As more and more Americans have been introduced this summer to soccer played at the highest level, crushing television ratings of past World Cups, many fans of U.S. Major League Soccer have been rejoicing in an I-told-you-so moment.
The emphasis should be on the word "moment."
If I were an MLS official, I would be concerned that the World Cup will reduce the remainder of the my league's season to something like the National Football League Pro Bowl when it’s played the week after the Super Bowl -- without the Pro-Bowlers.
Related: Lessons from the World Cup
It took the established U.S. sports leagues decades of fits and starts to reach the popularity they enjoy today. So MLS deserves its dollop of patience. But the NFL, National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball never had to fight for audience and market share against rival overseas leagues and tournaments that were so obviously superior, or so readily available as in our hyper-connected world.
Ask yourself: Would the NFL be what it is today if, every four years, an international spectacle occurred on ESPN featuring 32 higher-quality football teams from abroad? Would the NBA have survived if, every Saturday morning in the early 1960s, NBC Sports had televised another basketball league’s offerings that were more skillfully played, before larger crowds, and with inevitably more drama?
I worked the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 for NBC, providing information for basketball announcers Marv Albert and Mike Fratello on the international teams as we followed the so-called NBA Dream Team from Portland, Oregon (for a qualifying tournament), to Spain. The Dream Team introduced world-class basketball to the universe that summer: a team with Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Charles Barkley. Its impact on the game is still being felt today. Several national teams are now capable of giving the U.S. a game, and there were 92 international players on opening-day NBA rosters last season.
Yet, the Dream Team hoopla translated into further indifference for the European and South American professional leagues in their home countries. By every metric -- attendance, revenue, infrastructure -- little has changed for these leagues in the last 20 years. They are stagnant.
In fact, you can argue that things have worsened: the best European and South American players now leave for the NBA at a much younger age than they used to, further diluting the quality of play back home. Those young foreigners are now playing in the NBA, the top league of the world -- much as Jurgen Klinsmann, the U.S. soccer coach, hopes his best players will migrate to the best leagues in Europe thanks to their World Cup exposure.
That’s the concern for MLS: Now that more and more Americans have been exposed to phenomenal soccer, will they buy into a U.S. soccer league that is markedly inferior, or will they clamor for more of England's Premier League and Spain's La Liga? According to the website MLS Attendance, 8 of the 19 MLS teams are averaging fewer fans this season than last; the 2013 MLS Cup drew an 0.5 television rating -- about 1/50th the size of the ratings for U.S.-Portugal last week. Finding a national fan base would be an uphill climb for MLS without the competition from overseas.
To create an environment in which MLS can one day compete with the world’s elite, almost everybody agrees, it will have to change its season to mirror the European leagues, so it can compete financially for the world’s top players. Yet this would mean starting the season in late summer and finishing in May. Which would mean fighting for audience share and weekend dates against the NFL and college football from September to February, in a lot of cold-weather climates.
Imagine that. The emphasis on "imagine."
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