Nick Jehamy | October 30th, 2019
Football is mainly an American sport, baseball is played in many countries around the world but more concentrated in certain countries more than others. Basketball is one of the closest sports to being beloved and played truly worldwide, well that is aside from soccer. Soccer can easily be described as the world’s most loved and played sport. Aside from the Olympics, the World Cup is the most viewed sporting event in the world, with the 2018 FIFA World Cup held in Russia having the third-highest estimated television viewership of all time.
Currently, Major League Soccer is in their postseason run, even so, the television ratings over the past two weeks show that the most-watched soccer matches in the United States were Liga MX, Premier League, and CONCACAF Nations League matches. The highest-rated MLS matches were ranked at numbers 11, 15, and 19. These numbers are just including United States viewership, so think if we were to incorporate a larger area into these statistics, the MLS would be a blip on the soccer radar.
The MLS of Today
Major League Soccer may not be at the level of the Premier League, Serie A, or Bundesliga, but for being in a country that seems to not care much about the sport they are showing effort and an attempt to raise its popularity and following. The growth of television viewership has raised by 8% from 2016 to 2018, not the type of improvement like other leagues have shown (Premier League 69% increase and Liga MX 46% increase) but an increase none the less. The attendance records don’t show much improvement over time but in total represent a respectable amount with an average of 25,000 attendants per game (slightly skewed by Atlanta United FC and the Seattle Sounders bringing in averages of 52,500 and 40,200). The numbers may be somewhat mediocre but the league already has five future expansion teams planned to join within the next three years residing in Florida, Texas, California, Tennessee, and Missouri.
Will the expansion alone though be enough to spread the availability of the MLS to sports fans in the United States and the exposure to America and the rest of the world? I will answer that question right now, no. The country’s reduced enjoyment of the sport is not the only reason for the league having the popularity and reputation it has, another big reason is the competitiveness and level of play of the league as well. The talent level in the MLS has never been at the level of the other international leagues, and the United States National team isn’t in the upper echelon of the sport either. Along with the level of talent goes the personalities of those higher-level players in the sport such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, and Paul Pogba. That’s not to say the MLS doesn’t have any players of that caliber though.
The MLS is Zlatan, Zlatan is the MLS
One of the greatest personalities in the sport may be that of LA Galaxy striker, Zlatan Ibrahimović. In a previous interview discussing his future plans with his contract soon to expire, Ibrahimović is stated saying
“If I stay it will be good for MLS because the whole world will watch it. If I don’t stay, nobody will remember what MLS is.”Zlatan Ibrahimović
This type of comment many may see as cocky, as well as describe him as full of himself. Even so, he may not be completely mistaken with his statement. Ibrahimović’s personality and level of talent have brought many new viewers to the league, the man is a human highlight reel! One man alone though will not make a league, so even if he stays more needs to be done. Aside from individual talents, national team competition is a large influencer on Major League Soccer’s viewership.
World Cup Fever
In the United States, there is a correlation between positive national team performances and viewership for Major League Soccer and the National Women’s Soccer League. Thankfully for them, the women’s national team is one of the strongest in the world, bringing a love of soccer to the nation. Unfortunately, the men’s national team is not as competitive when it comes to international play, most recently not even qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. If MLS wishes to gain popularity, they should hope for an increased level of play from the national team, and attempt to produce the next generation for success.
Where to Go from Here
Can the MLS become as big as the other big four sports leagues in the United States? Can it get the respect and reputation that other international leagues have? I believe the answer to both is yes, but it is going to take some time for that to happen. The success of the MLS won’t come overnight, but here is what I believe to be a path to success for the league and soccer in America altogether.
Ironically one of the best ways for the MLS to grow is by the United States national team athletes and young possible future national team hopefuls, to go play overseas in the international leagues. As of right now, it is undeniable that the leagues overseas are more talented, so bringing our athletes this exposure and level of competition will only make them better as individuals and help our national team excel. As stated before, the success of our national teams correlates directly with a change in the viewership of the MLS so this is a key aspect to the league’s success.
For a more immediate improvement, the league needs to bring in not only better talent but bigger personalities. As much as the on the field play is a component to the league’s success, the marketability of the teams and players will evolve the league and its success just as well. Bringing over players late in their careers such as Andrea Pirlo and David Villa were great moves when NYCFC was formed as an expansion team in the league. These types of players are a great start to bring fans over to the MLS while the league continues to grow and develop its young talent and national team’s success.
Soccer may not be as big as the rest of the sports in the United States, but that does not mean it cannot reach their level. I believe that we have just seen a small glimpse of what’s to come. With the 2019 season coming to an end, be sure to watch the final match on 11/10! I implore you to look into the league, and when the season starts up again next year join in on the fun of club soccer in the United States!
Questions and comments?
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