What’s really behind 20 years of MLS success?
In April 1996, the United States Soccer Federation kicked off their ten-team ‘Major League Soccer’ competition to an American sports market that was curious at best, uninterested at worst.
Exactly, 20 years later things couldn’t be more different as the now twenty-team League (with four more clubs set to come) kicks off it’s 21st season to an increasingly enthusiastic local and international audience.
No better example can be seen of this than in the history of the league’s TV deals. In it’s first few seasons the best MLS could do was give broadcast rights away for free to obscure cable channels in exchange for shared advertising revenue. Fast forward to 2015 where League commissioner Don Garber signed a record breaking $90 million broadcast deal between cable sports behemoths ESPN and Fox Sports.
But how is it that in the space of just two decades, MLS, on the brink of collapse after its first five years is now being touted as one of if not the best league outside of Europe?
For many, its is an obvious result of the influx of international stars that have descended upon the league over the past decade.
It all began in 2007, when the LA Galaxy took the football world by storm, acquiring Real Madrid and England star David Beckham. All of a sudden MLS, LA Galaxy, and whoever they faced that weekend became the talk of US sports fans and media. Crowd records were broken across the country (45K in DC, 70K in New York), TV ratings reached the 1 million mark, and merchandise sales went through the roof with a quarter of a million Beckham Galaxy jerseys sold before his first MLS match.
Since then MLS owners all across the country have followed suit. Signing genuine world-class players in pursuit of gaining similar fandom for their respective clubs. New York Red Bulls signed Thierry Henry from Barcelona, Toronto FC signed Sebastian Giovinco from Juventus and Orlando City opened their season with the signing of Milan legend Kaka.
In fact, this season, regardless of club, every 2016 MLS season ticket holder will be guaranteed a glimpse of a Ballon D’or, World Cup and Champions League winner live in action, bearing any injuries of course.
However, despite the obvious quality, publicity and interest these marquee players have brought the league, my experience attending many MLS matches and talking to its fans tells me there is something much deeper fuelling the success of the league and it has nothing to do with what’s happening on the pitch.
Tired of the same old over sanitised, over commercialised culture of traditional American sports, a new generation of Americans, connected to the internet and in tune with how the rest of the world watch sport are supporting MLS clubs for far more than who is wearing their jersey on the pitch.
They don’t want to sit idle clapping on occasion, they don’t want to sing along to the tune of an organ, they don’t want to be told atmosphere is another rendition of ‘take me out to the ball game’.
They want to bounce en masse like Dortmund’s Yellow wall, they want their own instruments to play like the Barra Brava’s in Argentina, they want to chant from beginning to end like the terraces of Italy.
I witnessed this first hand whilst filming Derby Day’s with Copa90 in ‘Cascadia’ the Pacific North West region of the USA that many say is at the forefront of the US football revolution.
From the basements of Seattle where I watched members of the thousand strong Emerald Supporters group build 40 foot Tifo’s to Portland where I sat and drank a beer in the Timber’s army ‘FanLaden’, a designated fan run/owned clubhouse inspired by Bundesliga fans equivalent.
However this kind of fan culture isn’t just confined to the North West.
Whilst the aforementioned signing of Kaka was the talk of Orlando City upon their debut season last year, it was the clubs supporter section ‘The Wall’ that ended up stealing the show towards the end, growing in numbers and sound week on week, despite a disappointing season that saw the club miss out on an expected playoff berth.
In Philadelphia, supporter group ‘Son’s of Ben’ existed before the club did, Montreal Impact’s Ultra’s Montreal are what many say is the inspiration for a rise in away attendances and New York Red Bull’s supporter group’s march to home matches amongst a sea of red flares and drums has become the envy of sporting codes across the city.
So as we toast to two decades of MLS success, lets focus our acknowledgements on the hard work of those in the terraces. Because when we toast the success of the MLS another twenty years from now, it is them who will still be there, not the players.