Six Premier League teams were in the United States this summer increasing their global awareness. They were the most recent example of top clubs from across the world playing exhibitions in the states. The trend has raised the profile of the sport in America, but for MLS, it has an increasing America’s notion of it being a minor league for the sport.
The English Premier League (EPL) is getting their desired result from their clubs touring America during the summer. TV ratings in the United States are at an all-time high, as nearly every game is available. In addition, American companies are storming the castle looking for sponsorship opportunities. American-based sportswear company, Under Armour, signed a five-year deal with Tottenham Hotspur this summer. Joining Warrior as recent American companies to sponsor EPL teams. Warrior, known most for lacrosse and ice hockey equipment, signed a deal with Liverpool to be the club’s kit manufacturer. It is the most lucrative kit deal in EPL history at £25 million-a-year. Both Under Armour and Warrior are hoping to launch major European wings to their business through their relationship to the EPL.
Major League Soccer (MLS) is not seeing a large trickle-down effect from America’s exposure to the EPL. In fact, it is being exposed as an inferior product. The American sports fan is no longer naive to the sport. Every major international football competition is seen in their entirety, resulting in fans being able to watch the best players in the world play at the highest level on a consistent basis. American sports fans expect to see the best players in the world, regardless of sport, something they can’t do by watching the MLS. Sports that America does not excel at, lag behind sports the country dominates at like American football and basketball. All four major American sports leagues (NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL) can claim to be their sport’s best league in the world with the sport’s best players. MLS ranks far behind many leagues across the world. Therefore, while Americans flock to summer friendlies to see the stars of Chelsea and Liverpool, they are less keen to spend money to see the comparatively starless FC Dallas.
ESPN has recently released an EPL commercial in America with the tag line, “The world’s greatest football league,” ahead of the network’s coverage kicking off this weekend. It is hard for any league, let alone MLS, to argue ESPN’s claim. It still must be a bitter pill for MLS to swallow, seeing one of their top national broadcasters creating excitement for the sport without a mention of the nation’s top league. It gives the perception MLS is a minor league and a minor property for the powerful sports company. American TV ratings from November bear out where MLS stand compared to the EPL. A morning match shown on Fox between Liverpool and Arsenal drew a 1.1 Nielsen ranking. Later that same day, the MLS Cup with David Beckham’s L.A. Galaxy merely recorded a 0.8 rating on ESPN. If the league’s championship event can’t create enough excitement to be America’s most watched football game of the day, it has a long way to go to be a respected league in America’s high-stakes sporting landscape.
MLS has long said having top clubs and matches in the United States are good for the league. The MLS was started largely out of excitement derived from the 1994 World Cup in the United States. The impact is there, but it is always been short-lived for the league. Eventually fans realize the level of MLS does not match the level of passion seen during a World Cup or EPL match and do other summer activities. The attendance was strong in the league’s opening year, but saw a dramatic drop off in year two of over 16%.
American soccer stars Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard are each examples of players enjoying successful careers in England’s top league. They started their careers in MLS, before making the lucrative move across the pond. While it is normal around the world for footballers to move to England or Spain from other “smaller leagues,” it does not make MLS look like a major league at home. Currently, it is expected for any top young American player to go over to England to elevate their skills. Other American pro sports do not see their stars leave for other countries. Rather, they attract players from other countries.
Certain MLS cities have created a buzz around their entity. The Seattle Sounders play in front of over 38,000 people on a regular basis, but the positive energy is not seen across the board. Other teams like the New England Revolution struggle to draw large numbers to their games. Overall, new soccer-specific stadiums have helped the league draw more people to the games, but TV ratings still suffer compared to other major American leagues with no star-laden teams for the league to point towards.
Soccer is more popular than ever in America. The Men’s National Team has participated in the last six World Cups and the Women’s National Team won Olympic Gold. However, until MLS can lose the notion of being a minor league for other top leagues in the world it will not create a major dent in the American sporting landscape.