Major League Soccer’s Battle For Relevance

The capture of Hill 937 during the Vietnam War was made famous in the movie Hamburger Hill. Hollywood glorified the struggle of American forces as they spent 10 days laying siege to a heavily fortified hill of dubious strategic value. Like the assault on Hill 937, Major League Soccer faces an uphill battle to capture the hearts and minds of the American people.

With 19 teams currently competing in Major League Soccer, it is true that a great deal of positive progress has been made since 1996. However, that still begs the question; will they ever be able to truly compete with the other American sports institutions?

On July 31, 2013 during the halftime show of the MLS All-Star game, MLS Commissioner Don Garber excited the U.S. soccer faithful by announcing a plan to expand the league to 24 teams by 2020. However, is expansion really the answer to becoming a relevant sports entity in America?

As I sit and watch the reports of Clint Dempsey’s move from the Premier League to MLS, and listen to the sound bites of sportscasters debating the importance of his move for U.S. soccer, I’m afraid our narrow focus has caused us to lose sight of the big picture. For some reason we have developed the belief that one big name will lift soccer out of the darkness and into the light, a belief we had when David Beckham came to MLS. It’s time we accept the fact that one player does not a successful sports brand make.

If we want to attract star talent, we will eventually have to start paying top dollar. According to the 2013 salary breakdown by the MLS Players Union, only eight current players in MLS make over a million dollars per annum. In an article published in the May 2013 issue of Forbes magazine that highlighted the 20 highest paid soccer players in the world, none of them currently play in the MLS. How can owners, general managers, and coaches attract top-flight talent from around the world when financially they can’t compete with Spanish La Liga, Barclay’s Premier League, or countless other soccer leagues vying for tomorrow’s up and coming talent?

Having said all that, I must add that the real problem isn’t the money, players, cable network deals, or the lack of facilities dedicated to soccer. It’s the lack of an appropriate mindset by the American people. There will always be the cadre of diehard fans who will paint themselves head to toe, cheer their team rain or shine, and support the league no matter what its condition. What we lack is a strong support system from the parents of up and coming youth that will help to foster a love of the beautiful game. This, coupled with an ability to attract top talent from both abroad as well as our own youth ranks, will help to grow the sport.

Unfortunately, soccer in America may just have to accept its status as the redheaded sports brand, and continue its uphill battle with a firm understanding that like Hill 937, the outcome may hold little value. As a huge supporter of all things soccer, I want to believe that relevance is an achievable goal for MLS, but, given our current situation getting there promises to be an uphill battle for years to come.

20 thoughts on “Major League Soccer’s Battle For Relevance”

  1. this piece contradicts itself- MLS is showing all the signs of a successful merging league. Sporting Kansas City had their 29th straight sell out in their soccer specific stadium last night- that’s Kansas City not LA, NY etc that’s average town middle of America USA. In this same town we are building soccer fields all over. The quality of play gets better and better. The USA National team is having one of their most successful runs in history and is more and more fueled by MLS players. The big 4 of American sports is already being adjusted. Hockey is being passed by soccer and within 5-7 years soccer will be on par with the NBA. In Kansas City 20K a night are choosing Sporting over baseball’s Royals. The NFL is the NFL -America is an inherently violent aggressive militaristic country and this will be it’s symbol for the foreseeable future but everything else is up for grabs.

    1. As a native Kansas City-ian (I owned the original Kansas City “Wiz” rainbow jersey), I feel it should be noted there are other reasons people are turning to Sporting KC over the Royals… and it has to do with lost causes.

      I am thrilled that Sporting has been so successful, and only wish the Wizards had done the same before we moved away. As far as the comment about the NBA, I swear I read somewhere that the average MLS attendance is already higher than that of NBA games (But I will readily admit that I cannot remember the source).

  2. The league will have to enjoy a niche audience.

    They are turning a profit and the new stadiums and crowds are solid.

    I chuckle at the “well, MLS just needs to pay more salaries”. That statement only elicits the next article which is the common fan being exiled by escalating ticket prices.

  3. The thing that needs to be really watched is how the lower two leagues NASL and USL Pro keep growing and their fan bases increase because there is no way MLS will be able to cover the whole country.

  4. I know I have been critical of a few articles recently, but if you are going to waste two paragraphs on a war metaphor, you better make sure that you have a solid argument.

    This article has little to no focus, ask questions and then completely ignores the topic it asks about (expansion), and then contradicts itself when trying to make the main argument.

  5. MLS is relatively new. Note the word *relatively* because it is an important distinction to make. The league, while not in its infancy, is still in its adolescence. So I think some of the issues raised here–while somewhat valid–overlook this important fact.

    MLS is not perfect; it’s perhaps too large (in my opinion). It won’t gain the respect of the international community until it either embraces relegation, eliminates a playoff format, or begins to sign top talent. Of the three, only the latter is likely to happen anytime soon. If this is the measure of what constitutes good club football in one’s mind, then yes, the MLS is always going to be mediocre.

    That said, in terms of quality play, MLS is a decent (or perhaps even good) league, not a great one. And it may never be great, but why let greatness get in the way of the good?

