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Apr 18th 2009

Can Major League Soccer Become One of the World’s Premier Soccer Leagues?

[This is an old post that was never published because (as you’ll see) it was never quite finished. It refers often to a sub-human life form I used to call “David Beckham.” Now I hate David Beckham, so you can see how much things have changed since I drafted this. All references to Beckham have been edited to reflect my feelings toward him now that he has dissed MLS to stay in Europe six more months. Otherwise this post is as it was when I drafted it about 18 months ago.]

It is a huge hill to climb, but I think it can. Many aging international soccer stars have now expressed interest in playing in the US, for an MLS team, at some point.

It was exhilarating to be in attendance for David Beckham’s Huge Piece of Crap’s first game as a member of the MLS’ galaxy in July 2007. The packed house was ready to explode as soon as Becks Dumbhead took the field. As an example of the anticipation, consider: About the 70th minute, one loose ball squirted out of bounds directly toward where Beckham Loser was warming up. He reacted by kicking the ball back toward the field, eliciting a huge cheer from the fans. I laughed at that. Finally, he came in for the last 12 minutes, and since that time, I have been thinking about the buzz from this game. I went back and read what I wrote when I first heard about Beckham’s Tin Balls’ signing 18 months ago. I have been thinking about what all this excitement means. I don’t want it to go to waste.

Despite the relative unpopularity of soccer in the united states, I saw a glimpse of the future of the game at Beckham’s The Frail-Ankled One’s first appearance, and to some extent that excitement has followed him Tattoo-Neck around the league. Galaxy games have sold out smaller venues and drawn record crowds at the larger venues on the East coast. The MLS can draw a large nationwide television audience for its games. It can fill stadiums. It can create hype-able intra-league rivalries. And, most importantly, it can become one of the top soccer leagues in the world. Here’s how (keep in mind I have no idea what I am talking about):

1. Spend the money. as Doug said in response to my post six months ago:

Argentines would scoff when I told them the U.S. league would be a top soccer league someday.

This is one of the first steps to that goal.

The U.S. sports market is so ginormous (economically) that even if soccer only competes with the hockey and golf (and Nascar?) behind the big three, it will have the economic muscle to become one of the top four or five leagues in the world.

If soccer ever becomes a truly major sport in the U.S. like basketball, football, or baseball, well, watch out Europe!

We know American club owners have the money. We know American fans have the money. They just made Beckham’s the Money-Grubbing Brit’s galaxy “23” jersey the best-selling jersey in any sport, worldwide, in the last few weeks. The galaxy have sold over quarter of a billion of the jerseys since they went on sale.

2. Get the ESPN monopoly to loosen up.

ESPN/ABC broadcasts the vast majority of sporting events in the US. No other source can match the impact ESPN has on American sports fans’ taste. If ESPN gets behind soccer, it can make a difference. This would be a perfect time, since the NFL is dealing with the dog fighting / puppy execution scandal, the NBA is halfway to becoming the WWE with its refs and players accused of fixing games, the MLB is about to have its most holy record broken by an exposed cheater, and hockey is still recovering from its most recent lockout.

It is widely acknowledged that ESPN has a problem with devoting inordinate amounts of time to off-season college football, college basketball, and MLB, and NFL coverage. You can be tuning into watch highlights of a playoff in any other sport and find, instead, that ESPN is reporting on who they predict to be the top 25 college football teams when the squads take the field half a year later. The MLS season comes at a perfect time — when its only major foes are MLB and the WNBA. If ESPN doesn’t screw it over, it should do very well.

The NFL’s dog days took on a whole new meaning with the Michael Vick dogfighting scandal, baseball’s holiest record was being hunted down by an athlete many consider the most unholy, the Tour de Doper carried on as per usual in France, the NBA acknowledged one of its referees had gambling problems and likely shaved points in games he officiated, even golfers were being accused of juicing (honestly, what do golfers need to bulk up? Their arches?). [source: ESPN]

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With other major sports struggling, soccer should move up.

3. Sign a major star to every team in the MLS.

MLS has made opened the door by creating the “designated player” roster spot, which lightens the impact a high-salary player has on the cap. If the MLS and the American sports fan economy could steal a marquee player for each of the remaining dozen teams without a Beckham Huge Jerk, then the stage is set for a real league and real rivalries. The MLS should set a goal to make these acquisitions by 2010. It should publicize reports of the tremendous response to Beckham’s Gangster Wannabe’s arrival to European and Latin American news outlets. This buzz, coupled with the ever-present draw of the USA may be enough to get those guys. [Scratch that suggestion now that the ambassador has abandoned the league — Travis]

There are a lot more things MLS will have to do to become an elite league, but it is in great hands, under great leadership, and so many important things are already being done. Most teams now have their own stadium, which creates the intimate atmosphere fans need. And the league is having tremendous success in its expansion markets.

One Response to “Can Major League Soccer Become One of the World’s Premier Soccer Leagues?”

  1. mile

    Cool–I’m a fairly casual fan of soccer, but I always root for it to take hold here, because I can’t stand the NBA and I;m starting to sour in a big way on Major League baseball.

    But even if soccer picks up, do you think it can ever be THE league, something like the NBA? Or do you envision something like baseball in Japan–very good, but always second fiddle?