By J Hutcherson (Mar 1, 2017) US Soccer Players – It’s easy to only focus on the upside when it comes to Major League Soccer. MLS has done its job, recovering from a struggling league to one that has multiple cities competing to add teams. MLS might have passed peak growth mode, but they’ve done it on the league’s terms. It’s a success story, full stop.
So why pick that apart? Why highlight the things still troubling the league, the corners they’ve been unable to round? Well, that’s how it works in pro sports. It’s never just the success story, especially when it’s success in limited terms. The Wall St Journal’s Matthew Futterman makes a bottom line point about a single-entity league not turning a profit. That’s indicative of everything else, whether or not it overshadows that success story.
What MLS has done in recent years is soccer-specific. Yes, it’s happened alongside the sports rights boom and increasing valuations for teams in other leagues. All of that fuels sports business and MLS benefits simply by being in the market. MLS can raise the expansion fee as much as it likes. It’s still going to be a cheaper option than buying into the other major leagues. So is running an MLS club once in the league. It’s still topflight pro sports on a discount, whether or not that flatters the league’s overall ambitions. It’s also a league with its own soccer-specific issues.
Identity is still a main one. This is a league that struggles to clearly outline a fan base to target. Early on, it was families. Then it was all of those people interested in soccer one way or another. Then it was the established Hispanic fan base. Then it was a younger supporter demographic. Then it was people willing to spend major league prices on major league soccer. This wasn’t linear, obviously. It’s a mix and match approach depending on the season and the marketplace. Just using TV ratings, there’s a strong argument that it’s never really worked well enough.
Piling on the league here is the easy move. Regardless of the accuracy of TV ratings, the league struggles enough to draw attention. If there’s a quick answer to salvaging the ratings, at least publicly, it’s probably not pulling out some number as a partial success. Lousy is lousy. Doing as well as the glut of soccer programming available on American television isn’t a win if their ratings are also lousy. When positioning in that larger sports marketplace, the comparison is the other pro sports. That’s the same issue for those other pro sports.
What’s uniquely MLS is the potential audience, the potential marketplace. Major League Baseball is about to show that there’s a larger potential marketplace with another edition of the World Baseball Classic. The National Football League plays games in London to show that its marketplace is larger than the United States. The NBA looks to Europe and China. The NHL also talks about getting bigger than North America.
It’s different for MLS. They’ve yet to maximize their North American audience while struggling against the easy definition. MLS is the only major league competing against multiple topflight versions of its sport in its primary market. It’s a different scenario requiring different strategies. Imagine if our fellow Americans all of a sudden decided they were really interested in Japanese pro baseball, the EuroLeague, or the Kontinental Hockey League. Now multiply that competition and it’s the MLS problem.
What haunts MLS is figuring out who their audience really is. All of those attempts to define it in order to maximize it end up as a struggle. Pick a segment, and MLS can show the long-term issue in building fan connections. That hasn’t changed since the mid-90s, compounded by the ease of access in watching and connecting to something else.
Considering that suffocating level of competition, MLS deserves credit for establishing their market, growing it, and pushing against the tradition of failed North American soccer leagues. That’s no small thing. What has yet to happen is the national breakthrough. In our era of everything available, it’s a fair question if that’s even possible anymore.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at email@example.com.
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