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)

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