How MLS can Improve its Popularity in the United States
While soccer is growing as a sport in the U.S., there are steps America’s most prominent soccer league can take to advance their growth even further.
Updated: May 17, 2017 • 2:11 PM ET
Portland Timbers fans are one of the most passionate congregations in MLS.
As Americans, we’re spoiled in terms of sports. The United States is home to some of the best sports leagues in the world. Want to watch the best baseball with the best players in the world? There’s MLB. Want to watch the best basketball league with the best players in the world? Just turn on an NBA game. Hockey? NHL. American football? Do you prefer college or the NFL? Want to watch the best soccer in the world? Well, you might have to look elsewhere for that.
When people think of a country with a strong soccer presence, the U.S. is one of the last countries that comes to mind. But what might come as a surprise to many is that soccer is quickly gaining popularity America. According to a 2016 Forbes report, soccer is the fastest-growing sport in the country and was the second-most popular sport among young Americans in 2014.
Think that’s impressive? Even some of the most diehard soccer fans around the world would probably never guess that the U.S. currently has more youth registered to play soccer than any other country.
That’s not all. In 2011, MLS surpassed the attendance average of both the NHL and NBA, respectively, making it the third-most attended sports league on average in the U.S. behind only MLB and the NFL. And now that MLS has new broadcasting deals with FOX and ESPN, on top of their online streams, it would seem that MLS should be poised to stand near the forefront of American popularity. Yet, oddly enough, MLS hasn’t quite reached the popularity that it deserves.
On paper, MLS should be one of the most popular leagues in the country. Which leaves many to ponder, why isn’t it?
One of the most obvious reasons is that the MLS is relatively new. Compared to the NFL, NHL and NBA, which have been around for decades, and MLB, which has been around for 114 years, MLS is still in its infancy.
Generations of fans grew up watching these leagues and rooting for their respective teams, while soccer has struggled to secure a permanent place in American sports society. Even MLS struggled at first, nearly buckling under after a few seasons of play. Fortunately, the league survived and has propelled itself to becoming one of the more respected soccer leagues in the world. But it’s not that American soccer fans weren’t watching soccer — they were — just not MLS.
According to a 2016 Los Angeles Times report, the most-watched league in the U.S. is Mexico’s La Liga MX. This makes sense, considering the tens of millions of Mexican immigrants and second and third generations that live in the U.S.
Think about it like this: if a baseball fan from Chicago moves to Phoenix, they don’t immediately switch their loyalties from the Cubs to the Diamondbacks. Fans usually remain loyal to their hometown teams or the teams they grew up watching. The children of those same fans grow up watching their parents’ clubs and in turn become fans. The same thing is happening for soccer in the US. Many soccer fans are growing up cheering for the clubs that their parents and grandparents watched.
If MLS wants to become more popular, it needs to grab the attention of long-time soccer fans and newer fans. The best way to do that is exposure, which MLS has already increased. The best method to get that exposure is to get fans invested in the league, giving them their own local team to watch and cheer for. And to do that, MLS needs to expand its brand.
MLS is already expanding rapidly, though many fans will disagree that the league is expanding too quickly and needs to slow down. It’s not. MLS already has the third-most average attendance of any sports league in the U.S., yet it’s smaller than the other professional leagues. MLS is playing catchup and has an exuberant amount of markets that are yearning to house a franchise.
Cities like San Diego, Phoenix, San Antonio, St. Louis and Detroit currently have bids for a team. MLS is looking to turn long-time La Liga watchers into MLS fans, and tapping into southwestern U.S. markets would be ideal. Give those fans incentive to watch.
Let’s not think that simply expanding the league will be enough. MLS has a lot of issues it needs to address: scheduling, playoffs, structure, etc. But none is more important than their most glaring issue, quality.
Don’t misunderstand, MLS is a good league. Is it the best? No, but maybe it can be one day. For now, if Americans want to watch the best of the best play, they won’t be turning to MLS.
A lot of fans choose to watch other leagues because they want to see the best teams and players, and it seems like the best world has to offer are playing in Europe. That’s not to say that MLS doesn’t have talent, it most certainly does and has proven it’s capable of getting world-renowned players. However, it’s one thing to have one or two premier players; it’s another to have a clubhouse full of them. What good is a one superstar if the talent surrounding him isn’t up to par?
The best way MLS can rectify the talent gap is to grant their clubs more spending power. But it’s not going to be resolved by throwing more money around; going out and spending more money on one or two players doesn’t rectify the situation. What good is spending tens of millions of dollars on a single player if the surrounding players are only worth the bare minimum? Clubs need to use their money wisely to go out and fill their rosters and coaching staffs.
If MLS wants to become more popular, they need to give fans what they want: good, quality clubs to rally behind. The truth is, MLS might just have to wait before it gets the recognition it deserves in the American media. But it’s important that they reach out to fans, and even more importantly, reach out to young fans.
Kids are playing soccer, and they want to go and watch it. By expanding its brand to reach these kids, MLS can secure a loyal fanbase for the future, just like the NBA, NHL, MLB, NFL and La Liga MX.
One thing is likely certain, MLS will eventually become one of the most popular sports in America. But the league still has some growing to do, as it and current fans simply have to be patient.