So after all the strike threats, tough talking and marathon negotiations, Major League Soccer’s 20th season will kick off on time this weekend – and the new campaign is in many ways marks a second chance for the league.
With a new television deal and a series of expensive ‘name’ signings in the league, along with two new clubs, there is a different feel about this season and a rare opportunity to win over those American soccer fans who are not yet followers of MLS.
Sunday’s game at the Citrus Bowl where Orlando City and Kaka take on New York City with David Villa, certainly feels like a very different MLS.
And the fact that 62,000 tickets have been sold for the game at the Citrus Bowl, the overwhelming majority of whom will have never been to an MLS game before, highlights the fact that this is a potential turning point for the league’s popularity.
If the game was being played in England, there would only be one Premier League stadium, Old Trafford, big enough to hold the crowd. Sunday’s MLS game will be one of the best attended games in soccer anywhere in the world this weekend.
Of course, Orlando aren’t going to draw 62,000 on a regular basis, but their ability to engage their community has been hugely impressive and shows that in an American city without an NFL team, soccer can be mainstream and big-time.
But, impressive as Orlando’s arrival in MLS has been, we already know that MLS clubs, if they are run well and have imaginative and professional strategies, can put down roots in communities.
What stops MLS from moving to the next level in the American sports scene isn’t local support and stadium attendances but it is the lack of big audiences on television.
The discussions about why MLS’s ratings have been so modest usually focus on the struggles the league has to compete in the quality stakes with the Premier League and other European leagues.
But the reality is that there is no head-to-head competition. MLS doesn’t play on Saturday or Sunday mornings and there is no reason why soccer fans in America can’t take in foreign and domestic games.
Of course, the quality of the soccer matters, but so does the way the television networks present MLS.
There is a second chance here too – with the new television deal which sees MLS in regular time-slots on FOX Sports, ESPN and Univision.
Crucially, the trio have signed up to eight-year commitments, meaning that it is in their interests to generate a lot of interest early on to get the most value out of the product for the term of their contract.
In the past, there has been the feeling that MLS has been something the networks almost felt obliged to show rather than something they wanted to make successful. But instead of shunting the league away from prime-time, all three are committed to regular time-slots.
It remains to be seen how wise it is for FOX and ESPN to make those regular time-slots be a Sunday, especially given the climax to the MLS regular season and the push for the playoffs takes place during the NFL season. Why go head-to-head with the most popular sport in the country in its prime-time?
I am slightly baffled by that decision, but perhaps it will work – there is crossover between soccer and NFL fans, but the goal at this stage is surely to win existing soccer fans to MLS.
Certainly, the overall concept is right and the approach of creating a ‘home’ for the game on two huge sports networks is sure to bring some dividends, as is Univision’s Friday night slot, which if well done, could make further inroads for the league amongst Hispanic fans.
What matters is that the networks start to present the games in the same way that they present NFL and NBA games. If you are trying to take soccer out the niche and into the mainstream – be mainstream yourself.
People involved in American soccer, especially in the media and social media, love to talk about the ‘growth of the game’, the ‘state of soccer’ and the ‘development of the American player’ and so on. We like to debate formats, schedules, rules and regulations and those blessed Collective Bargaining Agreements.
But here is a suggestion for the television networks – forget all that stuff when you are on-air in pre-game, half-time and post-game.
If you want soccer fans to feel committed to the league, to a product your network has invested millions in, don’t talk about structures and policies, talk about the game, the players and the storylines that emerge on the field.
Yes, we all know the standard of play in MLS isn’t up there with the best yet and there is a long way to go. But if the television networks want the fans to take MLS seriously, they should do so themselves.
It is clear from their personnel choices that the ‘accent’ debate is now over — Adrian Healey at ESPN is the only non-American given a spot on English-language MLS coverage – but having chosen that route, the networks should go the whole hog – and cover the sport like every other American sport.
If MLS is to be presented as a significant part of the American sports television landscape, the networks, along with the clubs, the league and the players, need to take this second chance.
Editor’s note: Every Thursday, World Soccer Talk featured columnist Simon Evans shares his thoughts and opinions on world soccer topics. You can follow Simon on Twitter at @sgevans. Plus, read Simon’s other columns for World Soccer Talk.
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