The professional U.S. soccer league is steadily gaining fans in … England?
Author Chris Wright Illustration Brett Affrunti
Last June, during a group match at the FIFA World Cup in Brazil, the USA and Portugal played to a steamy 2-2 draw in the middle of the Amazon rainforest. It was a disappointing result for the American team, which had led the game until the dying seconds. But for those who have been waiting for soccer to break through stateside, that match was seen as a huge, hats-in-the-air victory. With around 25 million people tuning in to watch, USA-Portugal achieved higher ratings than Game Five of the 2014 NBA finals and Game Six of the 2013 World Series. “Bigger Than Baseball,” blared a headline in the next day’s New York Times.
Executives at ESPN, Fox and Univision certainly had to be pleased with the level of enthusiasm, given that they had just agreed to triple the collective amount they pay to broadcast America’s domestic league, Major League Soccer (from $30 million to $90 million), which kicks off its 2015 season this month. Bigger than baseball? Maybe not, but at last MLS can boast higher U.S. television revenue than the English Premier League, whose games are shown on NBC for the princely sum of a little more than $80 million. Given the massive gulf in talent, finances and prestige between the leagues—the EPL is the richest, most popular league in the world—the coup is particularly impressive: a giant killing, as English soccer fans might say.
There are other bright spots: average stadium attendance for MLS games last year (19,000-plus) outstripped the NBA and the NHL; this season, the league will feature an expansion team in New York City (bankrolled by the New York Yankees and the Abu Dhabi–based owners of EPL club Manchester City), which will showcase the talents of superstars Frank Lampard and David Villa. Of all the positive indications for MLS, however, none is more remarkable than its rising popularity in the U.K., a country that is up to its eyeballs in soccer. With the likes of Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool battling it out for EPL supremacy every week, who has time for a diddly little operation like MLS?
Well, Louis East, for one. A Canterbury-based journalism student (and supporter of EPL team Tottenham Hotspur), East is also the founding editor of MLSGB, a U.K.-based fan site aimed at MLS enthusiasts on both sides of the pond. East launched the site about a year ago, and during that time, he says, interest in the league has become both more widespread and more intense. “You see it a lot on social media: English followers talking about MLS, getting involved in heated debates—proper football talk.” Visitors to his site are about 70 percent American, East says, “but month by month the Brits are catching up.”
Remarkably, MLSGB isn’t the only site of its kind in the U.K. Founded in 2009, MLS UK has amassed a stable of British correspondents, who write in-depth articles about individual MLS games, the league and its various subplots. “We’re all very big fans,” says co-editor Daniel Bidmead, who works for a creative video agency in London. “All of us are very passionate about it.”
That may be so, but the question remains: why?
For East, the appeal of MLS is the very thing that is often used to deride it—its immaturity, the absence of the historical precedents that fuel loyalty and rivalry. The flip side of this, he says, is a free-for-all thrill that is missing in more established leagues. “I like that you get to watch the league evolve,” he says, pointing to the ongoing expansion that has seen MLS go from 10 teams in its inaugural 1996 season to 20 today—including this year’s most anticipated newcomer, New York City FC. “Imagine,” he continues, “a new side being formed in the Premier League. We don’t get that here. No one has any idea what to expect. They could score six goals a game or concede six. That is so exciting.”
Certainly, even the most avid EPL fan would allow that the league has become predictable, insofar as it is dominated by a handful of rich and powerful clubs (in the last decade only three teams have managed to bring home an EPL championship). “There’s a lot of disillusionment in the Premier League, the way that money rules everything,” Bidmead says. “MLS is not like that. It’s a very grassrootsy kind of thing. There’s a parity that you don’t get anywhere else. You really do feel at the beginning of the season that your team has a chance of winning something.”
Much has been made of the relative dearth of money in MLS, a circumstance that limits the number of big-name players involved in the game and hampers efforts to build world-class facilities, thereby consigning the game to also-ran status on the global level. East, though, argues that the lack of cash may not be such a bad thing. “Unlike the Premier League, there’s not this sense that you cannot afford to lose,” he says. “There’s less pressure.” And too much pressure, as every soccer nut knows, can kill a game dead. “Even my friends, the more they watch, the more they say they enjoy it.”
It’s telling that East mentions his friends. No matter how ardent they may be, the overseas contingent remains small—something MLS is working to change. “Growing the league internationally is very important to us,” says Marisabel Muñoz, MLS’s vice president of communications. To this end, MLS recently signed an eight-year deal with global marketing firm IMG. This development represents an about-face for the league. “I spoke to [MLS Commissioner] Don Garber a while back, and he said that international expansion will come when the league has sorted itself out,” Bidmead says. “He wants to get the game where he wants it to be in America, and then they’ll reach out.”
It’s safe to say that MLS isn’t quite where it wants to be just yet. For one thing, the game is still nowhere near the so-called Big Four—football, baseball, basketball, hockey—in terms of cultural entrenchment. Many MLS regulations—such as refusing to adopt a promotion-and-relegation format—put it at odds with the rest of the world. And there’s the matter of finances: The league’s annual losses are said to be in the region of $100 million, a fact that raises the specter of the North American Soccer League, which imploded in 1984, 17 very expensive years after its launch.
The collapse last year of the Los Angeles–based franchise Chivas USA should serve as a warning to those inclined to get ahead of themselves. That said, this time around a rush of big-name (and deep-pocketed) backers has gotten involved, including the likes of Magic Johnson, Mia Hamm and Nomar Garciaparra. David Beckham is working to launch an expansion club in Miami. Again, though, it’s not all smooth sailing. Finding a permanent home for Beckham’s team has proved to be problematic; like so much else about MLS, the Miami project is up in the air.
This doesn’t bother East. In fact, he says, it’s the sense that anything could happen—or not—that makes MLS so enthralling. “The English Premier League is about as big as it can get, but MLS is growing. I’m very confident that it will become one of the best leagues in the world.” He pauses and adds, “Of course, I’m talking hypothetically.”
Hemispheres London bureau chief Chris Wright has endured a lifetime of anxiety as a result of his support for Chelsea FC. He would not recommend that anyone get involved in the game.