Can the MLS be America’s biggest league?
Major League Soccer is undoubtedly growing as a product in the States, with an announcement made towards the end of last year that confirmed the league as the third most attended in the country behind the MLB and NFL.
The league has recently attracted former Premier League stars, Thierry Henry, Robbie Keane and Tim Cahill to sample life on the other side of the Atlantic; and of course the original superstar trailblazer, David Beckham is still going strong for LA Galaxy.
The set-up of the MLS is intriguing in the sense that it tries to replicate a traditional European football league; with a single-table structure, a champion and a relegation/promotion format, but incorporates the ideals of an American pro league at the same time- including play-offs and the financial need to break-even every year.
Like Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League, the MLS is formed of franchises- 18 in total, compared to the 30+ in the other US sport leagues.
The MLS struggles to compete with the other major leagues due to the comparatively small talent pool at its disposal. The other leagues represent the pinnacle for any aspiring player in their respective sport, whereas the most promising “soccer” players are most likely to realise their dreams in Europe.
This means that ideas to include more franchises as part of plans to raise the league’s profile would cause the talent to be spread too thinly.
But now in its 17th season, there is a real desire to take the league to a national level and engage it with the entire population; after spending time developing stadia and infrastructure.
It seems that the only way to increase the MLS profile is through enhanced television and digital coverage, which would allow the league to connect better with its fan base in order to grow.
It has taken steps to address this issue, with shows including MLS 36; that aims to introduce prospective fans to different players within the league and provides context about the teams involved.
Although the popularity of European football, particularly the Champions League and Premier League, still takes precedence among many American “soccer” fans; and there is still some reluctance to take the MLS seriously.
This is not helped by the erratic kick-off times, with the league still yet to create a habitual time slot for matches each week; compare this to the Premier League and fans can wake up on a Saturday morning and watch their favourite English teams play.
The MLS has certainly taken huge strides to compete with the other big US sports and move ahead of the likes of NBA in attendance figures; but the fundamental problems relating to the dominance of European football and the small talent pool of players means that the league can only expand so far before it reaches its limit.
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