The Popularity Problem with MLS Soccer
Before I begin this article I would first like to state that I love soccer, so the failed popularity of MLS soccer has always been disappointing to me. Maybe playing the game has influenced my opinion and maybe I just like to run around for long periods of time, but soccer has always inherently appealed to me. However, like many other American soccer fans, the MLS has always failed to interest me as I cannot seem to watch 20 minutes of a game without channel surfing. Yes, I understand that the quality of play is dwarfed in comparison to Europe and that European culture is fundamentally centered around soccer, but why has the MLS failed to gather popularity?
Problem #1: The Wage Gap
For as long as the league has existed, a fundamental discrepancy has been player wages, or the lack there of. With a mean salary of $316,777.33, there seems to be little problem, but when you look at the salary discrepancy between your average MLS player and MLS star, the disparity becomes clear. The top 10 highest paid MLS individuals account for 38% of the league’s total salary payout, with some players gathering a salary higher than the wage bill (total spent by a whole MLS team on player salaries) of WHOLE MLS teams. To put that last fact in perspective, Kaka (former Real Madrid star and member of Orlando City FC) earned more than the wage bill of teams such as the Portland Timbers, NY Red Bulls, Chicago Fire, Columbus Crew, and 9 more teams. Much of the wage discrepancy can be explained by the “Designated Player Rule,” which allows an MLS team to spend more than the maximum budget charge of $480 625 on up to 3 players. While this rule is responsible for the influx of European players into the MLS (and debatably for the improvement in the quality of play across the league), it has severely undercut the wage of your average MLS player. With a median salary of $117,000 per player, players have become increasingly alienated, which puts the MLS in an interesting position. On one hand, the league is witnessing a much welcomed increase in European players, increasing viewership and quality of play. On the other hand, the league is experiencing push back from a majority of the MLS-player community, which threatens the sanctity of the league as a whole. This predicament has no simple solution, but appeasing average MLS players en lieu of world-renowned stars (a counter-intuitive idea) may help lessen the burden of the ever-growing wage disparity.
Problem #2: Soccer was “Late to the Party” in the U.S.
One rather simple reason for the lack of MLS popularity can attributed to the rather late conception of the league. The MLS was not established until 1993, which was preceded by the North American Soccer League (NASL), which enjoyed little to no popularity (most games averaged between 10,000-13,000 in attendance). Compared to the most popular and competitive leagues, such as La Liga (established in 1929) and the England Football League (established in 1888, Barclay’s Premier League broke away from the league in 1992), soccer was quite the late-bloomer in the U.S. While European leagues have been around for ages, this does not explain why the MLS has faltered so mightily in the U.S. In fact, it would seem that was an untapped soccer-fan base prior to the MLS that the founders of the league simply had to mobilize.
However, soccer has a variety of other competitors in the U.S., from the NFL to the MLB, differing from Europe where soccer is by far the dominant sport. While the late establishment of soccer in the U.S. may partly explain the MLS’s lack of popularity, consideration must be given to the fact the MLS has to compete for attention with various other sports. Soccer was a late addition to the string of professional sports leagues that the U.S. harbors, especially compared to popular leagues such has the NFL (founded in 1920) and the MLB (founded in 1876). Such deep roots may explain why the NFL and MLB dwarf the MLS in popularity, further validated by the fact that football and baseball were recently ranked as the most popular sports across the U.S. in an ESPN survey. The MLS’s late establishment may explain its lack of popularity, as many soccer leagues were established much earlier than the MLS, creating deep club loyalties and centering the viewership of the game among European/Spanish leagues. On top of this obstacle, other professional sports leagues in the U.S. exhibit much deeper roots than the MLS, creating well-established sporting traditions aside from soccer.
Problem #3: Lack of Incentive for young players
A common trend across the soccer world is for European soccer players to transfer to an MLS as they get older. Many of Europe’s top (former) soccer gurus, from Steven Gerrard to Kaka, have transferred to the MLS after their day’s of dominance across Europe have passed. The incentive is surely there in the form of massive salaries and the potential to rejuvenate their respective careers is surely a selling point. However, there seems to be a distinct lack of young, elite players joining the MLS. Some of the most promising talent, from Christian Pulisic to Gabriel Jesus, rest at massive European clubs with little inclination to join the MLS. One reason for the lack of young players is simply the pay, as such players can prosper much more in European leagues. In a 2014 investigation, the English Premier League, Bundesliga (Germany), Series A (Italy), and La Liga (Spain) stood atop the world in terms of pay-per-player. You may be wondering, how did the MLS fair compared to such giants? The MLS was a ranked 23rd, resting behind rather discrete leagues, such as the Denmark “Superliga” and Greece’s “Super League.” If you boil it down, a young player could elect to play in one highly competitive European leagues (assuming they possess the talent) while also earning millions, or select the MLS, where the average median salary is significantly lower, along with the quality of play. Aside from this fact, the sheer lack of popularity that the MLS receives is often a deterrent for young talent. While there is some indication that more individuals are watching MLS games, such numbers seem infinitesimal compared to those of the Premier League. To put this viewership gap into perspective, 228,505 views/match whereas the Premier League averaged 514,000 views/match. These statistics are staggering, as the MLS viewership per match is less than half of the Premier League total. As said, the MLS may be increasing in viewership popularity, but it is still dwarfed in comparison to the grand viewership that the Premier League enjoys.
While the above problems do not nearly paint a comprehensive picture of the MLS popularity conundrum, they outlie some of the areas which require increased consideration from the MLS administration. Being that the MLS is still rather young, there is still time for it to develop into a reputable league and expand its popularity on an international level. Regardless if such development occurs or not, the MLS harnesses a great amount of potential to reach soccer fans across the globe