    1. “MLS is relatively new. Note the word *relatively* because it is an important distinction to make. The league, while not in its infancy, is still in its adolescence. So I think some of the issues raised here–while somewhat valid–overlook this important fact.”

      the j-league of japan came into existence at the same time as MLS. today, football is the most popular sport in japan (over baseball and basketball) and the J-league is one of the best leagues in asia.

  6. MLS needs to focus on the live experience. THAT is the only advantage they have over all the other leagues. In most big American cities, you can go to a live MLS game, but you can only watch the EPL on television. Ticket sales at most American soccer stadia illustrate that there is a hunger for the live product.

    However, that illustrates one of MLS’s problems. The league simply is not competitive on television. From a strict quality standpoint, the league does not measure up. Unless you are a fan of a particular team or a particular player, there just isn’t any reason to watch MLS on television. And, the ratings illustrate this. There is next to ZERO hunger for televised MLS. People would rather watch EPL, La Liga, Bundesliga, Liga MX, Champion’s League, the FA Cup, and probably a few other leagues too. If you just want to watch good soccer, you have to have a HUGE appetite to consume enough to get to MLS. And this won’t change until the quality of players improves.

    The other challenge that MLS faces is that there are other avenues for live soccer. All around the country fans are adopting their local teams. I’d be curious to know if there are more Americans who are fans of (a) an MLS team or (b) a non-MLS team. There is no way that MLS can ever expand enough to capture all of the growth in American soccer, so you’ll see people who are rapid fans of their local USL team…..and then watching Barca on television.

    So, what should MLS do? Just keep growing. Focus on the live product. Try to get rich owners who can afford to expand stadia and buy better players. Get local TV deals so local fans can follow the team. Parlay that into national TV deals. Then buy better players….etc…..etc. It won’t be easy (or cheap).

    1. I agree with you on this, but rather than grow, I think MLS should contract. Contraction would put more talent on fewer teams, which would deliver better games.

      The MLS has plenty of good players, but it should not have 19 teams, the majority of which do not play good football.

    2. Dean and King,

      I think you highlight one of the main challenges MLS faces as it tries to grow. On the one hand you have to build the fanbase by growing into new markets, on the other hand you need to consider the quality of play.

      In my opinion, I think MLS can balance this somewhat but, expanding into new markets (as long as it is financially viable) needs to take precedent over concerns about diluting the talent base.

      For me, having a stronger local connection to a team is much more likely to draw me in as a fan. As it stands now, I probably watch three full MLS games a year on TV. If I was within an hour of a MLS team I would probably go to more than half the matches and strongly consider purchasing season tickets.

      1. Brad, you raise some valid points. I don’t disagree wholeheartedly.

        This is one of the reasons I think MLS should consider contracting, however, and letting the second and third tier leagues grow. Think about it: Rather than let football clubs grow organically in some locations, MLS actually is competing with USL and NASL for locations (New York; possibly Oklahoma City)!

        I think MLS and American soccer in general needs something of a Scottish-style refurbishing. I know it’s not going to happen, but it would help tremendously.

        1. I think you guys are bringing up a good point. As MLS expands, there will be a dilution of talent, especially when you consider the league rules about international roster slots. If they add four more teams, that means roughly 80 more American soccer players in MLS.

          In a way, I almost feel badly for MLS. They have this urge to grow the quality so that people will watch MLS along with the better leagues or the world. But, they also have this need to grow to stay one step ahead of the “lower leagues”.

          And, make no mistake….they have to grow. They cannot just let some of these burgeoning NASL and USL teams grow independently. MLS needs to gobble them up or they’ll form a league that is competitive with MLS and then you’ll have something like the NBA/ABA thing.

          1. You hit the nail on the head: MLS is applying an American approach to sports organizations here in which the long-term goal appears to be being the only game in town rather than part of a multi-tiered system.

            That’s the worst part of it all: this year’s (and 2008’s) U.S. Open Cup proved that there isn’t a huge gap in talent between MLS and the USL. Who wouldn’t want to see, for example, a team like Chivas relegated so that a team like Orlando City or even the Charleston Battery could play?

            Again, this is why someone needs to come in and form a Scottish-style reorganization.

    1. I think so to. I get why they cant have promotion/relegation but i dont know why they have a play off format and the whole eastern/western conference. Ots the same as Nfl nba mlb nhl and every other american sport. If Mls wants to be relevant change the name from Mls same as mlb and just be different from every other american sport. This play off thing cant work with 24 teams in 2020. Thats a 46 game season plus play off games. Mls needs to change some fundamentals to be relevant.

  7. Hurray another “will MLS be able to truly compete with the other American sports institutions” article!

    The answer, just like it always has been, is maybe, give it 20-50 years and we’ll see.

    In the meantime, just enjoy it and quit writing these same articles over and over.

  8. Comparing a sports league’s attempts to attract more fans to a military battle that reportedly claimed more than 700 lives?

    May want to rethink that strategy in the future.

    I’m a fan of the game but I’ve been hearing the “soccer is the next big thing” since the early 1980s (at least.) The game is probably stronger than it has ever been in this country, but outside of certain markets it simply is not going to overtake the NFL, NBA or major league baseball.

    In a lot of ways MLS is like the NHL – you might get 20,000 people to a game but it is the same 20,000 people every night.

    I live about two hours north of Columbus and I rarely see anything relating to the Crew and never hear anyone talk about it.

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