MLS and USL Both Adrift as New Seasons Begin
This may seem like a stark statement but in these tough economic times this is exactly what investors and football lovers must confront this reality. We’ve discussed in recent weeks the poor television ratings MLS has been receiving and the general lack of interest even among the football supporting public in the United States. The vast majority of football fans in this country look at MLS as an inferior product. While MLS’ proponents claim it is more competitive than most world football leagues and that it is a respectable product, the only objective standard for comparing leagues, the IFFHS has ranked MLS the 77th best league in the world.Major League Soccer must succeed for the game to grow in the US, and for player development to continue to fuel the US National Team’s international hopes. However questions must be asked about MLS’ viability on the American sporting landscape. However MLS in 2009 seems less interested in developing American players and helping the sport grow in the United States than anytime recently.
MLS’ TV ratings bear repeating. No US based professional sports league got lower ratings on ESPN last year then even the currently suspended Arena Football League. MLS had twice as many average viewers on ESPN ten years ago when international football of a clear higher quality than the league was not readily available on cable and before the league had completely abandoned the heavily populated Southeast. FSC averaged 1/5th the viewership for MLS last season as it did for the English Premier League, and also had far fewer viewers for MLS than for Serie A. ESPN 360 which carries MLS has made a point of promoting its Serie A package to soccer fans without mentioning MLS, for obvious reasons.
MLS has lost its national TV package with HDNet, and has been very publicly demoted on ESPN 2 to time slots where the league’s lack of appeal will not do as much damage to the network’s overall profile. FSC, which will face intense competition to keep the EPL rights in the next round of bidding may want to consider dumping MLS to save money when their contract is up. It also needs to be pointed out that Soccer United Marketing, which is an arm of MLS owns the English language TV rights in the US for FIFA events, and the decision by ESPN to pay for MLS rights may have been done with the bigger picture of FIFA rights in mind.
With a low payroll, unattractive football for the European or Latino tastes and an embarrassingly poor record in international competition, the league has plenty of detractors. Without question and irrespective of the league’s clever propaganda, MLS is a decidedly minor league on the American sporting landscape. Several indicators of this are readily apparent. Airport shops in most MLS cities don’t have any team merchandise and many MLS teams are relegated to second tier cable networks or low signal stations for their local TV coverage. Local newspapers in MLS markets cover their teams but bury the stories deep in paper even after important matches. Coverage of the league in non MLS markets is minimal and recognition of the league is almost non existent outside its core markets. Almost always DC United is an exception to these rules so please don’t tell me “United is on Comcast Sports Net, gets lots of ink in the Washington Post, and has its merchandise for sale all over the place.” I know this, and would also state Houston and Seattle are developing into an exceptions also. Markets like Columbus and Salt Lake City face little competition, but in markets like Dallas, New York, Boston and Chicago, MLS are still covered minimally compared to other local sports teams. (When Blanco retires, I’d be really curious to see if the Fire can maintain their recent gains in local recognition)
So MLS is asking the potential investors for $40 million in order to secure an expansion franchise. Vancouver and Portland have apparently agreed to do this. Both already have teams in the lower tier USL, a league which places less restrictions on its owners and whose success in the CONCACAF Champions League has opened eyes across the region as to its quality. Despite it’s on the field success, USL remains clear minor league whose pyramid has stratified into haves and have nots. Because the league does not have the rules to ensure competitive balance that MLS does, some teams are wild successes and others are complete failures and go out of business quickly. Others like the Atlanta Silverbacks have ownership that do not like the indifferent approach of the league office and the poor marketing of the league and have simply decided to “quit” USL for the foreseeable future, without actually shutting down the organization.
Investing in a USL franchise is somewhat like buying a penny Wall Street stock with little chance of a decent return, while MLS resembles a socialist structure with certain financial results pre-ordained. But are those results still pre-ordained in a recessionary economy, when European and Latin football as so readily available on American TV?
USL is so disinterested in the plights of individual clubs that often times the top brass doesn’t keep tabs or make an attempt to help troubled franchises. The league is also so poorly marketed that it made what can only be described as a feeble attempt to exploit its success in the CONCACAF Champions League when compared to the pathetic record compiled by MLS clubs in the very same competition.
USL seems to have a model that can only sustain itself temporarily. When clubs fold, often times because of the lack of involvement from the league, new expansion franchises pop up. Next year USL will expand to Tampa Bay and New York and potentially to Orlando. All three should be successful markets, but with a hands off approach, will potential investors, even of a “penny stock” be given the necessary marketing and support tools to make their investment worthwhile?
The New York foray is interesting. I know many in the Football media stateside would disagree often times out of personal sentiment, but the MLS New Jersey franchise has failed to capture the imagination or interest of New York football fans in 13 years of existence. Giants Stadium has served as convenient excuse for a franchise and league that have not been able to capture their own backyard. But will USL really help New York’s new footballing side grow? I have my doubts, even though on the surface it’s a great move.
Tampa Bay has similar issues. MLS failed in the Bay Area because quite frankly after the NASL it was an inferior product. The same case can be made for New Jersey’s continued under performance as an MLS market. After the Rowdies and Cosmos, the Mutiny and Metrostars were minor league products with minor league branding. The Tampa/St Pete area still boasts some of the best youth soccer clubs in the nation and it is no small coincidence US Soccer’s own Academy is in the neighborhood.
USL is actually based in Tampa and if the Rowdies and the Orlando based, Pachuca owned Tuzos enter the league in 2010, the league has potential to lock down the Florida market. But again USL is fundamentally inept at marketing, and has allowed the potential of the Atlanta and Miami markets to be wasted.
Back to MLS: The question those who are willing to pay the league’s $40 million price tag must answer, is whether investing in a league with limited appeal and restrictive rules in a time of economic chaos is really worthwhile? MLS is not going to be the next big thing as many of us had hoped and thought in 1996 and again upon the arrival of David Beckham. However, it is still was until recently a nice little league whose rules make it easier to win championships and qualify for potential money making international events such as Superliga, the CONCACAF Champions League and the World Club Championship. But the delusions of grandeur on the world stage and outright hubris that MLS has developed in the last three years put the league on a potential course with disaster. So considering all of this in, is $40 million for an MLS franchise a fair price?