Can MLS ever emerge from the shadow of European football?
Watching the spectacle of the Dodgers and Diamondbacks open their season on a cricket pitch in Sydney, attempting to take the struggling MLB brand global, my mind inevitably wandered back to soccer.
As the bemused Aussie crowd watched Yasiel Puig slug for the fences, I was reminded of a question I had recently been asked about America’s surging fascination with soccer: Is it inherently connected to a fascination with the exotic, cosmopolitan and foreign? The question is one with massive ramifications for MLS, the domestic entity that is as American as Timber Joey. The 18-year-old league is eager to build its local fan base. Though soccer's popularity is rising fast in the U.S. and Premier League ratings are surging, MLS’ television coverage lies blotted in the shadows. The issue had been seeded in my mind one week before a conversation with an MLS team rep. Could it be, he asked, that MLS is battling not only perceptions of quality and the league’s new-automobile smell but also the challenge that America’s newfound love of soccer is intrinsically tied to a fascination with the global nature of the sport? Like Japanese selvedge jeans, Stella Artois, "Downton Abbey" or the curiously accelerating profile of cricket, to what extent are Americans drawn to soccer precisely because it is not American? Instead, are they drawn to the foreign culture that surrounds the European game? The question suggests a hurdle that would present a profound challenge for the American league. David Carter, executive director at the USC Marshall Sports Business Institute, can understand the case. “The European leagues are entrenched; soccer is Europe’s sport of choice,” he says in explaining the burgeoning attraction. “The passion, the commitment... many teams have become lifestyle brands, not unlike the way the NFL has... in the United States.” The issue for Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon, is one of bandwidth caused by the sheer abundance of soccer available on American channels, including the Premier League, Bundesliga, Serie A, La Liga and Ligue 1. “The fans have simply gravitated to the premium product,” he says. “With more premium sports available to U.S. fans, I suspect international soccer is now grabbing ratings share from other domestic leagues.” However, this nation’s ability to consume sports content should never be underestimated, according to Stefan Szymanski, professor of sport management at the University of Michigan. “Americans have an enormous appetite for sport on television," he says. "They are adding football to their existing portfolio without subtracting the NBA or NFL. They have simply acquired an interest in soccer globally.” MLS’ challenge is one Szymanski believes can be solved only by increased investment. “The Premier League spends something like 30 times as much as MLS,” he says. “When MLS pays that much, Americans will watch.” The league’s recent high-profile strategy of repatriating American stars Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley, thus accentuating its core North American brand value, meets Swangard’s approval. “MLS will not compete for world's best talent,” he says. “The league should own U.S. soccer and hope the quality of play improves over time.” Carter agrees that the league’s approach of going all-in on homegrown American talent is an effective way to differentiate itself. “Having name brands -- American stars emerge and stay in the States -- helps demonstrate the league is gaining in competitiveness and relevance on a global scale," he says. "As the quality of play continues to improve, fans that have dismissed MLS in favor of international soccer may revisit it and help its growth.” Szymanski is not sure. “There is a logic in an American-first strategy,” he says. “People are nationalistic. They actually do tend to prefer to watch their own nation’s talent if they are good enough. If there was an American equivalent of Lionel Messi, he would be more popular than the real one, but an American Messi with one-tenth of the talent of the Barcelona star is not going to cut it.”