Major League Soccer is a vast improvement over the leagues that came before it in the US, and even over where the MLS itself was just 20 years ago. Even critics can’t argue that MLS has raised the standard of the game significantly in North America. However, the league needs to decide whether it wants to continue as a local entertainment option, or to become more relevant nationally. Currently, MLS is losing against the competition as it struggles to do both.

In general, MLS still falls well short of what it aspires to be. Even now, nearly three decades on, the league is a “Major League” in name only. Does it have some strong positives going for it? Absolutely. The league is in no risk of disappearing anytime soon. There are teams that routinely draw 30, 40, even over 50,000 fans per game. Wonderful, modern soccer venues dot the first division landscape from coast to coast. And MLS has legitimately made an argument that the “Big 4” American pro sports leagues should now be the “Big 5”.

National league, local interest

But if it is now a “Big 5,” MLS is certainly in the fifth spot. While MLS strives for national and international relevance, it simply isn’t there. In many MLS towns, there is robust local support and dedicated fans. There are some fantastic atmospheres, and supporter passion on-par with any in the world. But on the national scene, general interest lags far behind the other American sports.

Go to almost any town, big or small, in America, and you’ll find Dallas Cowboys, New York Yankees, LA Lakers, and Boston Bruins fans. Put any two random teams from the NFL, NBA, MLB or NHL on a national network, and fans from all over generally tune in. But if NYCFC is playing the LA Galaxy, hardly anyone from outside of New York or LA cares.

Is streaming a revolution, or a retreat?

For years, Major League Soccer was routinely beat by “The Ocho”-type programming like cornhole, bowling, and other fringe sports in national ratings. So the league made a bold move in 2023. The launch of MLS Season Pass has put the majority of league games behind a paywall, with no regional local TV broadcasts and only a handful of national TV games.

While the 10-year streaming deal with Apple TV is innovative, it has essentially conceded the national TV battle, retreating to a world where only hardcore fans are the ones who will or can watch.

But it’s even more niche than that. Most MLS fans really only care about games their club is playing in. And even then, they’ve forfeited the largest potential subscriber base – season ticket holders – by giving them access for free. Another segment of fans are unwilling to spend $15/month for the whole league when they really only want one team.

The MLS Season Pass gambit comes with another wrinkle. The vast majority of Major League Soccer games now kick off at 7:30 PM local time, on Saturday nights. For ticket holders, having a consistent, regular schedule on a free evening is convenient and makes a lot of sense. And it makes the MLS 360 whip-around show a nice easy production, featuring games running constantly from 7:30 ET to just after midnight.

But that’s not the ideal way to cultivate a general, national audience. Saturday evenings are prime time for people who like to get out of the house. And if you’re not a Major League Soccer fan already, you’re not missing date night, dinner, parties, or other fun to stay at home and watch the Fire take on RSL.

The soccer league that routinely pulls the biggest ratings in the US, Mexico’s Liga MX, by contrast has matches throughout the week. Weeknights, weekend afternoons, and Saturday/Sunday primetime night games give everyone a chance to catch a game.

The 7:30 kickoff experiment is only in the first year, so we’ll see if it sticks.

Can MLS build the relevance it craves?

It is clear Major League Soccer has lots of work to do to elevate itself into the national sports conversation alongside its NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL peers. It also falls behind the Premier League, Liga MX, and LaLiga in terms of cracking the overall national consciousness in Anytown USA.

So what can be done to make it happen? Can it even happen at all? Here are some things working against MLS, and some things they could do to move the needle.


This is simple math, and the reality. The reason the “Big 4” sports pull viewers and interest all over the country is because the leagues and teams have been around much longer. As people move around the country, they often take their fandom with them. MLS simply hasn’t had the time for that to happen yet. They’re on their second, maybe third generation of fans.

The oldest continuously operating pro soccer teams in the USA were founded in the early 1990s. And some of those teams aren’t even in MLS. A handful of MLS teams do have origins that date back to that time, and/or legacy brands from the original 1970s NASL. But it still pales in comparison to the history and generations of fans other American sports teams have. You can’t take shortcuts, you can’t fake this one, it just takes time.


This is another factor that simply can’t be ignored or avoided. The NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB are the absolute pinnacle of their respective sports in arguably the best leagues in the world. Major League Soccer cannot say that. It’s not even close. Foreign leagues not only offer recognizable clubs and much longer histories, but also bigger, better players in their prime. If you asked sports pundits to list the 50 best players currently in each of football, hockey, baseball and basketball, every single player on every list would be from a team in the USA.

