Invisible MLS: Why?


Being away this weekend on business limited the MLS action I saw to just the Telefutura match. In Central Florida, which has many football fans, the pubs were overflowing Saturday morning for the start of the Premiership season, and it was easy to talk Mexican Football with some patrons on holiday because, as I was told, “Mexican matches are always on in every hotel.” (This is because the limited hotel package of channels only contains major over the air networks in English and Spanish, ESPN, USA, CNN, CNBC, etc. (My hotel was no exception to this general rule)

Given the number of pubs that advertise Premier League action on Saturday and Sundays, combined with the easy access to Mexican Football, it is no mystery as to why other football products do lag behind in interest and TV viewership here in the United States.

But, MLS lags even further behind still. Obviously, the English fans had no interest in MLS other than the passing shot at the league. But English fans interest in MLS, while not totally irrelevant (after all with ESPN UK now showing MLS across the pond, it would be nice to avoid a 0.1 or 0.2 share of the audience as MLS receivers here at home) wasn’t my primary concern. Besides, as a Man City supporter, I got cries of “you only like them for the money.”

When I began discussing the dramatic 2nd division playoff (now League One) against Gillingham in 1999, those harassing me shut up and some actually began to value my opinion! After all, they knew I was not only a footy fan, but had supported what was a lower league team ten years ago, and the Manchester City millions only came to me as a fan after years of suffering with a team, that was for much of the time that I have supported them, was a yo-yo club between leagues.

But I digress……The American fans who had traveled from different parts of the country, had passing interest in finding out what was going on the Bundesliga and the French League on Saturday and lots of discussion of US-Mexico. Some were from non traditional soccer hotbeds in the country, like the South or Interior Western states.

But unless I brought it up, MLS never once came up. What is worse is that when I did bring MLS into the discussion, most of the fans that I was conversing with, wanted to either change the subject back to Europe or trash the league, or even worse say they never watch and never will watch. One fan from Texas who was as American as they come said he put up with the Spanish to watch soccer in prime time- Mexican Football. I asked about MLS which I stated is also on in prime time, and he chuckled.

Sadly, I quickly realized I am in no position to condemn this person: after all I often make the same choice, starting the night watching MLS but eventually finding myself on Telemundo, Azteca or Telefutura because I want to see quality football and MLS isn’t providing it.

Even more dramatic, was that I got accused by one person of lacking credibility as a football watcher if I wasted too much time watching MLS, USL or any other domestic based product. I am paraphrasing here, but the gentleman, who by the way as an Arsenal fan (and typically American) told me that with only so many hours in the day, wasting many of them watching MLS instead of another league inevitably leaves you watching less good football and thus knowing less about the game.

Personally, I found this theory obnoxious but found that many other Americans fans were in agreement with him on MLS. In fact, no other American whom I watched games Saturday or Sunday with, followed MLS.

This group even included some people in cities that currently have MLS teams. As we’ve discussed before on this site the attendance for MLS is quite good- better than Serie A/B/C, the French League, or La Liga, in fact.

But MLS TV ratings are as poor as any other organized sport in primetime in the United States. Some readers and supporters of the league want to minimize this issue, but it cannot be downplayed. After 14 years, less people are watching MLS on TV hand did in the early days of the league’s existence. Even more telling, less people are watching MLS than European leagues or international football. Why?

I have my theories on the regression in the quality of MLS’ play, the unwillingness to pay American players a fair wage, forcing even mid level talent abroad, playing on artificial turf, and withdrawing from two large TV markets, among other reasons I have become skeptical of the league. But, the biggest factor hurting MLS is that so many Americans who love this sport and flock to pubs or pay $25 a month just to get channels that show European football, will not give the league a chance. With ESPN now airing Premier League games (a story broken on our sister site EPL Talk over a week ago) and La Liga matches as well, MLS does have even more of a fight on its hands to capture, and keep mainstream sporting fans.

