As a lifelong player and fan of the sport, watching soccer flourish in the States over recent years has been nothing short of exciting. Clearly, the sport is years and miles away from arriving at its deserved position on the professional sports totem pole in the country, but the last decade has seen terrific bounds in making this headway.
After weathering its rough infant years, the MLS has seen the development of many expansion clubs, the United States Men’s National Team has produced results and mild success enough to be acknowledged globally as a formidable opponent and increased television broadcast of international fixtures and UEFA competition shows more people in the States are latching on to the secret the rest of the world has been in on for ages. I’m going to pat the National Team on the back and bump it out of that three-item list and examine the first and third points more closely.
Sure, the MLS is growing and seeing success, but has it arrived where it wants to be? Certainly not, and its lack of games airing on general cable is the culprit with the most red on its hands. I understand that it takes time for a league, but it’s been years since the MLS started walking on its own – it just started its 15th season.
As I mentioned before, until this year ESPN had picked up the Champions League, providing the highest quality of soccer several times a week, every other week (with the exception of breaks in the competition). It also shows the World Cup, Euro Cup and many other international fixtures – even those not including our Yanks!
So please, someone give me an answer. Why, when the MLS is doing everything else in its power to arrive at the forefront of profession sports in the U.S., can we only find one, maybe two MLS games on general cable per week? That’s how you get people interested. You give them several opportunities to witness the sport and get sucked in. I’m fully aware MLS Direct Kick provides nearly all of the MLS action in a season, and the likes of Fox Soccer Channel, ESPN Deportes, etc. a substantial number of extra games, but those who subscribe to these extra channels are already hooked – maybe not to the MLS, but they’re hooked to soccer. The MLS’ goal shouldn’t be trying to grab the attention of people who already follow the English Premier League, La Liga or whichever league – they’re going to show interest in the MLS anyway, even if it isn’t their league of choice. You have to give those television viewers to whom soccer is still foreign the chance to see it, to understand it, to become immersed in it. Because us loyal fanatics know how little it takes to fall in love with the beautiful game. With only the Thursday night MLS matches, and the occasional Saturday afternoon match, it makes sense that despite all its other efforts, the MLS is still coming up just short of being a top sports league.
Obviously there’s the ball-park $250 million contract (salary and endorsements) to bring David Beckham to the MLS. And while less substantial, both monetarily and in terms of publicity, there have been other signings for international, twilight players like Freddie Ljungberg and Cuauhtémoc Blanco. Past these big-impact players are more concrete investments, in both senses of the word – soccer complexes. First came the $28 million Columbus Crew Stadium in 1999. In 2003, the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., decided it wanted to blow the Crew’s stadium out of the water, boasting a $150 million price tag. Granted, it’s an entire complex and not just a stadium, but still, it’s a state of the art complex for any sport and home to several MLS Cup finals. Add in a few more mammoth soccer parks across the nation like $65 million Pizza Hut Park in Dallas and $130 million dollar Dicks Sporting Goods Park in Colorado. And the incredible $200 million Red Bull Arena had its debut weeks ago. Three other soccer stadiums exist for MLS teams with numerous others in planning or development. It’s fantastic to see state-of-the-art stadiums popping up around the country, but most of the time half the seats are empty (with exceptions like the Seattle Sounders and the exhilarating atmosphere of Qwest Field). Once again, those people at the games are the one’s already hooked on our sport. If the MLS want to fill those seats and get the league to a point it’s respected around the world, it’s going to have to start with more matches available to the masses.