Even as England flop at another tournament, nobody can question the might and reach of its Premier League. But is the league’s global dominance healthy? Is the MLS is better equipped to live in its shadow than the League of Ireland?
The Premier League’s all-encompassing commercialisation has extended to the US, threatening to propel the brand to unprecedented heights.
The appeal of tapping into this enormous market is obvious, a goldmine of English-speaking, wealthy sports fans already tolerant of an onslaught of advertising and marketing.
NBC Sports reported an average 514,000 viewers per match week for 2015-16, a 7% increase on last year’s figures.
Online viewership was up 26% while Manchester United’s clash with Liverpool on September 12, 2015, was the most-watched game with 1.25m viewers.
The Daily Mail estimated NBCUniversal’s successful bid for the rights at almost $1bn (€1.2bn). They fought off stern competition from beIN Sports and Fox.
In a country that for so long actively rejected soccer, which endured repeated false dawns and letdowns, the popularity of the Premier League may seem surprising — but it shouldn’t.
The narrative of America snubbing the beautiful game has changed, and it is now the second most popular and fastest growing sport in America. The MLS’s average attendance is at 19,000, while 24,472,778 people play the game at some level, according to Fifa’s world football big count.
America has now fully embraced the sport and thus a new market for English clubs has emerged. The pre-season tours are testament to this. Where previously clubs travelled to Asia, Chelsea, Leicester, Liverpool, West Ham, Crystal Palace, and Arsenal all plan on playing US friendlies this summer.
When Manchester United played Real Madrid in Michigan in 2014, 109,318 fans packed the stadium, the biggest ever audience at a soccer game in the country. In 2015, Manchester United returned and played four US games.
But does the increasing popularity of a foreign league present a threat to the MLS? Will the league soon be regarded in America like our domestic league is in Ireland?
The average viewership per broadcast for MLS games is 220,000, lagging significantly behind NBC’s figures. The looming threat of a higher standard, better-marketed league is real.
Steven Goff has covered soccer for the Washington Post for 15 years. He explained why the US can’t be considered in the same way other markets are. “The United States is an enormous country with a diverse population drawn to a variety of soccer/football offerings. Mexican-Americans follow Liga MX with an intense passion that makes it one of the most popular TV programmes in places like southern California and Texas,” he said.
“Barcelona and Real Madrid have followings that transcend language and cultural background. The Bundesliga has grown in popularity. The Champions League and World Cup have large followings, and the US women’s national team is arguably the most popular soccer team in the States.
“In my opinion, as interest in the sport grows through Premier League viewership, MLS will follow. Rising tide lifts all boats, or something like that.”
Within the MLS, there is broad acceptance their model is a unique prospect and thus the English approach to broadcasting and marketing is impossible to replicate. While the Premier League attracts a multitude of television bids, the MLS has difficulty securing a viable one.
Another potential rival lies closer to home with Liga MX, the Mexican league which also rates better than the MLS. But the MLS is content to spread across a variety of outlets. Their social media presence extends beyond even the intensive efforts of clubs in England. Franchise owners such as Robb Heineman, chief executive of Sporting Kansas City, conduct Q&As on Twitter or Reddit with fans.
The days of TV ratings being the only metric for a league’s success or failure are quickly disappearing. By capitalising on the growing young online community, the MLS has found a support base that access live matches through untraditional outlets.
As users spend more and more time online they begin to consume their entertainment online. The official MLS Twitter account is one of the biggest and most active Vine generators in the sporting world. Its website provides free highlights on all games.
MLS chief marketing officer Howard Handler feels the “ongoing development of home-grown talent, global stars joining our league, new stadiums, new expansion clubs, and robust domestic and international broadcast media partnerships” ensure there is a a viable product available.
“Our fan base is also some of the youngest, most diverse, and tech-savvy fans in professional sports. Based on that, we’ve put an emphasis on producing engaging and dynamic digital, mobile, and social content to fuel the levels of fan engagement,” said Handler.
“To sum it up, we see MLS as a movement with the fan being core to everything we do. When you join MLS and become a fan of a club, you are joining something that you can truly be part of and fundamentally influence. Not many brands can offer that to their consumer base or fans.”
In reality, US soccer is a landscape like no other. And the digital age has only made the land of opportunity even more attractive.
Not only will America play host to several English sides this summer as well as PSG, Real Madrid, and Bayern Munich, but it also successfully hosted the Copa America this month, in which an American team which featured numerous MLS players made it to the semi-finals.
This, according to USA and Sporting KC defender Matt Besler, is a testament to the growing quality of the league: “It’s growing. Everyone can see that, the league has quality, it’s on the rise.”
In a monumental move for the game, the new world has embraced soccer in its own unique way.
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