By Jason Davis - WASHINGTON, DC (May 16, 2014) US Soccer Players - No, Virginia, MLS is not a direct competitor for the hearts and minds of American soccer fans with the world’s most grandiose and cash-happy soccer operation, the English Premier League.
A world in which the two leagues are competing for fan allegiance is a world that doesn’t allow for fans to enjoy the merits of both. Soccer fandom is not an either/or proposition.
It’s quite possible to partake of Manchester United and Liverpool on Saturday mornings and turn to MLS for soccer sustenance in the afternoon and evening. The differing quality in the players of each is not, in itself, a barrier to entertainment. What MLS lacks in pedigree, it often makes up for with parity and its close cousin, unpredictability.
In other words, there’s no accounting for taste.
Taste is why there is a sliver of room for MLS to inject itself into the consciousness of a country of sports fans who - according to conventional wisdom - are only interested in the best. The league will have to work hard to do so. Still, there’s no reason to believe MLS can’t thrive on television alongside the offerings of the Premier League.
With that said, the relationship between the Premier League and MLS is obviously much more complicated than notions of competition. The battle for eyeballs isn’t direct, but the Premier League and its power does have an impact on the American soccer landscape.
Sunil Gulati addressed a portion of that impact at Soccerex in Jordan on Wednesday.
“Is the Premier League the best league in the world? Well, year on year it’s showing more games in the US – is that good or bad for US soccer and the development of the MLS? If you look at the amount of money that’s being spent on television rights outside of countries, it would be pretty hard to argue that’s good.”
“It’s certainly good for the Premier League,” he continued. “But if you could just spend 5 per cent of that on your domestic league – and recently we’ve seen that we’ve actually edged out the Premier League for domestic rights in the US versus what NBC pays the Premier League. That’s a good thing in my view but it’s taken 19 years.”
Gulati seems to be expressing a frustration - while being careful not to state it unequivocally - shared by any American soccer booster who believes the rise of the Premier League comes at the expense of the domestic game. Money that might otherwise go to soccer in the USA is leaving the country for coffers across the sea, making the path towards a big television contract for MLS more difficult.
Although as the president of US Soccer and an economics professor Gulati must be keenly aware that Major League Soccer rights fee advantage over the Premier League (the new MLS deal includes rights to the USMNT and USWNT, a major factor in the total) will be short-lived, there’s some power in the symbolism. For the time being, MLS is nominally more valuable to American television broadcasters than a foreign league featuring foreign stars and benefiting foreign soccer bodies. That’s a point in American soccer’s column.
On the other side of that coin, however, is the idea that Major League Soccer was never in line for that Premier League money. Worth mentioning is that's notably built on the back of a global approach to the sport. England is merely the stage for an international product).
There’s no guarantee that soccer’s big move into American television would even had happened without the presence of the Premier League. Perhaps MLS owe some debt to EPL after all. It’s conceivable that the world’s richest league proliferating in America opened up more avenues for one still working towards respectability.
It’s difficult to see how turning out more Chelsea fans could benefit MLS directly and in the short term. However, it’s reasonable to believe that if Major League Soccer tries hard enough, and enough time passes, those shiny new Chelsea fans will one day wake up to the joys of the American game.
Gulati’s statement hits at the heart of an issue for nascent soccer nations around the world, not just the United States. As long as foreign leagues dominate the soccer conversation, and as long as the appetite for those leagues drives spending on soccer outside of the country, the feeling will be that people are forsaking their own version of the game for someone else’s. The feeling persists even if the truth is more complicated and there’s a recognition that the Premier League’s appeal is undeniable.
Gulati must also be aware that there’s no changing the conditions that allow the Premier League to be so popular in the United States. Major League Soccer’s lot is to struggle for attention within its own country because it came along just when technology provided the opportunity for fans to take part in following the league cross the ocean.
Rather than a call for American soccer to benefit the most from American TV money, Gulati’s words come across as a lament. They are a lament that MLS wasn’t able to reach this point, with hefty rights fees coming in, until its 19th season. By that point, the Premier League had already become a phenomenon in America.
It’s a lament laced with the annoyance of a man tasked with growing the sport in a country where the domestic competition gets no benefit of the doubt. There was a time when an American league could grow into itself without worrying that its potential fan base would be distracted by another version of the game. The 21st century is not that time.
MLS isn’t in direct competition with the Premier League, because fan interest isn’t a zero sum game. But as Gulati’s words reveal, it doesn’t really seem that way.
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