In most countries, the name of the game sound alike. Words like football, fussball, futbol, futebol… don’t just sound the same, they are the same game. In the U.S., however, they call it soccer. Major League Soccer (MLS) as an American professional soccer league has been around for some time now.
Unlike other American major league sports, MLS does not dominate the sport’s public attention on global scale, nor its champion is crowned as the ‘World Champion’. MLS has been going through constant development. Did it gain significant public and media attention in the world football? No!
Soccer as the 2nd, 7th or 10th most popular sport in the U.S. doesn’t make a great difference, the American public will still follow the NFL, MLB, NHL or NBA. The world public would follow those leagues with same attention as they are world’s most prominent sports leagues.
In recent years with the globalization of media, the world sports scene has started to change; in that process, English football Premier League, promotes itself as ‘The Greatest Show On Earth’ and is in fact the world’s most popular and most watched sporting league, with a current worldwide viewership of half a billion people and media income for seasons 2007 to 2010 worth over $5 billion. If the world will watch football leagues like English Premiership or Spanish La Liga, who will watch the American major league sports other than domestic spectators? Will a part of the American public turn to watch overseas football leagues as well? Such questions made soccer be an issue in the U.S sports.
Every now and then, the MLS officials would wake up from the drowsiness of being in shadows of Top 4 American major leagues around the time when World Cup takes places and it becomes evident how immense the game of football is in the terms of world public interest, media attention, sponsors.
As the noise around World Cup passes, the MLS would fall back in drowsiness. It was not to be like that after the World Cup 2006 in Germany when the world public had clear picture of European football’s modern stadiums, multi-million player contracts… the world sports spotlight got a hold on football.
This time it’s not the MLS who is to take the initiative of promoting MLS, it’s the whole of American professional sports entertainment industry. It is an economic opportunity where the money revolving around the world football was too great to be missed or discarded.
In the summer of 2007, U.S. soccer attempted to take over the world football by storm by offering David Beckham a $250million contract, the most expensive football player contract in history of the sport, some described it as the deal to bring Beckham to America is thought to be the biggest in sporting history. MLS sent out a message to the world.
In the midst of summer when European leagues were between the seasons and the waters were still, MLS got the wanted exposure with news stories being dominated with the Beckham family moving to LA. Did the stories overtake the world football media and public attention in favor of MLS yet? No!
Is $250 million worth of exposure in the long run? Time will tell. Autumn came, European and international leagues are in full swing, the world sports news publish less articles about Beckham, LA Galaxy and the MLS. To make things worst, LA will hardly make the play-offs, giving the media less to write about.
In the league that has had an overall lost of more than $350 million in the first 8 years after its foundation (a BusinessWeek report from 2004), where at the present time only two teams, LA Galaxy and FC Dallas, are profitable with 3 additional teams expected to be profitable within a year, a $250 million one-player investment seems like a gamble. If so, what are the odds?
In recent years, several notable players chose to make the step away from the bigger leagues of Europe and South America for a financially good contract with teams from the Gulf countries. The headlines reported rich transfer deals, though there was no to little follow-up in media coverage of those leagues.
Not to be forgotten, prior to David Beckham’s arrival, MLS attempted to gain exposure with Freddy Adu, a player under the age of 16 that was crowned as the next Pel é. Adu received significant media attention, the world knew he’s playing for DC United of the MLS.
Many may or may not know that Adu, this past summer at the age of 18, signed a contract in Europe with Benfica FC – Portugal. Prior to joining Benfica, Adu spent some time during summer in the Man Utd’s training camp, Alex Fergusson did not give him the reason to stay.
Benfica paid to the club from Salt Lake City $2million for the player’s release note and Adu will receive $1.2million per year, solid but not the contract that tops the news. Adu was not on Benfica’s Champions League match roster against Milan on Sept. 18th, in compare a player like Messi at the current Adu’s age was already among the starting 11 for the football giant FC Barcelona. The MLS didn’t appear to have gained substantial attention for the sport with Adu, nor contributed to his development into the world dominant player as expected. Through history, some of the best players of all times played soccer in the States, including Pel é, Beckenbauer, Eusebio…
After the decades long attempts that did not give hoped results for the success of U.S. soccer, what difference Beckham’s playing (currently on a 6 week absence due to the injury) may makes now? Let’s have a brief look at the MLS, a professional soccer league that started in 1996 with more than 10 seasons of experience under way.
