I have a feeling a lot of football, baseball and basketball fans are about to say something they haven’t said: “I can’t wait for Major League Soccer.”
That’s not a slight at the league — just recognition that MLS isn’t seared into the typical sports fans’ mind the way other organizations are.
But MLS has an unprecedented opportunity to capture and sustain an audience that might not have paid it mind before the sports world was shut down by the coronavirus pandemic. It’s likely going to be the first of the five most-watched U.S. sports leagues to return, and, well are you pumped yet?
“We are excited to get back to playing soccer,” Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey said Wednesday in a Zoom call with reporters. “We’re really happy the players agreed to ratify the collective-bargaining agreement and allow this tournament to go forward, and we just can’t wait to get back to what we do best.”
The tournament Lagerwey referred to is a 26-team event that will begin July 8 in Orlando, Florida. Every team will play a minimum of three group-stage matches that will count toward the regular season, which will be followed by knockout rounds that don’t count toward the regular season.
The Sounders’ playoff record (they won two of the past four MLS Cups and lost in the final during that span) suggest they have an excellent chance to win.
The NBA has a tentative start date of July 31. Major League Baseball hopes to hold opening day in early July but has yet to resolve a labor dispute and has no tentative start date. MLS could have much of the audience to itself for three weeks, and you have to think TV ratings would skyrocket.
Americans have been starving for sports for the past three months and will devour anything they can get their hands on. The viewership for “The Last Dance,” an ESPN documentary about Michael Jordan’s last year with Bulls, was off the charts. Same was true of “The Match,” which featured Phil Mickelson and Tom Brady teaming up against Tiger Woods and Peyton Manning on the golf course.
That isn’t to say these events wouldn’t have drawn large audiences in a world free of COVID-19, but the concept of supply and demand was on full display.
MLS is a rapidly growing league, but its TV numbers have never compared with the likes of the NFL, MLB or NBA. The circumstances of why the league is in this position are obviously awful. Nevertheless, there are loads of potential new fans there for the taking.
“I think this is an exciting opportunity,” Lagerwey said. “We’re looking at working with Disney, working with ESPN to try and introduce ourselves to an audience that maybe hasn’t seen the Sounders, maybe hasn’t seen MLS before.”
But he added a caveat.
“With that said … we are not rushing back here. The goal of this was not to be first to puff our chests out and say we want to do this ahead of everybody,” Lagerwey continued. “The idea was to get it right, come back in a healthy manner, and if we can do that, a positive externality of that was to maybe sample a broader audience, that’s great.”
It’s hard to say what the quality of play will look like. Players have been self-conditioning, but they haven’t been able to replicate the rigors of actual competition.
Will the two weeks of practice in Florida before the tournament begins suffice? Hard to say. But the public might forgive insufficient training in soccer more so than other sports.
If basketball players aren’t ready and go on to shoot 32 percent from the field, that’s a constant eyesore for the fans. Same would be true of tennis players double-faulting every fourth serve.
But in soccer, two or three goals are usually enough to energize the crowd. And people might not care how aesthetically displeasing the play could be before one is put in the back of the net.
The bottom line is this: The nation is pleading for a distraction right now, and MLS can give it to them. The league is gonna get its viewers, and if it does it right could very well keep them.