While major European nations begin to head into the final stretch in their 2014-15 seasons, Stateside things are ramping up toward the beginning of a new season.
Sky Sports announced on Wednesday that they would be giving full coverage to Major League Soccer, having won the rights to broadcast the competition in the UK, starting in March for the 2015 season and running for four years.
It is another clear indication at the intended growth path for MLS by chiefs, a big boost to the sport in the USA and a measure of how much more importance is placed on the league around the world compared to even a decade ago.
Sky Sports covering MLS is, of course, very much a secondary achievement for the company after signing a new long-term deal to further cover the Premier League, its home-country competition, but it lends another branch to a growing portfolio, which includes Spanish Liga and Champions League games.
On the flip side, for MLS itself, having Sky broadcast the competition opens up the league to a whole new range of potential viewers. Many UK-based football fans might not immediately be too enthralled by the prospect of watching Portland Timbers host Chicago Fire, but there will also doubtless be certain games which appeal to the masses on account of the location, the players involved or storylines developing as the season goes on.
Think football fans in the UK will be pleasantly surprised at quality of MLS. Hope they give it a fair chance, huge deal for league growth.— Cristian Nyari (@Cnyari) February 25, 2015
After Sky announces MLS deal, BT announces extended deal with Serie A. Both channel fillers rather than attracting many subscribers— Rob Harris (@RobHarris) February 25, 2015
This is especially relevant over the UK summer, perhaps, with no international tournaments on this year once domestic campaigns are over and done with.
The greater the audience, the bigger the potential fanbase and the greater the sponsorships coming in could be. In terms of league growth, this isn't an automatic boost, but certainly one which gives potential for improvement—and the fact that Sky, a known industry leader in covering football, wanted to win the bid to broadcast MLS highlights the fact that it is growing in importance and noteworthiness on a season-to-season basis.
For supporters of the game outside of MLS, watching the competition unfold in America isn't necessarily—to start with, at least—going to be about picking any particular team, but instead perhaps watching players they are familiar with.
While watching Portuguese, French or Dutch football might be with a partial aim of spotting the next young talent, MLS has a niche advantage: They are typically fielding players who already have massive appeal, huge status in the game and have already made themselves headline names.
David Beckham and Thierry Henry, two of the world's biggest stars in their prime, spent considerable time in MLS. Robbie Keane remains there now, a current MLS Cup champion and MVP. Next season will see the likes of Frank Lampard, David Villa and Steven Gerrard also participate—household names in international terms over the last decade and more.
Can't wait for Sky Sports to show Lampard and Gerrard together again in the #MLS All-Star Game...but will it work?— Andrew Gibney (@Gibney_A) February 25, 2015
Even further beyond MLS, in NASL—second-tier football in America—the likes of Raul and Ronaldo are involved with clubs for 2015 in non-playing capacities, highlighting the potential for growth even outside of the top teams.
As many UK-based fans will attest to, having a "second" team in another league or even sport is far from unheard of, and with the increased coverage in NFL, for example, many football fans have taken up watching American football and even have a chosen side they follow. MLS clubs might hope, in time, to attract a similar tier of fans.
Hurdles Yet to Clear
As noted, it doesn't simply mean that MLS has arrived to the big time, though, especially in UK where resistance to another new league to watch will be discarded by plenty as inferior or a waste of time, often even without having watched it to make such a judgement.
In terms of club size and standard of play, we might be talking about MLS on the level of the Dutch Eredivisie, for example, with a few dominant sides and plenty who make up the numbers in any given season. The good thing for MLS is that they won't necessarily be competing for viewers at the same time as European games, with matches in 2014 typically taking place around 8 p.m., midnight or even early hours in the morning, UK time. That in itself, of course, will be a challenge to attract initial viewers at those time slots.
Elsewhere, the style of league and playoff cup is an alien concept to Premier League-only viewers, despite it being fairly commonplace in, say, Liga MX and other tournaments, while the franchise-based ownership model can be confusing and scary—Chivas USA are no more, for example, having had their franchise dissolved at the end of 2014 in favour of club locales with better potential.
Possibly worst of all, a threatened player strike couldn't have come at a worse time. B/R's Matt Jones breaks down the issues here, though action will hopefully be averted before the season kicks off.
MLS will have to remember something for a while yet: Reputation always lags behind the reality.
Even if this broadcast deal is a notable success, even if Gerrard and Lampard and all other stars showcase their enduring ability and the football on show is exciting and worthwhile, there will still be detractors. It takes time to convince, to adjust and to win the affections of football fans—and the early viewing figures could well show that, even if in truth the broadcast deal is a big win for MLS and its growth.