Every four years, MLS ties itself as close as possible to the U.S. Men’s National Team in the hopes that the warm glow and newfound soccer fans turn to the domestic league to watch more of the sport. The 2014 FIFA World Cup has seen MLS double-down on this strategy as many of the team’s most high-profile players actually play in the league. I attended a DC United-LA Galaxy match after the last World Cup and remember the warm applause Landon Donovan received as well as the number of U.S. soccer jerseys in the crowd.
This is a logical strategy for the league especially with the timing of the World Cup. While the major European leagues are a month and a half away from beginning after the World Cup, MLS will be in the middle of the season and available for people to watch. In addition, MLS players are represented in six other teams which mean Iranian, Honduran, Costa Rican, and Australian fans in the U.S. will have a chance to see their national team players play.
Ratings are sky-high for this World Cup so there is a demand for soccer. With ESPN about to share in the MLS media rights through 2022, they can transition some of their current soccer infrastructure that supports Brazil to the domestic league.
The translation of success is not a slam dunk however (to borrow a basketball phrase). First, on the timing of the leagues, while MLS will be playing right after the World Cup, a number of major European clubs will be touring the U.S. in the next two months. While the biggest names may not be traveling with their club teams or playing on the pitch, their presence is enough to drive people to the stands. This is especially true if the national teams of huge stars are quickly eliminated.
But there is a greater factor that may prevent a natural World Cup-MLS transition and that is the level of play. Undoubtedly MLS has upped its talent on the field and there is beginning to be some excellent tactical diversity among its teams. But the level is nowhere close to that of the European leagues and even with the lack of competition, casual or new soccer fans will notice this almost immediately. Except for Seattle, Portland and one or two other places, the atmosphere will be much deader than what was seen on TV at the World Cup.
The fact is MLS will get a slight uptick in fan support (however that can be measured) from the World Cup, especially if the U.S. escapes the group. However, the continued growth of MLS will be at best slow because it pales in comparison to the level of talent that the Premier League and the Bundesliga run on every week. With NBC promoting the EPL and making it available widely, it is a matter of time before a new soccer fan that began following the sport because of the World Cup gravitates to this league or others on TV. This is not a slight on MLS, simply a recognition that no matter how hard they try and associate the league with the world’s most popular soccer tournament; talent ultimately wins out for the new converts to the sport.
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