MLS: Chasing The Big Leagues

This month is known as “March to Soccer” for the faithful of Major League Soccer. It also marks the beginning of MLS’ 19th season, in what has been a long road just to get to the starting line of relevance in the U.S. This has taken sweat and equity from many dedicated people around the sport of soccer, from all walks of influence. The feeling is that the 2014 season will blossom into a different story. Fans could see the MLS take a quantum leap in growing its brand and further advancing the domestic version of the “beautiful game.” 

Rights Value Increasing

The 2014 season will open with 19 clubs – with Orlando and New York adding clubs in 2015. This is a dramatic change from just seven years ago, when the MLS had only 10 clubs. David Beckham’s ownership group is looking to add one of their own in Miami by 2017, according to a recent Kansas City Star report. The plan has been in the works since Beckham joined the LA Galaxy, when his contract included a guaranteed franchise deal. This would only be fitting for Beckham, who ushered in a new era of growth, one that is still underway, and largely responsible for the possible, new TV rights deal. Hoping to cash in on the broadcast rights bubble, the MLS reportedly is in talks to move to ESPN and Fox Sports 1 for approximately $70 million per year. While ratings haven’t been great, more money coming to the league should mean a better standard of play, and, most importantly, better talent on the field.

Attracting Talent

Beckham certainly brought new fans to the game, but perhaps more importantly, he opened the gates for a higher level of talent. After Beckham, the MLS has had more success in luring big names to the league, some towards the end of their run as a professional – Thierry Henry and Robbie Keane – and now, some in their prime – American stars Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley. Retaining American superstars, such as Dempsey and Bradley, has been, perhaps, the biggest coup for the MLS heading into this season, especially with the added notoriety and attention they’ll receive during this summer’s FIFA World Cup. But, their impact extends even further, potentially setting an example for the millions of youth soccer players across the country.

Homegrown Youth System

The story of Omar Gonzalez, and his rise to prominence on the LA Galaxy and the men’s U.S. National Team, is one that bears discussion. Growing up in Texas, Omar climbed the ranks of youth soccer to reach his status as an MLS Superstar, and it is talent like Omar’s that MLS needs to replicate to truly set this league on fire. Like football, baseball and basketball in the U.S., just look anywhere in your communities to find evidence of a strong pipeline of youth talent.

Since 2006, MLS clubs have been stockpiling their youth academies with local talent, players all eligible for their teams’ “homegrown protected list.” The quality of these programs has only improved throughout the years, with most MLS academies having budgets between $500,000 and $1 million. According to many league and team executives, these programs are crucial to the future of the game, and upgrading the product on the field. This summer, the fans will be able to see these up-and-coming superstars in action, during the inaugural Chipotle MLS Homegrown Game at AT&T MLS All-Star Week in Portland, Ore.

Even if it hasn’t translated directly to formidable television ratings, soccer has always been one of the most popular youth sports in the country. Of the 23.5 million children that play organized team sports, approximately 12.5 million of them play organized soccer. The drop-off to high school soccer is a bit more noticeable, with only three million high school players throughout the country. Why? Is it because the best athletes in the game of soccer aren’t from the U.S., like some other sports? When you look at the NBA or NFL, most of those athletes are the best in the world at that sport, and those leagues are the best in the world, bar none. When you look at the MLS, you only see some of the best athletes in our country, but not in the world. The MLS has upgraded its talent by leaps and bounds, and could now be considered one of the top ten soccer leagues across the globe.

These are all encouraging signs for Major League Soccer. People are showing up (the league averaged over 18,000/game in attendance last year), and investors with deep pockets look eager to invest in the league. The future looks incredibly bright for MLS – and filled with more homegrown talent. When that happens, MLS will be considered in the big leagues.

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