Seth Wenig/AP
Seth Wenig/AP

At home and abroad, MLS battles for hearts and minds

Fighting turf war against both more popular domestic sports and powerful European leagues, US soccer makes modest gains

As Major League Soccer settles into its 20th season, after the camera-friendly home openers for new expansion teams Orlando City and New York City FC during the first two weekends of play, a flow of feel-good stories for the league seems to have wiped away the memory of how close MLS came to those games never being played.

But the fact is that it was only because of a last-minute agreement in principle between MLS owners and the MLSPU, the players’ union, on the terms of a five-year collective bargaining agreement, that a strike action, which at one point the team union reps voted for 18 to 1, was averted.

There are also still plenty of questions about just how good a deal this was and how well it positions MLS for the coming five years, not just in terms of its internal labor relations but in the terms of America’s often troubled engagement with the global soccer economy.

The latter has never been a more timely concern. Representatives of several major European leagues and teams were in New York recently attending a conference on sports leadership. Even a cursory glance at the list of attendees and speakers at the Times Center showed an unprecedented critical mass of European soccer CEOs, COOs and CFOs mingling with the representatives from the big four American sports.

For many observers of America’s domestic soccer scene the past few years — and the recent deal between the MLS and the union — have been a story of upward-trending, though modest, success. But even so, the U.S. game is still wondering how it can prosper in a country so dominated by other powerful sports.

Unlike the NFL, the NBA, the NHL or MLB, MLS has to deal with the reality that in the battle for American hearts and minds, it is also competing with an imported versions of itself — such as the English Premier League and the Spanish La Liga. These rivals for attention affect its reputation among potential domestic fans. Moreover, the foreign leagues operate at a financial level that makes American clubs’ budgets look like chump change.

That’s nothing new, of course, but what is new is the type of encroachments European sides are now looking to make in the U.S. marketplace — as Premier League teams undertaking short preseason tours in the U.S. in the unscientific hope of building the brand. Now teams and leagues open New York offices, seek to open academies in the U.S. and establish beachheads in a country where the top homegrown league is only 20 years old and is aggressively fighting for a fan base with more established sports.

New York City FC players celebrate a goal against New England, March 15.
Peter Morgan/AP

One pundit, Alexi Lalas, said of European ambitions in the U.S. market that “it is this Wild West type of existence right now, and the battle for hearts and minds, when it comes to perception, is going on right now. And all these brands from around the world that are looking to add new people to support them, they see the U.S. … and it is a land grab right now.”

He is also keen to assert that that the competition is not just about new audiences but about players too. “If you are one of those [European] teams, there’s a recognition that there is this untapped but very fertile ground [in the U.S.] that can yield some incredible talent that can be used as an asset and to make your business better on the field, and you’ve got to be there to tap into it,” he said. “So it’s got a real oil boom or gold rush type of feel to it — where there’s gold in them there hills, and you’ve just got to find a way to nurture it and then extract it.”

That process of extraction is hardly new, of course. In microcosm, there’s an ongoing conversation about how effectively youth talent in the U.S. is nurtured, amid fears that Mexican club teams in particular have often been better placed to attract such players, free from the restrictions MLS sides operate under.

The MLS can make a virtue of the returning ranks of U.S. national team players such as Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore. There is also a slew of older world-class players who are beginning to show up in MLS, in the words of Commissioner Don Garber, as “a league of choice.”

But those are at the end of the scale where clubs can pay them as designated players. Such players are partial exemptions to the restrictive salary cap and have become a significant presence in the league. (This year there are 47 in the league. David Beckham was the first and only one back when he arrived with LA Galaxy in 2007.) But they are far from the norm, and it’s in that main body of players that the distance between MLS and the teams and leagues operating on their territory is most apparent.

‘You’ve got to be there to tap into it. So it’s got a real oil boom or gold rush type of feel to it – where there’s gold in them there hills and you’ve just got to find a way to nurture it and then extract it.’

Alexi Lalas

soccer pundit

At the broader regional level, officials have a mixed relationship to the potential of the U.S. market. Some heap praise on it. CONCACAF President Jeffrey Webb said the U.S. was “a phenomenal market … I think we have more colleges playing soccer than any other sport in the United States.” He added that there are “over 25 million players registered in the United States.”

He also noted the country’s “incredible infrastructure” in sporting and transportation terms, and given the turnkey facilities several countries used for training and playing friendlies immediately before the World Cup, he didn’t have to look far for examples. But even as the leading advocate for the sport in the region, he had some reservations about what the coming decade holds.

“I think the challenge would really be oversaturating the market. That is something that’s got to be monitored, of course,” he said.

Nonetheless Webb described what’s happening as “a great promotion for the game. You look at the game in Ann Arbor [Michigan] last summer — I think it was 109,000 were in the stadium to watch Real Madrid and Manchester United. So from that perspective, it’s tremendous.”

While most signs are positive that soccer is thriving in the U.S., MLS may be hard pressed to defend its home turf against foreign incursions.

‘We have more colleges playing soccer than any other sport in the United States.’

Jeffrey Webb

president, CONCACAF

The league is certainly not ready to roll over and concede every piece of territory to European prospectors. Attendance this year has been robust, with New York City FC’s presence having apparently galvanized a massive market that had been drifting with only the Red Bulls in the area. The league and its recently appointed president of business ventures, Gary Stevenson, have been pushing into new sponsorship and broadcast territory for the 20th season.

News of sponsorship deals with the likes of Heineken, Audi and Johnson & Johnson have been rolling out steadily in recent days, and perhaps most intriguing, so have broadcast deals with the likes of Sky and Eurosport that will see regular MLS games screened live throughout Europe. For now, that’s niche programming, but it does raise the possibility of future summers when soccer-starved European audiences are watching MLS soccer while their own teams tour the States.

Perceptions are slow to change, but at least having the platform to change perceptions gives MLS a fighting chance in not just its own territory but also in the markets where knee-jerk prejudice against the league is often rooted in images from the league’s early days of countdown clocks, shoot outs and repurposed American football fields.

Beyond that, said Lalas, MLS may ultimately find that its contested territory is one of its greatest assets, if it can just stay the course. “The players will go where the money is, and certainly MLS has assets that other places don’t have — No. 1 being that it’s played in North America. And you add that to the fact that many players want to come here. Now if you can pay them and you can give them that opportunity to come to North America, it will happen,” he said. “We’ve seen it happen [when top players move] from Italy to England … and they’re not going to England for the weather and the food. And that’s where the sweet spot is. It can be attained, but there are a lot of challenges along the way.”

Related News

New York City

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


New York City

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter