MLS Soccer: On the Rise? Or Still A League Where Legends Come to Die?

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MLS Soccer: On the Rise? Or Still A League Where Legends Come to Die?

A look at MLS Soccer's quest to become America's fifth major sport, as the game continues to evolve in the States.

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A look at the quest of MLS Soccer to become America’s fifth major sport, as the game continues to evolve in the States.

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When Major League Soccer (MLS) officially formed in 1995, the U.S. was ripe for a new major sport.

Baseball and hockey suffered long work stoppages and the NBA was in a period of uncertainty after Michael Jordan’s return from his first retirement. But the 1994 World Cup (hosted by the United States) came to the rescue. It showed the viability of world-class soccer in the 50 states.

USA 1994 World Cup

However, by the time play began in spring of 1996, the aforementioned sports were solving their issues. MLS Soccer lost millions of dollars in those early years. It suffered further when the 1998 United States World Cup team, made up largely of MLS players, finished in last place at the event.

By 2002, owners contracted two franchises – the Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion. The league developed a reputation as a place for fading superstars from major European leagues to collect one last payday.

But, things were about to change for the better…

The Turning Point for MLS Soccer

In 2007, the addition of “designated players” allowed teams to exceed the salary cap to sign up to three additional players. The L.A. Galaxy’s addition of David Beckham late in his career, plus the continued export of talented U.S. stars to European leagues, led to critics jokingly dubbing MLS “the league where legends go to die.”

Fast forward 15 years, and Major League Soccer is arguably in better health than ever before. Ratings and attendance are up. The league has grown to 28 franchises. The United States is threatening to become a player on the world stage again.

Becks is back too, but this time in a co-ownership capacity.

David Beckham Inter Miami

So where did MLS succeed compared to so many other startup leagues that have failed? Let’s take a look.

Thinking Strategically About MLS Stadiums

Rather than continuing to try filling 60-70,000-seat football stadiums – with embarrassing results – MLS secured funding during the mid-00s to place some of its larger franchises in soccer-specific stadiums.

The L.A. Galaxy and New York Red Bulls were the two prime examples, moving respectively from the legendary Rose Bowl in Pasadena and cavernous Giants Stadium into arenas built specifically for soccer. Dignity Health Sports Park (formerly Home Depot Center) in Carson, CA, seats about 27,000 fans. Red Bull Arena in Harrison, NJ seats 20,000.

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When other major markets, such as Philadelphia, joined MLS, they did so in a specially built stadium and resisted the temptation of trying to fill NFL-sized stadiums.

The result? Better atmospheres for fans at the game and watching on television. And not to mention loyal fanbases of rabid season-ticket holders who’ve established reputations such as the Emerald City Supporters (Seattle) and Sons of Ben (Philadelphia).

Emerald City Supporters Seattle

MLS Team Expansion

Expansion has been both rapid (from 10 teams to 28 teams in 25 years’ time) and effective. The MLS continues to find markets hungry for professional soccer.

It started in 2007, as the league went into Canada with the founding of the Toronto FC expansion team. The Pacific Northwest was a gold mine, as Seattle and Portland would join the league as natural rivals late in the decade. They were joined soon after by the Vancouver Whitecaps.

In 2012, Montreal would become the league’s third Canadian franchise. Demand was strong enough that the additions of Los Angeles FC and New York City FC created the league’s first two-team markets. Cities such as Austin, Cincinnati, Minneapolis, Nashville, and Orlando would then join the party by the start of the 2020s.

Today, MLS is home to 28 teams. Further expansion into the Sacramento and St. Louis markets is planned for 2023 too!

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MLS Soccer on Television

In 2015, in the midst of the successful expansion era, MLS signed an eight-year media rights deal. This included deals with:

  • ESPN
  • Fox Sports
  • Univision

But some quick math tells us that deal is about to expire. Thus, the league is currently working to capitalize on its growth in popularity, repeatedly seeking a new deal worth up to $300 million annually in negotiations. 

What can MLS offer in the deal? As we’ve discussed, their presence across the United States and Canada continues to grow. Also, the fact that both nations qualified for this fall’s World Cup in Qatar certainly doesn’t hurt the argument.

United States Qatar World Cup

MLS also attracts a younger fan base than other major North American sports. This indirectly leads to a robust social media presence.

And the World Cup is Coming…

The crown jewel, of course, is the fact that the 2026 World Cup will again be held in the United States. This brings things full circle for a league that got its start right after the last World Cup hosted in the United States. It stands to reason that the winner of the media rights package would stand to capitalize from the excitement leading up to – and following – the major event.

MLS’ Growth in Statistics

So, how much has MLS Soccer ACTUALLY grown in the past years? We look at a few essential categories.

Popularity of MLS Socceer

A survey done for Gallup suggests that soccer overall is now the U.S. 4th-most popular sport, surpassing hockey in 2021 – and it’s within two percentage points on baseball for third place.

These numbers account for soccer worldwide, not only MLS. But the survey also found that MLS has jumped from Americans’ 13th favorite sporting league to No. 7.

These figures should only improve in the future, as soccer is statistically the second-favorite sport of Americans ages 12-24.

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Attendance

After cratering to a low of 13,000 fans in 2000, MLS set a new high mark in 2017, averaging over 22,000 fans per game. This placed the league behind only the National Football League and Major League Baseball for per-game attendance in major North American sports.

As in every sport, the pandemic has affected attendance numbers the past few years. But, as society reopens, Major League Soccer’s moves into soccer-only stadiums continue to create a fan-friendly presence and experience for a growing generation of fans.

MLS Soccer Stadiums

Player salaries

Admittedly, average salary is an area where MLS lags behind other major sports. Or even many other soccer leagues. The current maximum player salary is $612,500 (not including the three “designated player” signings, which are permitted to exceed this figure).

However, the goal is sustained growth. The MLS will accomplish this by raising this maximum figure to almost $900,000 in five years. A 45% increase.

If you look at the “designated player” signings in the MLS, the league has attracted some big names on some big money:

Highest Paid MLS Players Currently (Per Year)

  1. Carlos Vela, Los Angeles Football Club ($6.3 million) 
  2. Javier Hernandez, Los Angeles Galaxy ($6 million) 
  3. Gonzalo Higuain, Inter Miami CF ($5.7 million) 
  4. Alejandro Pozuelo, Toronto FC ($4.6 million)
  5. Luiz Araujo, Atlanta United ($3.9 million) 

It hasn’t been an easy road for MLS through its first quarter-century in existence, but the fact they’ve come this far suggests they’re not only in for the long haul, but that the sport is primed to become a major player in the North American sports market.

At some point, the questions will change from “can MLS become the fifth major sport?” to “why should they settle for fifth place?”.

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