Logistics and facilities:
On the day of publishing this text, September 27th 2007, Beckham’s LA Galaxy is playing against the KC Wizards. SPORTiana.com, as the author of this text, had the insight in MLS through KC Wizards in the summer of 2006, a year prior to Beckham’s arrival in the MLS. At that time KC Wizard’s head coach complained about having himself and 2 more assistant coaches to run the team’s training, forcing him to leave several players from 26 man roster sitting on the bench because of not being able to have them all on the field during trainings at the same time.
The training facilities included one open-air field and the in-door field with gym used by the NFL team KC Chiefs, within the Arrowhead Stadium complex. The Wizard’s open air-training field was situated next to the fence aside KC Chiefs training fields.
Grass on the Wizards field was almost separated turfs on the ground as hard as a rock, a field where many players would pass on training in order to avoid injuries. A head coach, 2 assist coaches, fitness trainer… NFL stadium and facilities… small office space at the corner of a stadium… it would be quite a contrast to the clubs from leagues where Beckham previously played.
Majority MLS players come in the league as drafted college players. College soccer usually means player’s playing for a full ride scholarship with the first pro contracts signed at the age of 22 or so. In other countries, first pro contracts are usually signed at the age of 18, at the age of 22 the player is coming out of a 4 year contract and managers have a better understanding of a player’s capabilities in pro football.
This means college players are 4 years behind. By signing a first pro contract at the age of 22, they would come out of the 4 year contract at the age of 26, at that time, major world football clubs would rather invest their money in a 22 year old’s prospect who has also had 4 years of pro football experience. College players hardly pass over playing in the MLS (players’ first pro contract) on their way to better paid leagues as most foreign clubs would not sign a college league soccer player with no pro football experience at the age of 22.
Prominent American players like DeMarkus Beasley ($2million to PSV – Netherlands, currently for £700,000 with Rangers – Scotland) or Tim Howard ($4million to Man Utd – England, currently with Everton after being loaned), joined MLS directly from high-school without playing college soccer, just like Freddy Adu.
For an average football fan with the choice to watch a variety of matches, e.g. the giants of the game squaring up in domestic leagues like this past weekend when it was Man Utd vs Chelsea in England, Barcelona vs Sevilla in Spain, Roma vs Juventus in Italy, PSV vs Feyenoord in the Netherlands… Boca Juniors games in Argentina, Lyon in France… there’s little space for MLS.
A football fan wants to see the competitiveness, passionate fans, decades-long fierce rivalry between the clubs, tradition, the world’s best players, established players with reputation of playing for prestigious clubs, ultra-modern football-specific stadiums, most of which the MLS does not offer. The MLS needs to gain the interest of the American public and media in order to gain the same interest with the world public. Hard-working, attractive all-around players like Eddie Johnson of the KC Wizards or DC United’s Jaime Moreno, who proved their quality in this summer’s Copa America 2007 are the prototype players for a successful competitive league.
The MLS’s proposed soccer-specific modern stadiums for all clubs are a step forwards. German Bundesliga witnessed tremendous boost of public interest and media attention on domestic and global level prior to and after the World Cup 2006, with a legacy of great new and renewed old stadiums. The MLS ought to internationalize as much as possible, the English Premiership did it, when foreign billionaires started buying clubs, world class players arrived in even great number to make it the most watched and profitable football league in the world. Many writers have speculated on why football is not as popular in the U.S. as it is in some other countries, most of them point to the fact that the game does not have enough scoring. Changing rules of the game in favor of having more goals per game may be beneficial this time around.
Football is a powerful force, it already changed the North American major league sports philosophy, MLS clubs are competing in the Super League and the Copa Sudamericana, The New York Red Bulls new stadium will feature a full “European-style” roof, in 2007 MLS started selling ad space on the front of jersey (a floor of $500,000 per shirt sponsorship), following the practice of the international football.
As the Latin American immigration increases in the US, so is the interest in football. With football being the most popular recreational sport for both boys and girls, the MLS has potential. In 2006 Don Garber, MLS Commissioner, expressed his expectations for the league’s clubs to be profitable by 2010 overall. LA Galaxy’s merchandise sales through Beckham’s next 4 four years with the club may not top $600 million as it was during his time with Real Madrid, still an MLS player made onto the covers of Sports Illustrated magazine and gather a crowd of 66,000 spectators at a packed Giants Stadium.
In the words of David Beckham about his move to MLS: “I’m coming there to play football… I’m not saying me coming over to the States is going to make soccer the biggest sport in America”. It’s about taking one step at the time, if soccer aims to make it in the football world.