We can write off this group as “eurosnobs” or “irrelevant,” but truthfully they cannot be ignored. I go back and forth on whether to blame them for hating on the domestic game, or blame us, including myself for not giving them reason to embrace the domestic game.

The bottom line is that we all have to work together to grow the sport in this country. But fans of MLS/US Soccer and the fans of other league have formed into cliques, almost tribal and constantly snipping at one another.

Personally, for many years I have engaged in some of the snipping. But no more: this weekend, it dawned upon me how much damage accusing people of being eurosnobs and throwing out that term loosely has ultimately done. These people after all, enjoy the sport and in many cases understand the culture of football around the globe, better than MLS/US Soccer fans do.

(Also, those interested in Michael Orozco as a possible left back option for the USA, check out my short piece on the subject here)

27 thoughts on “Invisible MLS: Why?”

  1. if you were talking to people in Miami and travelers from the New York area, the midwest, and west… why would they care about MLS? Why not mention the fact that Blanco was all over non-soccer programming on the spanish channels last night for the launch of FIFA10 (and why not mention the enormity of FIFA10 to the world compared to Madden)

    visit Houston or DC and you couldn’t possibly have written this blogpost. I live in Fairfax,VA and if theres more than 3 ppl watching soccer at the local pub, ones got a DC United kit on, and all the people I keep in touch with in Houston have as much knowledge/care/passion for Dynamo as they do the EPL.

  2. Actually, several of the people were from cities that have had MLS teams since the beginning, obviously longer than Houston. Yes, NYC, but also Boston, Frisco (the Quakes count for the Bay Area) and Dallas/FW.

    MLS’ isn’t truly a national league yet which is part of the problem. The TV viewership is absolutely lower than it was 10 years ago, even 12 years ago. For every Houston, their is a Dallas, which is actually a great football market- footy should be second behind the Cowboys for popularity ahead of the Mavs, TCU, Rangers and SMU but it is not. For every DC Area we have a New York.

    We all want it to succeed, but I have been guilty in the past of not dealing in reality and accusing people who love the sport of being against “us.” I’ve gradually come to realize the error in my ways and the attitude I had and others have is what turns so many people off.

    I wish all these people watched MLS, supported their local USL or PDL team, and followed their local college soccer program. But the reality is that they don’t for a litany of reasons that we’d be well served to understand, rather than to just marginalize and ridicule them.

    1. I agree that to the fan of the best product, this league is a joke. Maybe not invisible. Toronto FC is becoming more and more popular in Canada, and this will likely continue. Fans of the game here see MLS on the whole as a bit of a joke, but many people have good things to say about TFC and it’s role in raising awareness of the game in Canada. It’s of benefit to the team and to the game that it’s owned by the biggest Canadian sports investor, Make Believe Sports And Entertainment (er…Maple Leaf). MLSE sees TFC as it’s hottest growing sports franchise and promotes it accordingly.

      Most fans of the game won’t sit down and watch TFC but they are aware of its existence.

    2. Thanks for the parenthetical, if it had just said Frisco/Dallas/FW I would have thought you were talking about one team. Isn’t that the problem with the Dallas/NY of the world, they aren’t actually in the city they are supposed to represent and fail to appreciate the pulse of soccer in their community?

  3. I agree with todd. Having just moved from Houston, I have to say that we loved our Dynamo, and if you would have gone to a pub there, you would have found many MLS supporters more than happy to talk to you about the league.

  4. I honestly can’t remember the last time I saw someone wearing a MLS jersey. Sure, I live in the MLS wasteland of the southeastern United States, but even when I’m on business in major US cities, I still don’t see people wearing shirts of MLS teams.

    My 5-year-old daughter started AYSO last year. Every practice and every weekend, I see plenty of kids wearing jerseys of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Lima, England and Argentina, but still no MLS shirts.

    It’s quite a barometer of the disinterest in the league, I believe and a huge problem that MLS needs to address.

    Barcelona have already agreed to come back to the United States. During this past summer’s one-week tour, they generated $8m in revenue. Based on their success and the success of Chelsea, you can expect more European teams coming over each summer rather than less.

    The Gaffer

    1. Can’t say the same thing in Canada.

      TFC shirts, and to a lesser extent, Impact shirts, are everywhere. And I don’t even live in Toronto.

      On Canada Day I saw dozens of people sporting the BMO.

  5. Kartik, if you want people to watch MLS and take it more seriously, it seems to me that you should spend more time disucssing the positives of the league and the compelling moments that take place on the field. I believe it is not your intention, but your series of articles disucssing the negatives only add fuel to the fire for those who would not give it the time of day. You say you want your readers to support the league but why should they when you yourself do not sound like a supporter. Again, I do not think this is your intention, but please keep this in mind.

    1. gotta agree 100% here. If this blog had more in-depth analysis of what was actually happening on the field, it’d only help more people get interested in the league as a whole (and not just their specific teams).

      -Wizards selling out 6 straight times!
      -A proper look at Stuart Holden’s career (and how MLS can work)
      -Better coverage of Generation Adidas’ success
      -An honest analysis of where MLS teams are against CCF opponents (sizing up team salaries, etc.)

  6. I too used to have similar feelings as Kartik; not supporting your domestic league made no sense. My opinion has gradually transformed into being happy that more people in this country support the game, whatever the league. It is my theory (and will take a very long time to substantiate) that MLS has to keep it’s sights on the long term. MLS will inevitably grow as ever more people follow soccer abroad, and over generations will gravitate to MLS as young people grow into it.

  7. I’m all for the EPL. My obsession with soccer began not with WC ’94 (although that provided the sparks) but when I saw Chelsea play at Stanford Bridge. I’ve followed Chelsea for almost a decade, but I would rather watch the Dynamo play Joe Public than miss a game for the EPL today. There’s no substitute for a home town team, however it is you begin your love of the game. Soccer is here now, whether people know it or not. I predict that the domestic league will absolutely erupt after WC 2010, particularly if the Nats perform to Confed. Cup levels.

  8. Thanks for the topic, it is a discussion worth digging into on many levels.

    Let’s not mix Branding with Product Quality. If I am not mistaken, the main thrust of the article is dealing with the quality of the product. That is, level of performance by players, teams, and coaches on any given game day. The measurements being suggested have more to do with Branding: viewership, wearing a jersey, and overall knowledge or interest in league. What data are being tracked by MLS in determining the ‘success’ of the league? Online traffic, fan supporter group membership, game day experiences, attendance, owner investment, agreements among development academy-college-lower tier leagues. How well has MLS done in building an economic model for investors while still developing young talent to make the position of soccer player (club and country) a viable career domestically? Are the former players having any sort of impact on the lore, the lure, and the love of the game now and going forward?

  9. MLS will not be taken seriously until the beging winning against CONCACAF teams. When we begin to take this competion seriously and get some positive results people will sit up and take notice. Nothing works like winning.

    1. This raises perhaps the most important and underrated issue facing MLS. How to attract existing latino fans? A good start would be to field a team that can compete with the teams they grew up watching/respecting. Dynamo go toe to toe with FMF teams every year and not only perform on the field but pack the stadium with Orange. Not a coincidence.

  10. I agree with Cory and Jeff — slow, sustainable growth and positive coverage helping MLS’s exposure are extremely important. The mission statement recently articulated by Don Garber, which is that he believes there are plenty of soccer fans in the U.S. and MLS needs to be converting them into fans of MLS, is the correct one. Nobody else will bring as much passion to the stadiums, and as solid numbers to the TV broadcasts, as this group of people. But the challenge is a big one, as Kartik’s experience this past weekend demonstrates. I do not believe it is insurmountable, but it will take some time, partially because MLS in many ways dug a hole with this group of fans from the outset due to its focus on the soccer-mom families instead of the true U.S. soccer fan.

    Frankly, another one of the problems that we have as a “domestic” (plus Canada) league is that our geographic spread is so much damned bigger than most, with major population centers thousands of miles apart, making it much more difficult to cultivate interest outside of the cities that have teams. We simply don’t have a situation where one major population can have 4-8 teams, or where clubs in different cities are a quick train ride away. The addition of Philly and two more Pacific Northwest teams will clearly help, as it will create pockets of hopefully very intense rivalries. It also doesn’t help that the largest TV market in our country has, by far, the worst franchise in the league — part of the reason I understand Kartik’s enthusiasm for a second New York club (although the Wilpon’s recent Madoff losses seem to have put that far on the backburner for now). One of the Sounders’ coaches recently expressed to me exacerbation about the situation in New York, saying that they should just implode the entire franchise and start from scratch, treating themselves as an expansion franchise with the new stadium giving them a fresh start. But I digress…

    I think there are essentially two major actions, one currently being taken and one where the opportunity is now to be taken, which will help the MLS in its ambition to grow to the point where it is being taken more seriously by soccer fans in the U.S.:

    (1) Stadiums: Even on television (and even moreso in person), there is a vast difference between seeing a game played in a fantastic venue like Rio Tinto or HDC versus converted baseball stadiums (with pitchers mounds in full view, tiny dimensions and horrible fan sightlines) and cavernous football stadiums (particularly once the NFL and college football get started and the additional lines on the pitch make my eyes bleed). Thank goodness, assuming there are no unpleasant surprises, we will have great new stadiums in Houston, San Jose, Kansas City, Philly and New York by 2012 (all with natural grass surfaces, I believe). Only Seattle (which seems to work, even in a large stadium, for now), New England and Vancouver (we will see how it looks once they start) will be left in giagantic stadiums, and there will be no more minor league baseball or small college football stadium eyesores left. This alone will make the league seem much less “minor league”. I wish all of the soccer stadiums could be as close to downtown epicenters as possible, but I understand that in most areas that is just a pipe dream.

    (2) Collective Bargaining Agreement. While the traditional management stance is always to keep wages as low as possible, MLS needs to take a giant, progressive leap forward here. Teams need to be able to pay their players, particularly the second and third tier players after the DPs whose stability arguably has the greatest impact on a franchise’s success in soccer. The cap needs to be loosened considerably or at least tripled. This will help keep (only to a point, I realize) U.S. talent here domestically and will considerably increase the quality of the product on the field. MLS needs to be forward thinking about this and understand that while the “NASL dilemma” makes it a bit scary, there is a way to do this smartly that will dramatically increase the league’s credibility.

    In addition to the above, in the immediate future I would love to see a reserve league, as well as a good performance by MLS teams in the Champions League (meaning, by definition, that they have to take it seriously), which will help MLS in the estimation of hard core soccer fans.

    Sorry for the long post. This is a topic near and dear to my heart.

  11. The level of play in the MLS can make the game difficult to watch. But I’m someone who still has hopes that the US can progress and one day hold it’s own against the better leagues of this world. And who wouldn’t? Doesn’t any football fan want to see great live games in their home town and root for a team of their own? Don’t we all want to see the US get out there show the world we can do this? Maybe there is a bit of nationalism here but I’m not content to just watch games happening thousands of miles away. And in the end, it comes down to money, and money comes from fans. If we aren’t out there buying MLS merchandise and filling the stadiums, then the league doesn’t have the money to spend on salary increases and advertisement, and the networks don’t get their ad revenue. And if that’s not happening, the drive for kids in the US to become the next great player won’t be their, and they will quit in or after high school because no one takes our game seriously in the US.

    It’s a cycle that keeps getting broken. But I say if you’re a fan here in the US, it’s your duty to go out there and support your local MLS teams, and if you don’t have one, support the US Soccer team. We can have our Euro and Mexican league games too, but we’ve got to put our money where our mouth is.

  12. I forgot DC in my list of “cavernous stadiums”. Getting an appropriate venue for DC has definitely got to be a high priority for MLS.

  13. Kartik,
    I love your passion for the game and especially the league. As a supporter from day 1 it is nice to see. As someone in their late thirties, I had just finished college when the league started and it was how my passion for soccer grew as a fan but after a few seasons shortly after 2000 life became very busy and MLS got prioritized out of my life for a few years as I lived in Atlanta without a local team. However after meeting my wife and moving to DC in 2004, I have followed United religiously since that year.

    My brother also lives in the area and got away from the game for several years before rediscovering his joy in it. He is first and foremost an Arsenal fan but enjoys following the league and the teams. He is coming out to see United take on Seattle on September 12th and generally only goes to a couple of games each season but is part of that .02 that watches if that number includes Tivo users.

    Thanks to Fan Viewpoints on DC’s new website I have been able to catch your blogs the last several months and enjoy them but I have to agree with a lot of the comments on here that you should point out more of the positives. I think that everyone on this blog know what needs to be done to improve the league and slowly but surely that will happen hopefully.

    My brother loves that MLS doesn’t compete with the EPL and NFL in the winter so he can watch it more in the summer. And a friend from North Carolina’s main thing is that he thinks the league needs to do a better job in presenting the games on TV meaning better coverage with more cameras to better cover the action.

    The point in all this rambling is that it is going to take time and money to accomplish what everyone on this blog wants. And all we can do is to continue to support it. The league is only in it’s 14th season and has accomplished a lot already and in many areas still appears headed in the right direction.

    I have 2 young sons and I know that they will grow up as MLS fans and hopefully there first teams of choice will be an MLS team not a team from EPL, La Liga, etc…

    I also enjoy listening to you and believe that they are trying to support the MLS unlike in years past.

    I have a good feeling about this seasons CCL! VAMOS UNITED!

  14. MLS has not regressed, I’ve seen some DVD’s of old MLS games circa 96-98. Except for a handful of teams, none of them were at current MLS levels. A few good players and a lot of crappy players. A few of them like United and Chicago in 1998-2000 would be good MLS teams now. But a lot of them would be struggling with New York for the wooden spood.

    I think that’s just nolstagia speaking, but no way I would watch the league if it was at the level it was 10 years ago. Especially with the whole shootout deal and every game in an empty American Football stadium.

    The only real difference is that the US national team isn’t all playing the league, if we could bring every single one of those players and hold a dispersal draft between just 10 teams. Then yes, those 10 teams would improve. But I rather have those players in Europe, for the good of the national team.

  15. I am also a dynamo fan and love the team. But.. I don’t wear the “standard” jersey because Amigo Energy is on it so largely I can’t even tell it’s a dynamo shirt. Bigtime capitalist here, but come on Amigo.. have some taste.
    I have mixed feelings about the Dynamo getting a new stadium. I think it could actually hurt the quality of fan support. They currently play at University of Houston, and that provides a built-in fan base that they may lose if they move somewhere. Also Robertson stadium gives off kind of warm homey vibe. The new stadium looked a bit cold and forbidding to me, especially from the outside. Finally, they are considering sharing the stadium with Texas Southern University, a school which has the reverse-Midas touch: everything they are involved in becomes a scandal due to poor management. This will be a mistake.
    Go Dynamo


    Florida is a hot bed of soccer fans, true soccer fans that MLS is ignoring. Get over it already, the Florida market for sports in general sucks outside of the big three college football programs and maybe the NFL teams. NBA, NHL, soccer, cricket, bocce ball, nobody cares and nobody shows for regular games. They’ll show up for the glam games, but then again everybody around the world shows up for those.

    And speaking of college football and football (American Football for you Kartik), all these great soccerballing nations pull in good to really good TV viewing in their countries and some globally because they DO NOT HAVE THE NFL,NCAA, NBA and MLB equivalents. This is the USA and the money and our culture was raised on the above sports, it’s not really that hard to understand.

    So let’s review, Florida is never getting another MLS team unless boat loads of money shows up in the form of an interested owner or ownership group. EVEN IF THEY DID SHOW UP, Miami or Tampa soccer crowds would look like FC Dallas, KC or RBNY. We don’t need more disinterested fans. And Miami is NOT Toronto where if you build it they will come. The town had a MLS team already and the experience sucked.

    Secondly, if all these great soccer power nations actually had other sports and leagues with the money that the NFL, NCAA, NBA and MLB then La Liga, the Premiership and any other league for that matter would be just like MLS.

    And Thirdly, though I didn’t mention it above, wow, you’re long time Man City fan?! Impressive for all the Eurosnobs and Brit transplants I’m sure. But to 99.9% of the Florida population, over 50% of the illegal alien population there and maybe 90% of the tourists in your state couldn’t care less. Florida is beaches, Disney, Spring Training baseball and college football and there’s nothing you and you merry band of Saturday morning pub crawlers can do about it.

    I really had no opinion about MLS eventually going to Miami or Florida, but after reading your 800th post where you mention Florida and how it’s a hot bed for soccer and all, I hope Florda never gets a MLS again. Ever.

    Oh, good article by the way.


  17. i am a huge sounders fan, and i have followed the team since the 1994 reincarnation to the APSL (i was too young for the NASL days). so i know my american footy. and i have always loved MLS. why? one reason:

    it’s ours.

    so what if it’s not the best? it’s never going to be…but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a ton of room for improvement and enjoyment. the best leagues are in england or spain or italy. that’s a fact, just like the fact that soccer will never be one of the big 3 (i honestly believe soccer can rival hockey for that #4 spot…and when you think of it, a LOT of americans view hockey the same way they view soccer: it’s a niche (see: northern) sport that’s being forced on markets who don’t get it or don’t care (see: nashville, atlanta)).

    but the MLS is our league. and we shouldn’t trash it because we are American-snobs who only support that absolute BEST available. If that was the case, the Oakland Raiders or Kansas City Royals wouldn’t have any fans, because people would flock to a better brand. but they don’t. why? because those teams belong to those fans, good times and bad, and american soccer fans (who don’t like MLS) and the rest of the country need to realize that the league doesn’t have to be the best to be supported (and again, in time as the salaries rise, so to will the skill level). however, when i want to GO to a game and cheer and be with my fellow fans and have a beer, i’m not going to hop a trans-atlantic jet every weekend. i can do that right here.

    england has a basketball league, and you don’t hear americans saying it shouldn’t exist because it’s not as good as ours. hell even the brits don’t have that attitude. why? CAUSE IT’S THEIR LEAGUE! mexico has a baseball league, but you don’t hear mexicans OR americans saying it shouldn’t exist because it’s not as good as MLB. why? because it’s theirs! there’s a football league in canada and a hockey league in Sweden, but you don’t hear the masses clamoring for the demise of both simply because they’re not on the same level as the NFL or NHL (and yes, i understand canadian football is different from “american” football, but just go with me on that…they’re too similar in too many ways).

    you see my pattern? yes, the league needs to improve, and it will improve over time (we’re working on 14 years when most of the world’s leagues have been at it for over well over 50, if not 100), but it doesn’t have to be the pinnacle to be loved (last time i checked, aren’t the Chicago Cubs called the Lovable Losers? Case in point.). it just has to be ours. and it is. and on that note…


  18. Part of the success in any business is the way a product is promoted. Unfortunatelly, some of us all we do is trash the MLS. We take the time to destroy our league. Sure this league is not a the same level with the mejor European Leagues. Money is clarly an issue there. But we have to start doing our part. I know that the more than 15000 fans who attend the games are helping big time. I attend as many game as possible because I want the league to grow. I went as far as ordering decals to post them in my office and along the 49ers, and NASCAR stickers in my car so in order to promote the product. Why do not we do something about it instead. I am tired of fans that support inferior leagues and thrash the MLS. They go as far as condemning Beckham for doing what any rational human being would do. I guess that gives me more reasons to support the MLS. Go LA Galaxy.

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