It was June 17th, 1994, and the eyes of the world were centered at the United States, specifically at the mythical Soldier Field in Chicago. The new version of the Jules Rimet trophy was finally on American soil. The stadium was packed with ‘real’ soccer fans and with world leaders , entertainers and politicians present observing and watching what was labeled at the time the greatest World Cup in history. People across America were also captivated by the inaugural game of the 1994 World Cup watching it on television, breaking all soccer TV ratings. Yes, for the first time in the history of sports, soccer was making the evening news and more importantly soccer was a topic of conversation. The game featured a young Bolivian squad led by Marco ‘El Diablo’ Etcheverry facing off against a world soccer power and champion Germany. It was popular World Cup, and one that was believed would change how Americans viewed the sport. Fans seemed hungry for a soccer league then. However, almost 30 years since US 94′ and by no means soccer is among the most popular sports leagues in America. The question is: What went wrong? Although, the MLS is not as popular as some may thought, the league still looks promising. In order to be successful, there are important steps that the league needs to take to become a popular sports league. If the MLS adopts them, I can assure you that the league can still become the football league of the future.
The first and most important one is to understand the market and its fanbase. It is almost unreal that it took nearly twenty years for MLS management to figure out who its market was. I have to admit that there been significant progress in terms of understanding who is consuming the league in the last few years. However, that was not the case in the late 90’s and 2000s. America unlike what other foreign fans may think, has ‘real’ soccer fans. By that, I mean that fans are extremely knowledgeable and passionate. They research and are aware of the news across the Football world. They were like that even before the explosion of the internet. The product must be of the best quality in order to be consumed in America. As an example, I remember that the MLS had something called ‘shout outs’ to determine a winner in their early years of the league. Most of the original teams played on American Football stadiums, and that just did not feel right . I remember this was upsetting for many fans in the states and around the world. This sort of underestimation by the MLS of its fanbase and market proved to be a huge mistake. The league has done a better job in understanding the needs and preferences of its fanbase. But the lack of that knowledge prevented the league to become popular in the early 2000’s. The MLS should continue researching and learning more about the American soccer fan.
Another example of how the league underestimated its market, was by introducing the so called ‘franchise’ player in the mid 90’s. This was an attempt to attract casual fans and mainstream fans with name recognition. What it actually did, was to devaluate the league. The competition become weak and that was reflected when MLS teams faced Mexican and Latin American clubs in international competition. Teams wasted most of its budget signing an old ‘washed up’ player from Europe or Latin America, that most often than not, contributed very little to the success of the team. Although, the franchise player status still exists, some teams are now looking into south America and the Mexican league to sign talent. They still pay big bucks for them, but at least this type of moves increases the level of competition around the league. If MLS officials decide to abandon the franchise player tag all together, that would be the one of the best moves the league could make. Teams will be able to sign multiple high level young players for the price of one. It will increase competition and perhaps eventually pay off, by selling them to Europe as many leagues like Mexico and Argentina do. They can potentially have a return for their investment. Fans will see that teams are really trying to win a championship and not to simply make a profit.
Finally, it is crucial to change the whole calendar. This perhaps is the biggest challenge the league faces. It is for many reasons. The television networks still do not trust that people will turn in to watch a soccer game over a baseball game or a basketball game per say. MLS is always given the worse deals and relegated to be on an obscure channel like a ESPN 4 or a CPAN type of sporting channel. In order to get more prime time, the league is forced to come up with a calendar that goes against what the rest of the world does. When most leagues in the world are deep into their championships in late January, the MLS is barely starting their pre-season games. By doing this, the MLS is able to get some prime time slots on channels like Univision and ESPN Deportes, but significantly lowering its competition. The MLS historically has blamed the cold weather in many US states for the late start of its championship. If that was the case, then Germany, Poland or Russia would start their football leagues until the end of March as well. The NFL would start its season in March and end in October. I suspect that by providing its fans a quality product, fans will follow. If TV networks see that stadiums are filling and fans are responding they will give the MLS the time slots it deserves. We are actually seeing some of that television time for new and popular teams such as the Atlanta United and the LAFC. MLS, please give fans the opportunity to see a champion being crown in the summer.
The league still has potential. I can make a bold prediction and say that in 10 to 15 years the MLS will surpass the NHL in popularity and perhaps challenge baseball for TV ratings. In order to do that, they have to provide its fans with a great product. No one expected that the MLS would be this big in 2020. They actually had bigger plans for it. In my estimation is still the football league of the future. However, they must treat fans with respect, follow my recommendations and as an added bonus, please stop bringing more expansion teams. In the United States there is a market for everything, that’s right, we just like things done right.
The future was unknown for the MLS in 1994 as it was for ‘El Diablo’ Etcheverry in the inaugural US 94′ game versus Germany in Chicago. He was given a red card in the first few minutes of that game and was unable to help his team advance to the second round. As a fun fact, It was one of the fastest red cards in World Cup history. If the MLS does not get his stuff together, fans and critics will give the league a red card as well. For now, I give the league a yellow card and a warning, it has survived longer than expected.