MLS finding its footing

Seattle+Sounders+midfielder+Clint+Dempsey+attempts+to+shoot+past+Chivas+USA+defender+Jhon+Hurtado%2C+Sept.27

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Seattle Sounders midfielder Clint Dempsey attempts to shoot past Chivas USA defender Jhon Hurtado, Sept.27

Since its inception in 1993, Major League Soccer has gone from  being one of the lesser-followed leagues in North America to being one of its most popular.

After struggling to gain recognition and respect in its earlier years, the MLS has quietly become a fan favorite among other U.S. sports. Soccer is the most popular sport in the world, played in more than 200 countries by approximately 250 million players, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. 

Shane Murray, a writer who covers the Chicago Fire for MLSSoccer.com, said the league has improved vastly in terms of play since he first encountered it, and it has made a difference to fans. He said he was introduced to the team nine years ago after he met a woman in Dublin, Ireland, who was from Chicago and took him to his first game.

“Immediately, I was pretty impressed by the attendance, first and foremost, [and] the fanaticism of the fans, but to be honest, I think the quality of the product on the pitch was letting it down,” Murray said. “In the eight [to] nine years since, I think the product on the pitch has improved a hell of a lot. With the likes of [David] Beckham, Thierry Henry [and] Clint Dempsey [and] other big guys coming in, it’s made some of the local guys sort of step up their game.”

In terms of TV viewership, the popularity of the MLS does not appear to be as large as that of other sports. According to a November 2013 article by The Big Lead, regular season MLS games on ESPN averaged about 220,000 viewers and roughly half that figure for games on NBCSN last season. However, MLS ratings saw a boost following the World Cup as their All-Star game on ESPN2 drew 862,000 viewers, which is the most-watched MLS All-Star game since 2004. 

While the MLS viewership numbers may not be impressive, attendance is a different story. The MLS is the third-most attended sport in the U.S. and draws 549 more fans per game than the NBA, According to the Atlantic Wire. Small market teams such as Sporting Kansas City have consistently sold out and averaged 19,709 fans per game last season in a stadium that seats only 18,467, meaning more than 1,200 fans occupy standing-room only seats each game. 

Kurt Austin, communications manager for Sporting KC, said Sporting Park has capped out on several occasions, such as last year’s playoffs.

“If you look back at our Eastern Conference Championship and again at the MLS Cup, that was our capacity crowd,” Davis said. “It was a little over 21,500. Basically, [we had] the fire marshal coming in and saying, ‘Hey, you can’t sell any more seats.’ [The fan support] has been incredible for us. We have a waiting list for season tickets.”

Austin also said the team’s 2010 rebranding, which was years in the making under new ownership, as well as their new stadium, Sporting Park, have helped Sporting KC thrive in a smaller market.

“We were formerly known as the Kansas City Wizards,” Austin said. “We changed to Sporting Kansas City. All five of our ownership families are local, which is an absolutely massive point of differentiation for us in this market. The second big thing [for us] is obviously in 2011, when we opened up Sporting Park. [It is a] state of the art venue—we think it’s the best of its size in North America. It has made a night-and-day difference for [Sporting KC] in terms of our relevance and popularity in Kansas City.”

Sporting KC and U.S. Men’s National Team superstars Graham Zusi and Matt Besler signed extensions to stay with the team through the 2018 season, as announced on Sporting KC’s website July 19. Austin said the re-signings show the players’ belief in the MLS.

“From the player’s perspective, it speaks to what they recognize is happening here in Kansas City with the transformation of the game and how much it’s grown,” Austin said. “It also speaks to our ownership group and our coaches in terms of what they are hoping to get done with these two guys.”

In terms of low viewership, the MLS seems to have a plan in place to appeal more to national audiences.  In May, the MLS signed new eight-year agreements with ESPN, Fox and Univision that will run through the 2022 season. According to Forbes, the three deals are reportedly worth $90 million per year, roughly triple what MLS was receiving previously. The article also points out that it is financially still slightly behind other leagues’ TV deals. The NHL’s TV deal is worth approximately $200 million per season.

Salvatore Della Monica, director of communications for the MLS, said the new contract is the largest TV deal for soccer in North America, and that it shows there is a demand for the game.

“In partnership with these three networks, what you get is an MLS game of the week on Friday and on Sunday across all three networks,” Della Monica said. “Univision will have Fridays—call them football Fridays if you want. [On] Sunday, Fox will have a game of the week, followed by an ESPN game of the week. So across all three national partners, there will be a standard time at which you can catch an MLS game. That does not include local networks, which will play Saturdays, or ESPN3, where we will have other partnerships. We also have MLS Live [subscription package].”

Della Monica also said one of the important aspects of the new TV deal is balanced coverage among the MLS teams. 

“You have a minimum of 24 national appearances for each MLS club over the term [of the deal],” Della Monica said. “So you figure about three [games for each team] per year. The new deal will very much so bring MLS into the fold on what are three incredibly important sports networks.”