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If you requested equivalent top-50 lists from soccer pundits, unless perhaps you asked homers such as Alexi Lalas, zero of those players would hail from MLS. There have been quality, good, even great players to play in MLS. There have even been a few global icons such as David Beckham. But these players have been few and far between, and generally have been past their prime. It hasn’t been enough to turn the league into “must see TV” or to get fans outside of local markets to care. Signing a Messi or Ronaldo in 2023 would spark a frenzy, sell tickets and move jerseys, but it wouldn’t be a long term game changer.

This is a problem that money can absolutely solve. But even if MLS dropped the salary cap and every club started spending like Manchester City tomorrow, catching up with the world’s elite and gaining the interest of Joe American Sports Fan in Wichita still takes some time. Even with truly world class talent and hundreds of millions in player transfers, MLS would still have to compete for eyeballs and dollars with at least 4-5 other elite international leagues. This is a problem the NFL etc simply do not have.

Drop the training wheels

As noted above, it’s still a long road before MLS could be truly equal with the big boy sports leagues. But there are things they could do to help push the rock up that mountain and gain more national interest. One is to move past the early protections built into the league.

The low salary cap, odd roster mechanisms and other safeguards that helped keep MLS around early on are no longer needed. These financial restrictions kept costs reasonable, but also were supposedly for the sake of parity. MLS does score better in that regard than most major soccer leagues around the world. But still, only 15 of the 31 teams who have played in the league have won a title. And 19 of the 27 titles to date have been won by just seven clubs.

MLS has to let ambitious owners spend to win – including going for continental titles in CONCACAF. If it means smaller markets or teams suffering with bad ownership have diminished chances, so be it. The Yankees and Dodgers can spend as much as they want on players – and they do – but they don’t always win the World Series. What they do consistently deliver, however, is interest. MLS needs *in their prime* stars and maybe a super team or two to start to really move the needle nationally.

Do the thing. Yes, that thing.

Major League Soccer may never reach the level of, say, the Premier League or the Bundesliga. The MLS Cup Final is unlikely to ever be very relevant to fans across the ocean. That’s ok. The Super Bowl doesn’t matter to many folks outside US shores either. But that doesn’t mean, like the NFL, MLS can’t become something very important and relevant to fans everywhere in the USA.

Becoming the top league worldwide in its sport, like the NFL or NBA, isn’t very realistic. So what can MLS do to draw in fans who live in places that don’t have MLS teams, which is the majority of the country? What can they do to further draw in existing fans who only care about their own team? It’s a simple concept, one that has been tested for over a century around the world.

Promotion and relegation. Some form of the mechanism that sends teams up and down the divisions based on results would do wonders to increase the relevance of every team and every game across the country.

There are major media markets that do not, and may never get, an MLS team. Phoenix, Tampa Bay, Detroit, Cleveland, Sacramento, Raleigh-Durham, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh – these are all major league towns with no MLS representation. As of now, they have zero reason to follow the league. But they all have soccer clubs in a lower division. If those clubs had a chance to win their way in to MLS, tuning into games on TV or buying a MLS Season Pass subscription would be more attractive.

Beyond the big cities, there are the smaller towns. Individually they wouldn’t move the needle much. But collectively, if every community had a club and a reason to keep an eye on the entire pyramid, overall interest in the sport would grow. And that’s good for everyone.

Working with existing clubs outside of MLS would be ideal, as part of a truly open league pyramid. But MLS could go another route. Continue expanding its single entity structure indefinitely. Eventually split into two, then more, divisions, adding teams to the bottom and further splitting as they go. Keep all the owners and their money within their own ecosystem.

However it’s done, it would crack open additional markets, fans, and dollars. Things that simply aren’t accessible for a sub-par league (by global standards) of just 30 teams that spans an entire continent.

MLS losing against competition: It’s time to change

MLS has to consolidate the vision of what it wants to be with the reality of what it is. Dropping millions on player spending would help, but that’s not necessarily an immediate – or sustainable – fix. Being a domestic top tier, whose teams do well in their own markets, is perfectly fine. Embrace it and continue to ride that base to long term sustainability.

The national relevance will (eventually) come. You can’t skip the hard work and go right to being a global powerhouse. It took decades for the MLB, NFL, NBA and NHL to become what they are. And they all suffered early struggles like MLS has.

They’ve done the job of sticking around through the hard early bits. To use a reference from my toddler’s current favorite movie-on-loop Moana, MLS has made it past the reef. But there’s a long way of sailing to go.

Loosen those purse strings more each year to up the talent levels. That’s a big part of the equation. But more importantly they must look to make a connection beyond the 27 cities MLS currently occupies. The minor-league-ification route of MLS NEXT Pro won’t cut it.

Lose the egos, work with the rest of the soccer community and open the door, even just a little, to everyone. Accept the level the game is at here, and celebrate our tradition of the sport instead of criticizing it.

Domestic soccer still has the potential to be the most interesting, unique, and popular sport in America. But it will take the courage and vision to do things a little differently, and time, to get there.