As a footy supporter, in a city that highly embraces their Timbers Football Club, we sometimes forget that the following of the sport only stretches as far as a community support. We are so wrapped in the sport itself that we do not notice how small we are, like a ripple in the ocean. Why is this the case? What can we do to increase footy's popularity with the mainstream audience? Let us see if we can answer some of these inquiries.
Let us first play catch-up on some promising league data. MLS was third in sports attendance behind the NFL and MLB; in-front of the NHL and my beloved NBA (in all fairness, stadium average capacities are approximately 19,000). MLS had an average attendance rate of 18,807 spectators per game in 2012. The rate has fluctuated since 1996 but it has been at the ball park of 16,000 to 17,000 since 2007. However, we all know that reliable markets like Portland and Seattle (average 43,144) greatly helped raise league averages by disappointing popular markets in Los Angeles and Washington D.C. The medium of the league is Toronto FC with an average of 18,155 fans per match. Many times averages can be very misleading and searching for mediums of a sample size is a much more efficient method of calculating. By doing so we confirm that the league is at a healthy +18,000 attendance average -- even if the majority of club matches rarely sellout.
We however, cannot continue without mentioning what are some partial reasons in attendance boost within the last three years. They are due to the inauguration of three new clubs (Montreal, Portland, Vancouver), addition of six new stadiums (Houston, Kansas City, Montreal, New York, Portland, Vancouver) and finally the reduction in ticket prices (Toronto). I expect attendance to rise in the near future due to new stadiums being built and an expected 20th team inaugural addition in either New York or Orlando.
Now that we are all caught up on where we stand in attendance compared to other sports, let us measure ourselves through TV ratings. An aspect of business where the 'real' money comes from. I stand by what I said earlier, the MLS support is still very much a community following. We can clearly see it in TV contract revenue. MLS ranks fifth with 27 million, while the NFL, MLB, and NBA all annually earn over 1 billion in TV contract revenue. NHL is at 200 million. The enormous gap between MLS and these other sports in TV revenue is humbling if not alarming.
During the 2012 MLS Cup Final, the viewing audience was at a devastating 1.3 million. Rating of 0.7, one-tenth less than the previous year. Even the media publicizing the event as Beckham's final match in MLS, did not help. What helped it from dropping even lower was the increase in Latino viewers through Mexican networks (58% increase). Let us compare it to the Superbowl XLVII, an estimated 108.4 million people watched it. The previous year was 111.3 million. Okay, okay, a little bit of an unfair comparison. How about something more reasonable? 2012 NBA Finals (best out of 7 series) averaged 10.1 million viewers. Its better years were during the Jordan-era with +18 million viewers. While 1.3 million viewers for MLS is rather low, I guess we should not worry so much since NHL dropped to 3 million viewers during the 2012 Stanley Cup Finals. (MLS has a drastic advantage over the NHL since the sport can be easily played outside with one simple ball. While hockey involves purchasing various equipment, along with having the right environment to practice the sport).
All in all, a lot of this league data is promising but we still have a steep mountain to climb if we ever plan on reaching the top.
So why hasn't footy caught the attention of the mainstream already? I mean, we had the myth himself, Pele, playing in the States back in 1975 for the New York Cosmos. What has happened ever since?
Firstly, the obvious bump on the road is the name of the sport known here as 'soccer'. The NFL has permanently damaged us forever since it adopted a name it had absolutely no right to. The name football does not match a sport that focuses on carrying and throwing an egg-like figure (hardly a ball). The contradiction in the name to the sport, between the world and the US, has caused a lot of criticism from foreign countries -- which has only made Americans that much more stubborn in changing it. MLS clubs also send mix messages by adding 'football club' to their names: FC Dallas, Sounders FC, Timbers FC, Toronto FC, and Whitecaps FC.
If one thing you must know about Americans, is that we do not like to follow. We much rather lead, even if it is over a cliff, than to accept reasonable-smart change. Americans are as violent and selfish as we are stubborn. (Many of us will not notice these characteristics of ours unless we travel overseas). A simple example that illustrates our feeling of elitist among others is the argument of changing our complicated English System to a rather simpler and more efficient Metric System. The rest of the world uses it but we will simply not change because others, in obvious recognition, did it before us.
