The United States’ first major soccer league, the MLS, was founded in 1993 and ever since popularity has continued to climb. A big part of the success of the league has been the play of MLS stars on the national team during World Cup play.
The first season took place in 1996, where the season runs from late March until November. Unfortunately, after the first MLS season attendance took a fall when the US national team competed the 1998 World Cup. The young and inexperienced team lost all three matches to Germany, Yugoslavia and Iran, finishing dead last in their group keeping them out of the elimination rounds.
Luckily after the World Cup fluke professional soccer took a turn for the best. Breakout players such as DeMarcus Beasley, Landon Donavan and Brian McBride made their presence known in the MLS and on the national team. Popularity grew, but not as much as League officials would of hoped. Soccer ratings continued faded way below the major sports: basketball, football, baseball and hockey.
Fortunes did change in 2002 when the US team advanced beyond the group stages into the elimination rounds of the World Cup. The US young and veteran talent led the team to the quarterfinals with wins over Portugal and rival Mexico. The United States’ success in the 2002 World Cup triggered a resurgence in soccer.
Attendance sky rocketed throughout the next MLS season. The 2002 MLS Cup, held only four months after the World Cup, set an attendance record and sellout crowd at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts. The Los Angeles Galaxy beat the host New England Revolution 1-0 on a sudden-death goal in the second overtime.
The talent level began to grow in the MLS bringing in more and more fans. Unfortunately for the league, other more prominent leagues caught on to the increase in talent and began to recruit dominant players off to Europe to play. With the most popular players leaving, the MLS had to expand its borders along with its player eligibility in order to try and keep up with other countries around the world.
2007 A YEAR OF EXPANSION
In 2007 owners started their plans to make US major league soccer international. The first step included the designated player rule which allowed the MLS to bring in international stars into the league despite the MLS’ meager salary cap. This rule allowed European all-star David Beckham to make his debut with the Las Angeles Galaxy. Beckham’s popularity on and off the field put the MLS in headlines regardless if it was sports or pop culture. In December 2008, Beckham and his bodyguard were sued by paparazzi photographer, Emicles da Mata, who claimed that he was assaulted by them when attempting to take a picture of Beckham in Beverly Hills.
Beyond the paparazzi and his love life with a former Spice Girls, Posh Spice, Beckham has still brought the MLS profit with increased ticket sales along with the boom in selling of David Beckham jerseys. Beckham has also brought the MLS popularity with his appearance on countless magazines and in commercials for Coca-Cola and IBM. No matter what Beckham is selling you can still relate him to the MLS.
The second expansion the owner of MLS was the creation of the SuperLiga which places top MLS clubs against top Mexican clubs in an effort to provide more meaningful competition for both leagues. The league helped to bring in more American as well as Spanish fans with the bitter rivalries between the US and Mexico. Last the league expanded its boarders beyond US territory and into Canada with the creation of Toronto FC.
Originally the MLS signed deals for coverage on ESPN/ESPN 2, ABC, and Telemundo in Spanish. Fox Sports World and Fox Sports in Espanol began airing matches in 2003. It was only recently in 2007 that television rights were sold to networks at a profit. Also 2007 was the first season in the league’s history in which every regular season match was telecast live, and many games were shown on national television.
The MLS did struggle in its first years of existence. The league lost more than $350 million between its first year and 2004. Over time, however, more stadiums were built and ownership expanded keeping the league alive. More television deals were negotiated at popularity grew around the world. Another way the league makes profit is off advertisements located on the player’s jerseys. The league has established a floor of $500,000 per shirt sponsorship, with the league receiving a flat fee of $200,000 per deal.
MLS Commissioner Don Garber said on May 11, 2006 that he expects the entire league’s clubs to be profitable by 2010. He reported that FC Dallas and the Los Angeles Galaxy are already profitable, with several other clubs nearing profitability. A year later, he revealed that the Chicago Fire, the Colorado Rapids, and Toronto FC were on track for profitability by 2008, However in 2008 there were only three profitable MLS franchises; Los Angeles Galaxy, Toronto FC and FC Dallas.
In the 2006 World Cup the US finished poorly not making it out of group play with a 1-1-1 record finishing last in the group just like in 1998. Although disappointed, the team still had good expectations for the next four years leading up to the 2010 World Cup. The 2006 team had many young players and for the next four years they will gain more and more experience playing in local matches along with international matches as well.
The World Cup may be the only thing keeping soccer alive on US televisions. For the 2006 World Cup an average of 2.6 million viewers tuned in for each match on ABC. Today MLS matches average only about 300,000 viewers (U.S. population over 305 million since Jan. 1, 2009). The Monday Night Football game between the New Orleans Saints and the New England Patriots averaged 21.4 million viewers, the Monk season finale averaged 9.44 million, and the iCarly special “iQuit iCarly” averaged 8.85 million viewers. This just goes to show how far MLS and even international soccer is behind other programming in the US.
Soccer popularity has been growing over the past three years with a booming increase in youth participation in soccer leagues, but still even soccer players do not tune in to MLS matches. Both Will Bowers and Ian Ramsey, junior varsity soccer players, hardly ever find themselves watching MLS matches, but when it comes to the US national team or the World Cup, they hardly ever miss a match. Ramsey would rather watch European League soccer over his own country’s major soccer league.
Chris Hawthorne, senior soccer player, is one of the more dedicated fans in America. He prefers watching soccer over other sports any day. “If the final four is on the same time as an MLS game is, then I am probably watching soccer,” said Hawthorne. If it is the National Championship game though he would flip back and forth.
The MLS just does not match the excitement and level of play of other top leagues in Europe, but with the national team continuing to strive in international play, soccer can still survive in the United States.