. Are we calling for their heads, declaring the end of the NFL?

    MLS teams are turning over profits that the league has never before see; the corporate sponsor base is bigger than ever. The financials of the game are the strongest they've ever been.

    For fuck's sake…have some patience. If you love football, then love it. The self-loathing of American soccer fans is getting old, and is one of the reasons I left the league.

  6. Jonathan says:

    Coming from someone who used to work in MLS, and who still works in the sports industry, I must say that while your assessment of the on-field quality isn’t god-awful, your analysis of the business of MLS couldn’t be more off base.

    In short, you know little of what you speak.

    And why won’t people finally realize that people don’t sign on with ESPN/ABC to achieve high TV ratings? It is for the cross-promotional platforms, accelerated media coverage in recap form, branding, and revenue generation streams that ESPN provides that lure sports broadcasts off of network TV. Monday Night Football did it. Are we calling for their heads, declaring the end of the NFL?

    MLS teams are turning over profits that the league has never before see; the corporate sponsor base is bigger than ever. The financials of the game are the strongest they’ve ever been.

    For fuck’s sake…have some patience. If you love football, then love it. The self-loathing of American soccer fans is getting old, and is one of the reasons I left the league.

  7. Allen says:

    “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.” <— That's just how the market is changing. The premium channels aren't quite so premium. Sure, they're not part of the basic package. But for $50-60 / month, at least from Direct and Dish, you've got everything other than the Setanta.

  8. Allen says:

    “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.” <— That’s just how the market is changing. The premium channels aren’t quite so premium. Sure, they’re not part of the basic package. But for $50-60 / month, at least from Direct and Dish, you’ve got everything other than the Setanta.

  9. Erik says:

    The Red Bulls are a case of its branding putting off a lot of people, and the franchise hasn't won any honors outside of a La Manga Cup. And that they will remain in New Jersey bothers people as well. There's a lot of reasons people can use to reject this club.

    But what Red Bull is doing now will lead to payoffs in the future. They are building what will be the best stadium in the country. They are building what will be the best training center, and an academy pyramid that could become second-to-none.

    If everything they are setting this up to be comes to fruition, then how could they not become a popular draw? First, they'd be winning, and everybody loves a winner, second they'd have an awesome home that is also accessible to the 40-odd percent of people in the region who do not own cars, and third, if they do things right over a long period of time, then people will love the name because of its association with that success.

    They haven't seen it yet, but I'll play Warren Buffet and make an investment in them now, while the price is low.

  10. Erik says:

    The Red Bulls are a case of its branding putting off a lot of people, and the franchise hasn’t won any honors outside of a La Manga Cup. And that they will remain in New Jersey bothers people as well. There’s a lot of reasons people can use to reject this club.

    But what Red Bull is doing now will lead to payoffs in the future. They are building what will be the best stadium in the country. They are building what will be the best training center, and an academy pyramid that could become second-to-none.

    If everything they are setting this up to be comes to fruition, then how could they not become a popular draw? First, they’d be winning, and everybody loves a winner, second they’d have an awesome home that is also accessible to the 40-odd percent of people in the region who do not own cars, and third, if they do things right over a long period of time, then people will love the name because of its association with that success.

    They haven’t seen it yet, but I’ll play Warren Buffet and make an investment in them now, while the price is low.

  11. Dan says:

    It is disappointing to see mainstream broadcasts of the mls declining while the quality of play is increasing. The new international players you mentioned Schelotto, Beckham, Gallardo, along with many other great domestic players are a lot of fun to watch.

    In my opinion the mls is arguably more watchable soccer from a fan point of veiw than ever before. And it is a shame to see media attention and broadcasts at such a low level. With all the upside of new ownerships and more money and quality players in the league, it is still rarely featured outside of soccer specific media.

    The mls needs more media coverage to reach a wider audience. I realize these things feed off each other, more interest and fans attract more coverage, but it requires a great deal of effort for a US fan to even casually follow the mls because of the lack of media coverage. The longer it takes for the the league to obtain media coverage the longer it will take to become mainstream.

  12. Dan says:

    It is disappointing to see mainstream broadcasts of the mls declining while the quality of play is increasing. The new international players you mentioned Schelotto, Beckham, Gallardo, along with many other great domestic players are a lot of fun to watch.

    In my opinion the mls is arguably more watchable soccer from a fan point of veiw than ever before. And it is a shame to see media attention and broadcasts at such a low level. With all the upside of new ownerships and more money and quality players in the league, it is still rarely featured outside of soccer specific media.

    The mls needs more media coverage to reach a wider audience. I realize these things feed off each other, more interest and fans attract more coverage, but it requires a great deal of effort for a US fan to even casually follow the mls because of the lack of media coverage. The longer it takes for the the league to obtain media coverage the longer it will take to become mainstream.

