The latest installment in the never-ending story surrounding Major League Soccer and its expansion plans arrived last week, as Orlando City Soccer Club was officially announced as the league’s 21st franchise, to join New York City Football Club as new entrants in 2015.
The story of football’s expansion and rise in the US is impressive, especially given the context of its domestic league’s relative young age, but a look at the FIFA World Rankings shows that at 14th place (as of the time of writing), the US is here to stay.
To explore just how football has developed in America though, we have to first look back across the pond and to the Premier League, whose increasingly globalized product is at the heart of it all.
NBC Sports deliver polished Premier League product to US audiences
The new PL carrier in England, BT Sport, recently struck a groundbreaking deal to carry the Champions League from 2015-2018, as reported by BBC Sport.
But they’re arguably not even the biggest newcomer to have caused waves through the football television industry. That accolade goes to America’s NBC Sports, who have well and truly taken football coverage in the U.S. up several notches, especially in comparison with the likes of FOX Soccer and ESPN.
NBC’s coverage is a curiously familiar one, especially to those already well versed in typical English broadcasts. There’s little to interfere with normal play, and the analysis shows before and after the matches—as well as during half-time—all feature English commentators and pundits.
Essentially, NBC have stuck to the basics and not delivered any coverage that might come across as patronizing towards the American viewer; they’ve assumed that their audience is familiar with football and have promoted intelligent discussion with this as the basic assumption.
Add in the aggressive marketing campaigns that NBC have embarked on—especially in New York City in the buildup to the 2013/14 season—and the conclusion thus far is that the English Premier League has been an unequivocal success. Keeping with the core English base but adding some of that famous American marketing and broadcasting technique on top? Sounds like a winner.
Football’s rise in America
For avid fans of the Premier League—and no doubt for its executive team—the fact that NBC’s coverage has been a success in America bodes well for the future of what is surely now the world’s most popular and exported professional sports league, so much so that the PL is now seen in some circles as NBC’s flagship product.
But those worried about any possible decrease in interest in Major League Soccer because of the widespread coverage of the Premier League need not fret: According to this New York Times report, since PL coverage began on NBCSN, viewership of the eight MLS games on NBC has increased by 60 percent, while the number of unique visitors to NBC-streamed MLS games has jumped 322 percent.
There was never any worry about Americans’ interest in their own national teams in World Cup years—whether it be the men’s or the women’s tournament. Neither was there ever any worry, especially in recent years, about support of their local MLS teams, who have boasted stadium attendance numbers to rival and surpass those of both the NBA and NHL, according to this Forbes article. Nor was there any worry about American football fans paying attention to their overseas-based stars, such as Tim Howard, Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey (the latter two have, of course, returned to the U.S.).
So the fact that TV viewership of MLS is rising—and alongside the Premier League—is massively encouraging for the sport and its growth prospects in the world’s most sports-consumption-heavy country.
MLS expansion, aggression and inevitable evolution
Given the Americans’ propensity and expertise at marketing, commercialization and business expansion—and especially given the increase in the number of American owners of European football clubs—was it any wonder that interest, both foreign and American, would eventually return to U.S. shores?
Setting aside the increasing trend of relatively big names in Europe spending their final footballing years in MLS, the incident that really indicated the prospect of a “soccer boom” in the U.S. was Manchester City’s investment in their joint venture, New York City FC, due to join MLS in 2015.
Sheikh Mansour interested in American growth and influence? A partnership with one of Europe’s newest big boys? Almost seems too good to be true.
If that wasn’t enough indication of a new era beckoning in American football (ahem), what about the recent announcement of the Orlando City SC franchise expansion—and the imminent possibility of a Miami-based MLS venture backed by David Beckham?
That both of these developments have hit the airwaves is not surprising: MLS have shown textbook aggression by aiming to capitalize on a rising wave of interest in football, by proclaiming that the Orlando-Miami rivalry will be one to look forward to, according to the Miami Herald. The bullish pronouncements of Orlando City’s owners, reported here by BBC Sport, regarding the possible signing of Brazilian star and AC Milan legend Kaka merely add to the hype.
And if even that wasn’t enough, surely the recent revelation that MLS franchises have increased 175 percent in value over the past five years (c/o SportBusiness.com) will do it. The current average valuation is $103 million, with seven teams—Seattle Sounders, LA Galaxy, Portland Timbers, Houston Dynamo, Toronto FC, New York Red Bulls and Sporting Kansas City—already surpassing it. (Don’t be surprised if NYCFC and OCSC join them at the top by 2016.)
The growth will only continue. The beautiful thing about the beautiful game is that once interest starts to grow, it snowballs. And the beginnings of a real football revolution are starting to take place in America.
Which, inevitably, leaves club owners and the league with big decisions to make over the coming years, regarding the direction that they want to take the sport in. Murmurs of instituting the promotion and relegation system, so ubiquitous in the European leagues but almost nonexistent in the U.S., are growing in noise level, and with MLS expanding to a grand total of 21 teams by 2015 (22 if Miami is awarded a franchise by then), that leaves MLS wanting to join the world’s collection of elite first-division football leagues with the most number of teams in it.
The rest of the infrastructure—league-paid transfer fees, league-owned players, salary caps and Designed Player systems—is currently still a universe away from what the top professionals in Europe are familiar with, and there will need to be an inevitable coming together of practices and policies if MLS are to break into that top bracket of leagues.
While that’s being pondered by Don Garber, the MLS Commissioner, and his executive team, they’ll continue to see the steady growth of the beautiful game in the U.S.
Perhaps one day, it’ll be they who look forward to exporting their product overseas.
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