Reports have emerged this week showing that Major League Soccer is achieving higher average attendances than the NBA and the NHL. In fact, the average gate of just over 18,000 per game is second only to the NFL and Major League Baseball. With the World Cup approaching, and the American national team capable of producing an upset or two (possibly, dare I say it, against England), football in America is at an all time high, signifying a remarkable turnaround for game that had a difficult start to life in the States.
During the early days of professional football, or should I say soccer, in the United States, the most exciting aspect of the game was the kits. For those of you with limited knowledge of the beautiful game across the pond, The North American Soccer League was established in 1968 and is most fondly remembered for the New York Cosmos and their star studded team of ageing superstars such as Pele, Carlos Alberto and Franz Beckenbauer. Despite a couple of games at Giants Stadium selling out, the powers in charge of the NASL were facing an uphill battle in introducing a game to America in which only a tiny percentage of the population had the faintest of interests. To put it bluntly, soccer had about as much of a chance in making it big in America as an Englishman did in becoming the Yankees’ opening pitcher.
The NASL tried their best to make soccer as appealing as possible to the natives, Americanising the game with the hope of luring people away from the staple American sports – baseball, basketball and American football. No match was allowed to end in a draw; instead a penalty shootout would decide the winner. The stadium clock counted down instead of up and they even introduced a college draft system to bring home-grown talent into the professional arena. Whilst the first two measures mentioned actually sound quite enjoyable, one can’t help but think that the draft, at a time when football suffered from extremely low participation, played a part in the demise of the league.
Sure enough, the league was disbanded in 1985. Over ambitious plans of expansion, lowly attendances and an almost non-existent TV audience ensure the premature death of professional soccer in the States.
What a turnaround therefore that football is now the third most watched live sport in the country, outranking its basketball and ice hockey counterparts. Major League Soccer, founded in 1993, is more competitive than it ever has been, contains a number of top-quality players and has a well organised franchise system. The effect David Beckham has had on the league may be somewhat overstated, but the fact that serious players are now considering making the move across the Atlantic proves that MLS is now a very feasible option for European players.
As agents, we have become aware of the lure of MLS and have invested heavily in exploring options for our clients in America. Not only is it now a decent footballing decision, for English players young and old, living in America presents an opportunity to experience a new lifestyle and a vastly different culture. The growing shift in opinion of MLS is converting a league for has-beens into a league where players can play in front of good crowds, in modern stadiums and at a competitive level.
Of course, we should not get carried away. When you consider that there are only 16 MLS teams playing 30 regular season games each, it is perhaps understandable that the average attendance is higher than the NBA where teams often play up to four games a week. However, with a sensible expansion structure (two new franchises will join the league in 2011) and continued stringent financial management echoed by success on the pitch, MLS and its players can look forward to a very bright future indeed.