For fans of North America’s top-tier soccer league, 2015 has been a memorable year for a lot of reasons. We’re seeing incredible growth in the 20-year-old league, but there are still things to fix. Here are three things that show how far MLS has come – and three reasons to stay reasonable about its prospects.
Three Reasons to Celebrate Progress:
The 2015 league expansion
[adinserter block=”1″]The addition of NYCFC and Orlando City Soccer Club this year has not been without its drama (more on that later), but it’s hard to say that they were anything but an overall success. Both teams are attracting crowds, with NYCFC out-drawing their 20-year-old neighbors, the Red Bulls, and Orlando City routinely filling a large and attractive stadium. In fact, the most attended match of the year so far was the Orlando City-NYCFC showdown, where 62,358 fans showed up. That game helped fuel an attendance surge early on. In the first two months of the season, MLS attendance was up 11% compared to last year. Expect similar overall numbers for the year.
The TV deal
2015 has been a landmark year for another reason: MLS’s new television deal. MLS broadcasts are now split between FOX Sports, ESPN, and Univision under a new eight-year contract. The grand total is $720 million. At $90 million a year on average, that’s more than triple the old contract’s $27 million per year. A TV contract can make or break a league — just look at how the NBA has pulled away from the NHL over the past decade couple of decades — and MLS seems to have secured a good one.
The free agents
MLS has always sought aging European superstars, but their recent string of high-profile arrivals is worth noting. Andrea Pirlo, though 36 years old, comes fresh off an appearance in the European Champions League final. Pirlo, David Villa, Steven Gerrard, and Kaká are all big signings for the league, and they all debuted the same season. Kaká and Villa are 33, with a lot of years left in them.
It sounds odd, but perhaps the most exciting thing about these signings is that they’re not that exciting. These types of signings are less groundbreaking now than they’ve ever been, and MLS fans are more likely to be skeptical of foreign signings’ ages and declining skills. That ho-hum reaction to big names arriving is a luxury that MLS fans didn’t have even ten years ago.
Of course, one of those names up there didn’t quite debut on schedule – and that brings us to the three signs that MLS still has a ways to go.
Three Reasons to Stay Skeptical:
The Frank Lampard Debacle
NYCFC fans are tired of hearing about Frank Lampard, but the saga is an important part of why MLS needs to keep building legitimacy. MLS allowed the owners of a foreign club, England’s Manchester City, to acquire a majority stake in their New York expansion franchise. The new ownership’s priorities were made clear when Frank Lampard “signed with NYCFC,” but ended up spending half the MLS season in England. What Manchester City wanted, they got, and MLS was left holding the bag. There’s no quick fix here, but MLS needs to be careful about which owners they allow in the future. The league is getting too big for second-favorite teams and soft drink names (looking at you, Red Bulls).
The All-Star Game Selections
The MLS All-Star Game format is a neat little experiment in marketing. Instead of pitting the conferences against each other (as most other major U.S. leagues do), MLS assembles just one team of all-stars and plays an exhibition match against a foreign club side. It’s not a bad idea: it sells tickets, drives interest, and encourages fans of foreign soccer to come see what the domestic side has to offer. So far, so good.
[adinserter block=”2″]But this year’s All-Star team, which will take on Tottenham Hotspur FC in the game, is a joke. Most of the team was selected by fan vote, and name recognition was the winner of the day. Players like Toronto FC’s Sebastian Giovinco were left off the starting XI in favor of popular USMNT players like Graham Zusi. Commissioner Don Garber, who was allowed to add two players to the roster, rounded out the group with Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard. At the time of that decision, neither man had played a single minute in MLS. That may be good for marketing, but it’s a sure sign of just how badly this league still needs to be marketed.
When MLS was in its infancy, soccer-specific stadiums were not a concern. But as the years passed, plenty of teams built great new stadiums. Red Bull Arena (New York), BBVA Compass Stadium (Houston), and Avaya Stadium (San Jose), among others, are shining examples of this trend.
So when MLS added a second team in New York, fans expected to see them break ground on a new stadium. That should have been a part of the deal, but MLS let NYCFC’s ownership slide. The Yankees and Manchester City make for high-profile owners, and that’s good for the league, but playing games in a baseball stadium is an embarrassment.