Following the United States men's national team's exciting run in the 2014 World Cup, many turned their attention to how that enthusiasm could be transformed into larger support for North America's domestic professional league, Major League Soccer.
While much of the media focused on inane questions, such as "Has soccer in America finally made it?" or "Will the U.S.'s World Cup run finally make soccer in America popular?", the reality is that no single event will ever be a watershed moment in the growth of the game in America.
From the glory days of the North American Soccer League, inspired by Pele and a host international stars, to the U.S.'s 1994 World Cup run, the inaugural season of MLS in 1996 and the league's signing of David Beckham in 2007, soccer's growth in America has always occurred incrementally.
And the numbers show 2014 is no different.
According to the blog MLS Attendance, the league in 2014 is slightly above its 2013 attendance numbers with a 0.58 percent increase. The average attendance at an MLS game in 2014 is currently within 100 fans per game of its record average attendance year, 2012.
The numbers on television are up significantly, according to Sports Media Watch, with ESPN showing a 43 percent rise in viewership and NBC Sports Network showing an 81 percent increase.
However, those numbers must be tempered by the fact that ESPN has shown half as many games in 2014 compared to this point in 2013, and nearly half of NBC Sports Network's MLS games had an English Premier League lead-in.
Along with increases in attendance and TV viewership, the league has also shown its continued willingness to spend money on designated player contracts for popular players, including the recent signings of Kaka, David Villa and Frank Lampard. Furthermore, it has proved its commitment to bringing in and keeping American stars at home over the past few weeks with the designated player deals extended to Matt Besler, Graham Zusi and DaMarcus Beasley.
Some have questioned the wisdom of continuing to sign big-name international players who are past their prime, but the success of players like Thierry Henry, Robbie Keane, Obafemi Martins and Jermain Defoe prove that formula can still work given the right circumstances.
In fact, looking at the 2014 attendance numbers, it's interesting to note that the two biggest jumps in attendance happen to be Toronto FC and D.C. United, both teams that made major moves and designated player signings this past offseason.
Another major improvement for the league has been its developing academy system, which is beginning to bear fruit. Youngsters Harry Shipp, Wil Trapp, DeAndre Yedlin, Shane O'Neill, Dillon Serna and Diego Fagundez—all of whom have become major contributors for their respective teams—are players developed in MLS academies.
Finally, the league has an impressive TV contract starting in 2014, with ESPN, Fox Sports and Univision all committed to broadcasting 34 regular-season games, with each network providing a weekly game at the same time every week.
Still, much remains to be done.
MLS' current TV schedule often leaves much to be desired, as games are often packed into the same time slot, making it hard for fans to watch multiple games.
For example, in this slate of Saturday games coming up next month, five of the league's six Saturday matches overlap. This is something that happens far too often in the league's scheduling.
By contrast, this past week's lineup made it easy for fans to watch nearly every game the league had to offer. Eight games were spread between Wednesday and Monday night with only two of the games overlapping. This type of schedule, while creating unequal layoffs between games for some teams, makes viewership of multiple games easier for MLS fans who want to watch as many games as possible.
The league also did a poor job this past week of promoting its friendlies against some of the world's top teams. On Wednesday night, Toronto FC played Tottenham, Sporting KC played Manchester City and the LA Galaxy played Manchester United. But, according to the league's own website, there were no friendlies.
MLS has a full slate of quality friendlies tonight, but looking at the schedule on their website, you'd have no idea. pic.twitter.com/CXn8LU6iLN— John D. Halloran (@JohnDHalloran) July 23, 2014
For a league still looking to push its way into the top four sports in the U.S., this seems like a fairly big mistake on behalf of MLS' marketing team.
The 2014 World Cup exposed many Americans to the excitement the game can provide, and the scenes of U.S. fans at watch parties throughout America left an indelible impression. The tournament will, no doubt, provide a bump to the popularity of the game and MLS as new fans are drawn in. But no single event, even a World Cup, is going to make the country soccer-obsessed overnight.
That will still come in small increments, one fan at a time. And MLS needs to do everything it can to keep that momentum going.
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