Major League Soccer is establishing itself as a viable sporting entity in the United States, but there are still many soccer (and non-soccer) fans who see it as a “minor league,” a place where the not-good-enough's play, a feeder system for the European leagues, and a retirement home where aging superstars end their careers.
But the MLS is growing, and the teams are getting more competitive, but there are still some things that can be done to boost its popularity.
*** Market to Men ***
For years, Major League Soccer has tried to create a family-friendly atmosphere that attracted soccer moms, little kids, local youth teams, and grandparents. It was a wholesome activity for families to enjoy, much like camping or visiting an apple orchard.
And so, MLS teams marketed to audiences that were the complete opposite of the scarf-wearing, beer-drinking, chanting, cursing, young to middle-aged male demographic that actually grew up playing soccer and enjoyed watching “real teams” like Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United, Liverpool, Bayern Munich, and AC Milan.
Recently, the trend has started to shift, largely on its own, and mainly within cities that already have MLS teams, and with the addition of real international star power, namely David Beckham, Thierry Henry, and Rafael Marquez, Major League Soccer has started to outgrow the stigma of being a league that produces subpar soccer.
But in order to sustain this shift, the league needs to embrace the “masculinity” that creates a party-like atmosphere at the stadiums. The commercials, billboards, magazine ads, and promotions need to stop looking like Target commercials geared towards families and start embracing the hooliganism-insanity that makes following a club exciting, adventurous, and somewhat dangerous. Essentially, male soccer fans in the U.S. are sick of being looked down on as a feminine version of NFL fans.
*** Compete in International Tournaments ***
But a huge number of soccer fans, especially those who don’t have access to a MLS team in their hometown, continue to perceive MLS as a wannabe newcomer. These naysayers will point out that the MLS still only has a handful of world class players, and the few “stars” that it does have joined the league near the end of their careers, at a time when their skills were already spiraling downward. They scoff at the MLS, and they would much rather watch Manchester City take on Arsenal than see the L.A. Galaxy versus the Seattle Sounders...point taken.
They will also point out that the MLS only produced a meager six players for the recent 2010 World Cup: Jonathan Bornstein, Landon Donovan, Edson Buddle, Robbie Findley, Roger Espinoza (Honduras), and Andrew Boyens (New Zealand). Besides Donovan, these are hardly household names...another point taken.
Contrarily, there used to be a time when the best American-born players played in the MLS, but now they’re leaving to play for foreign teams. These sad realities keep a huge number of diehard soccer fans away from the MLS, and it attaches an inferiority complex to a league whose teams struggle to compare themselves with prestigious international clubs.
To help dispel this problem, the MLS would be smart to lobby itself for participation in major international tournaments. The best scenario would be inclusion into the European Champions League, which there has already been rumored talk about.
What American soccer fan wouldn’t want to watch an MLS team take on the likes of Chelsea, Inter Milan, and Man United? Instead, the MLS routinely plays “friendlies,” where half the starters, and nearly all of the big-name players, sit on the bench, and the game has no real meaning.
For years, soccer competitions have been decided through geographic proximity, but money talks, and with sponsorship deals worth hundreds of millions hanging in the balance, European clubs would surely want to include MLS teams into the mix. Now is the time for MLS leaders to work out a deal. The entire structure of international club soccer will change within the next ten years, especially since the creation of a new “Super League” (Barcelona, Manchester United, Real Madrid, and Chelsea—to name just a few) seems increasingly more likely. Now is the time to work out a deal for the MLS to compete globally.
*** Continue to “Buy Big” ***
Even though Henry and Beckham are near the end of their careers, there is little doubt that they could’ve still played for one of Europe’s big clubs (and they still might). That being said, the MLS must still be willing to provide competitive contracts to big name players throughout the world.
Major League Soccer has yet to capture a premier star who is at the prime of their playing career. Imagine if Messi, Ronaldo, or Wayne Rooney decided to play for an MLS team today. Then imagine these players playing for an MLS team and competing against big European clubs during a meaningful tournament. This would be the ultimate dream scenario for the MLS, and if something like this were ever to happen it would cement the league as a legitimate international soccer force, and would unlock an earning potential that is currently restricted by its small and domestically confined reach.
Until that day arrives, the MLS can take pride in its domestic growth, but it should also make bold strides towards making itself more accessible to the average international soccer fan.