There’s an equally wonderful and horrible thing about young people: they are idealists. Idealists are too naive to realize what has been tried before and failed, and sometimes they are too ignorant of consequences to learn the lessons of history. On a very few occasions, their idealism beats the odds and they prove everyone wrong. But young, idealistic MLS fans who believe that the top US league can buy its way into being a top league in the world are sadly mistaken.
The USA has a longer history playing soccer than most MLS fans realize. I am certain there are more EPL and La Liga fans outside this country than there are domestic MLS fans who know that in 1930 the USA finished third in the World Cup. In the 1960s a group of enterprising sports enthusiasts and businessmen who saw that professional sports was starting to be a big business globally decided to launch a top-flight American league and they called it the NASL. This league started play in 1968 and inked nationwide TV deals as early as 1975. And the NASL wanted to prove they were serious so they went out and signed top global talent like Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, and Carlos Alberto. They thought that if they put the world’s best soccer players on pitches in America that American fans would respond in droves.
The fans did not. The peak average attendance for NASL matches came in the period 1977 to 1983, when the league averaged 13,000 fans per match. Meanwhile “home grown” sports like American football, baseball, basketball, and even stock car racing, saw tremendous growth during the same period. Soccer is a game that requires a mix of concentration and patience on the part of fans. In baseball you can talk or goof off while the pitcher is trying to decide what to do and you only have to pay attention for a split second when the ball is hurled from the pitch to the plate. In football, there are bursts of action that start with the snap and end with a whistle. In basketball there is frenetic action and scoring every few seconds all game long. Even today, most Americans just are not patient and attentive enough to follow a soccer match. they either get bored when nothing comes from fifteen passes that seem to cross midfield until the team loses possession, or they can’t understand the difference between an offside flag and a handball if you draw them a picture.
By 1985 the old NASL folded and it would be eleven years and it would take the USA hosting the World Cup for the first time in 1994 for a new generation of sports fans and business owners to try a top-level professional league in the USA. And in 1996 MLS was born. They have grown steadily, if slowly, and now are on target to expand the league to 30 teams within the next decade.
And here’s where we get into the problem of young naive fans. They think the fact that markets are clamoring for an MLS team proves that there’s a huge demand for soccer in this country. But in the entire league there is only one city in the soccer-mad Pacific Northwest that has proven the ability to consistently draw 30,000+ fans for five years in a row. Yes, in 2015 an MLS expansion side set a new attendance record for a regular season match. And yes, in 2017 another MLS expansion side broke that record. Yes, those are good signs. But that 2015 expansion side is now drawing less than 23,000 per match, and that 2017 side is drawing about half what they did last season.
The young, clueless MLS fans think that the answer for the league is to expand salary caps and try to compete for the next generation’s Messi and Rondaldo head-to-head with the Barcelonas, Bayern Munichs, Liverpools, and PSGs of the world. That kind of thinking is just full of ignorance and stupidity.
It is clear that the MLS should have its eye on becoming a top league in the world—with that I agree with the young, naive, and clueless MLS fans. But the path of wisdom comes by growing the league patiently. Some teams are just now starting to see success with homegrown academy players that many of the MLS commentators are calling “player kids.” Other teams are starting to see younger players they helped to develop command impressive transfer fees from teams in top European sides: players like Miguel Almiron, Alphonso Davies, and Zack Steffen. If the MLS wants to grow sustainably and wants to avoid repeating the mistakes of the old NASL, this is the path they must follow.
First, continue developing academy players. Grow the quality and the professionalism of MLS academies and model them on those found in the top European leagues. See kids grow up playing youth soccer and then joining the US National Team in the junior ages and then bubbling up into the MLS for their home club. Let those kids put up huge numbers and command huge transfer fees from the top European leagues.
This will help grow the MLS in myriad ways. One way is by expanding the fan base for the sport as a whole. It doesn’t matter what the sport is, everyone in a neighborhood gets excited when a local kid makes big news in pro sports. You will see tailgate parties before Chicago Bears games where fans are gathered around TVs to watch the local kid from the Chicago Fire academy play for his EPL team in the morning. When those football fans realize that his academy is part of the same local soccer team that plays most of the months that are not part of the NFL season, they may buy season tickets or start attending a few matches and become fans.
And remember that global football leagues suffer economic booms and busts just like national economies do. Orlando City got Nani this season on a free transfer from Portugal because the Portuguese league can’t afford to pay its top players. It was a fire sale and we lucked out. If more top global players start their career coming through MLS, then when the economic busts hit EPL, Bundesliga, and La Liga, MLS will be in a position as a stronger league with better financials to lure some players over. And finally, by the time today’s young, clueless MLS fans have kids who are taking their own children to games, it could be that Serie A, Lige Une, and EPL are the leagues that serve as development leagues for MLS.
Yes, I’m saying its going to take another 40 or 50 years for MLS to reach that point, but the trouble is if you try to take shortcuts you will financially implode the entire league because rapid growth in salaries is simply not sustainable.
Maybe I have a different perspective because I have seen a sports organization grow their brand the right way, and it’s a brand that is right here in our backyard.
Back in 1979, the old Florida Technological University (FTU) decided they were going to field a football team for the first time. They had a volunteer coach and a skeleton staff and they started playing Division III football. A few years later FTU changed its name to UCF and in 1982 they moved up to Division II. In 1990 they became a Division 1-AA (FCS) school and in 1995 they signed their first big name recruit in Daunte Culpepper. With Culpepper as quarterback, UCF transitioned to Division 1-A (FBS) in 1996 and in 2000 they got their first “signature” win over a national power by beating Alabama in Tuscaloosa to ruin the Crimson Tide’s Homecoming Weekend.
In 2005 UCF went to their first bowl game, and in 2007 UCF won their first conference championship. In 2010 they won their first bowl, and on January 1, 2014, they won their first BCS bowl game by defeating a heavily-favored Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl. Most recently, UCF put together a 25-game win streak from the kickoff of the 2017 season to securing back-to-back conference championships in 2017 and 2018, completing two undefeated regular seasons.
Of course, UCF dreams of bigger things, just like MLS does. Right now, UCF is mired in the “MLS” of college football, in a place where by fiat and design of the wealthiest and most politically powerful (in terms of the NCAA) conferences virtually guarantee that the only teams to participate in the college football playoffs come from those conferences. Without conference realignment or playoff expansion, UCF will pretty much always be a spectator of the CFP Invitational Tournament at the end of every college football season.
Now if I were a clueless young MLS fan, I’d be throwing temper tantrums and crying and whining that UCF is getting treated fairly by college football. But I’m not. Yeah, I’m frustrated they don’t get a chance to play a full season of games against ACC and SEC and Big 10 opponents, but I’ve also seen the inevitable and unstoppable rise of the UCF brand and I know that it’s only a matter of time before they don’t just get invited to the party but they move in and take over.
I think MLS has the opportunity to do the same in terms of its place among global soccer leagues. But I think it has to follow the same path as UCF. It must build on its successes and grow in a sustainable way. The old NASL proved the wrong way to try to shortcut a US domestic soccer league into a top global power. Patience, perseverance, and sustainability are the only valid path MLS has to reach the level of global relevance they want to achieve.