The good news for MLS is that more people are attending its games in person. The bad news is that it’s struggling to get fans to tune into games on TV.
Inside sports business
For the first time since their Major League Soccer debut nine seasons ago, the Sounders did not finish atop the circuit in attendance.
The Sounders still enjoyed one of their strongest seasons yet at the turnstiles — averaging 43,666 fans — but were bested by expansion Atlanta United FC and its record 48,200. Atlanta also set a record by drawing more than 800,000 total fans — beating Seattle’s mark of 752,192 — and helped MLS surpass 8 million spectators for the first time.
That was the business highlight for a league still struggling to draw television viewers comparable to other major North American sports. There’s a general impression throughout the sports world that the entire fan base for any MLS team, even a premier franchise like the Sounders, is little more than what can be counted inside the stadium.
And it largely explains why MLS continues playing to its business strengths and marching onward in expansion mode — and possibly relocation mode — in order to bolster its value in search of greater TV numbers down the road.
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MLS commissioner Don Garber told the Yahoo Finance All Markets Summit in New York last week that the league will choose two more expansion sites come December. MLS is already adding a second Los Angeles team next season and possibly one in Miami if a new stadium plan is finalized.
“We’re at 23 teams now (including the new L.A. franchise) and when I came in there was 10,’’ said Garber, commissioner since 1999. “There’s been a lot of growth over the last near two decades.’’
Garber said the young demographics of MLS fans, particularly “Millennials,” are “rising tides that are pushing up the value of everybody.’’
Indeed, the most recent Forbes valuations in August showed the average MLS franchise now worth $223 million — up 20 percent over last year. Crowds exceeding 70,000 for some Atlanta games and fellow expansion squad Minnesota United FC placing 10th in attendance out of 22 teams continue to suggest untapped demand for the product.
There’s heavy talk of the Columbus Crew, one of the league’s more celebrated franchises, relocating to Austin, Texas, by 2019. Garber suggested last week that relocating the Crew isn’t a done deal, but it’s tough not to see swapping out Columbus for Austin — one of the nation’s fastest growing cities and lacking professional sports — boosting franchise values overall.
And more value, money and increased spending won’t hurt that MLS quest for bigger TV numbers.
Three seasons into a new TV package with Fox Sports and ESPN, the league continues to garner audiences in the mid-200,000 range. By comparison, the No. 4 pro sports league, the NHL, averaged 475,000 on NBC and NBCSN during a down 2016-17 campaign.
The failure of the U.S. Men’s National Team to qualify for next year’s FIFA World Cup in Russia also means the league will lose a shot at the usual marketing blitz soccer receives every four years in this country. During the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, soccer fever in U.S. cities led to overflow crowds watching games in bars or public spaces.
“It’s a missed opportunity,’’ Garber told the Yahoo conference. “And we all in our industry need to recognize that. When the U.S. is playing and they’re lining the bars … you have people that might not be followers of the game but are followers of, in this case, the men’s team being our ‘America’s team’ and it brings new people in to the sport. We’re going to miss that.’’
MLS received a 9 percent TV boost in 2014 compared to 2013 attributable to heightened soccer interest from the World Cup that likely won’t be as big next time.
Back in May, MLS unveiled a plan to increase TV numbers that included greater network access to interviews, behind-the-scenes footage and more “mic’ing up’’ during games. But the greater challenge remains upping the caliber of play to where U.S. fans of other soccer leagues regard MLS beyond a junior circuit.
And that will take greater spending to lure top international stars and keep homegrowns such as Shoreline product DeAndre Yedlin from heading overseas. MLS continues to increase allocated money that can be spent on top players beyond the standard roster maximum.
“Some of our most popular players, if not our most popular players, are foreign,’’ Garber told the Yahoo summit. “Yet, they’re so recognized to people who love the game.’’
David Villa of New York City FC, Bastian Schweinsteiger of the Chicago Fire and Miguel Almiron of Atlanta are but a few of the international talents lured to MLS with big money in recent years.
That led to more parity this season. Even an expansion squad like Atlanta garnered enough talent via spending to make the playoffs before being eliminated in the knockout round by Columbus last week.
There is evidence U.S. fans will watch games of soccer leagues they view as superior to MLS. English Premier League viewership on NBC typically garners 400,000 or 500,000 viewers and outdraws even the NHL at times. Mexico’s La Liga MX was the U.S. soccer ratings king last year, averaging 1.1 million mostly Spanish-speaking viewers on Univision-owned Unimas.
La Liga even took the step this year of signing a Facebook livestreaming deal in a bid to go after more English-speaking U.S. soccer fans starting in February. That challenge on its home turf is just one more obstacle MLS faces in its bid to grow beyond a secondary pro league in this country.
For now, it will just keep trying to grow — period. And hope the rest follows suit.