  13. RSE says:

    As someone who lives in Boston, I think the Revs get such low attendance because it is a giant pain in the ass to get to the stadium. I look at Toronto, and their stadium fills up every week because the young, soccer savvy city crowd can get there on public transportation. It takes an hour to get to Gillette from Boston if the traffic is light, and for week night games, the traffic is never light. If the Krafts actually invested in a soccer specific stadium within reach of the T, then I have a feeling that attendance would suddenly be a non-issue for the Revs. Too bad the Krafts have decided to invest so much in making Foxboro bigger to make more money from the Pats, rather than sinking a little cash into building a stadium that would actually benefit the Revs.

    My point is, don't suggest that NE should lose its team. MLS just needs to force the Krafts to build a soccer-specific stadium within public transit reach of Boston, or else make them sell the Revs to an owner who is actually committed to making the team a success on its own, rather than just another way to make money off their giant stadium when it's not football season.

  14. RSE says:

    As someone who lives in Boston, I think the Revs get such low attendance because it is a giant pain in the ass to get to the stadium. I look at Toronto, and their stadium fills up every week because the young, soccer savvy city crowd can get there on public transportation. It takes an hour to get to Gillette from Boston if the traffic is light, and for week night games, the traffic is never light. If the Krafts actually invested in a soccer specific stadium within reach of the T, then I have a feeling that attendance would suddenly be a non-issue for the Revs. Too bad the Krafts have decided to invest so much in making Foxboro bigger to make more money from the Pats, rather than sinking a little cash into building a stadium that would actually benefit the Revs.

    My point is, don’t suggest that NE should lose its team. MLS just needs to force the Krafts to build a soccer-specific stadium within public transit reach of Boston, or else make them sell the Revs to an owner who is actually committed to making the team a success on its own, rather than just another way to make money off their giant stadium when it’s not football season.

  15. Justin says:

    Patience is key. Lets see where the league ends up after the new CBA is reached after the 2009 season. Many changes will occur that will effect on field performance.

    3-5 clubs will be soon moving into SSS within the next 1-4 years which will make the club's viable on a business end.

    Agreed, Columbus and New England should be drawing more fans.

    MLS is right where it needs to be absent bumping up the developmental/senior min so these players can consider themselves actual professionals.

  16. Justin says:

    Patience is key. Lets see where the league ends up after the new CBA is reached after the 2009 season. Many changes will occur that will effect on field performance.

    3-5 clubs will be soon moving into SSS within the next 1-4 years which will make the club’s viable on a business end.

    Agreed, Columbus and New England should be drawing more fans.

    MLS is right where it needs to be absent bumping up the developmental/senior min so these players can consider themselves actual professionals.

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  18. dave says:

    I have to agree with Jonathan, a lot of the business criticism here is a bit wide of the mark. Yes it would be better if MLS were getting wider TV exposure, and yes it would be better if average attendance was going up faster, but overall MLS is on much sounder financial ground than it was ten years or even just five years ago, and talk about moving franchises is not warranted.

    I can testify from personal experience that the situation in New England is one of benign neglect. There is effectively zero marketing of the Revs. I constantly run into sports fans here who are entirely unaware that the Revs even exist. Yes a soccer specific stadium accessible by Boston public transport would be nice, but the stadium situation is not the only problem.

    MLS is getting closer to becoming profitable because of new owners getting into the league (in San Jose, Houston, Colorado, Toronto, Seattle, Salt Lake, etc) and the building of SSS that will make clubs financially viable long term. The problem in New York is simply on hold until Red Bull Park can be finished.

    The problems elsewhere aren't due to new owners, but to old owners (Kraft, AEG, HSG, etc) who are more interested in their other businesses (football or entertainment/concerts, etc). I am grateful to HSG, AEG, and the Krafts for keeping MLS going for so long when things looked bleak, but at some point they need to step up with whichever club is their remaining MLS club, and put some real effort into marketing it and running it properly. We know they can do it, they just haven't really bothered to.

  19. dave says:

    I have to agree with Jonathan, a lot of the business criticism here is a bit wide of the mark. Yes it would be better if MLS were getting wider TV exposure, and yes it would be better if average attendance was going up faster, but overall MLS is on much sounder financial ground than it was ten years or even just five years ago, and talk about moving franchises is not warranted.

    I can testify from personal experience that the situation in New England is one of benign neglect. There is effectively zero marketing of the Revs. I constantly run into sports fans here who are entirely unaware that the Revs even exist. Yes a soccer specific stadium accessible by Boston public transport would be nice, but the stadium situation is not the only problem.

    MLS is getting closer to becoming profitable because of new owners getting into the league (in San Jose, Houston, Colorado, Toronto, Seattle, Salt Lake, etc) and the building of SSS that will make clubs financially viable long term. The problem in New York is simply on hold until Red Bull Park can be finished.

    The problems elsewhere aren’t due to new owners, but to old owners (Kraft, AEG, HSG, etc) who are more interested in their other businesses (football or entertainment/concerts, etc). I am grateful to HSG, AEG, and the Krafts for keeping MLS going for so long when things looked bleak, but at some point they need to step up with whichever club is their remaining MLS club, and put some real effort into marketing it and running it properly. We know they can do it, they just haven’t really bothered to.

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