Secondly, we did not create the sport like we did in the case of baseball, American football (rugby influenced), and basketball (partially-influenced by an ancient Aztec sport). So footy has always been viewed foreign to us, which has caused a very conservative growth of the sport. While footy leagues struggled in establishing themselves, other sports gained heavy popularity. So much so that today many kids are heavily persuaded into them for money purposes, along with established traditions. They are more likely to earn millions, sometimes hundredths of millions, by playing these other sports. While players in MLS, in comparison, earn a humble wage -- in the tenths to hundredths of thousands of dollars. So one must absolutely love the sport to potentially sacrifice millions in America.
Thirdly and most importantly, broadcasting is in my view, boring. The commentators do not make the sport enjoyable as it is done in basketball. It could be because the lack of amazing technical plays, perhaps the commentators were forced to be part of MLS, and/or because we have no famous personalities like we do in basketball? Analyst who were once world wide recognized players.
We instead try to incorporate British personalities to MLS. Somehow the commissioner thinks Americans are going to credit the league by having commentators with accents? Do they really think Americans will connect to these British personalities? I highly disagree. It will simply not work in a country that is filled with selfishness. I have nothing against Britain, I love what they do with their wonderful leagues. I however, tend to think the average American gets turned off when they hear British commentators because it sounds foreign to them -- we are used to American commentators in other sports. Also, do Americans not constantly make fun of their hierarchy tone accents? Of their dry sense of humor? I simply disagree with the direction MLS is taking if it plans on attracting the mainstream audience. This is why I state that MLS should go back to its roots. To learn from the NBA and NFL. People can host a party to a Super Bowl, one can even party to a Copa Libertadores in Spanish but one cannot say the same to an MLS Cup Final and that is partially due to the manner it is announced.
Broadcasting is directly tied-up to the type of people we want to attract. So right now we need to decide what type of fans we want to attract to MLS, if we even want to grow to a larger audience at the cost of drastic change? Drunks like in the NFL? Young and hip like in the NBA? Or old and family oriented like in MLB? I lean towards the young and hip even though I can see many do not want change. If that is the case, if you do not want drastic change, then keep expecting retirees from Europe to keep joining the league for decades to come. Without high TV ratings (which encourages large sponsoring), we will not grow very much. Sure, we will continue to conservatively grow but we will maintain that 'indie' feeling. That feeling of loving the sport even if we do not see the money rolling in. The feeling of getting by year-by-year, wishing for more support, while not wanting change. Though if we do change and focus on young mainstream audience, in time I can see us turning into a Brazilian-like nation. In the sense of adding flair to the game. The same way we see it in street basketball (AND1 style), we can see it in football here. In significant fashion, this can only be done by attracting the nations attention through entertaining broadcasting.
I am trilingual, I studied Spanish and Italian. I have listened to football matches in both Spanish and Italian. Both groups are rather similar in the manner they broadcast. Firstly, they try not to have long spans of silence during matches. (MLS too often has 30 seconds spans of silence). They provide insight in in-game tactics, real live criticism of questionable play, and around the league rumors. They often make jokes, which is very amusing (like pointing out a good looking girl from the crowd, similar to the Miss Alabama incident during the BCS). Finally, they mix it up by adding radio style, (passionate) play-by-play broadcasting. This is why I find MLS announcers rather dull because I cannot feel the same passion that I get from other mediums. NBA on the other hand is proven entertainment and MLS should find it easier to learn from. I can still hear the passionate echoes of the name "Michael Jordan" from Marv Albert, after every amazing play.
Below are some brief examples to compare and contrast the level of passion and excitement between different broadcasting mediums:
USA (Bob Bradley) scores first against Mexico during the 2011 Gold Cup (English)
Same match, Giovani Dos Santos scores (Spanish)
Italy vs Germany during Euros (Italian)
NBA, Michael Jordan
MLS should learn from the NBA and NFL to make games more enjoyable, to help raise their viewing audience instead of focusing on British personalities. And if they do try to incorporate any type of foreign broadcasting, it should come from America, Latin America. (They are all still technically Americans since the US is only part of America). MLS should focus their attention on them since they are the largest growing demographic in the US. It is smart business. Even ESPN recognizes their enormous following of the sport. So much so that ESPN is now marketing Mexican matches over USA ones. Latinos are a pool of people the league does not have to convince that 'futbol' is a great sport. They only have to convince them that they are important to the league by showing it. This is an argument I have used before. (That is why I am in favor of what Chivas USA is doing because it will help the league's popularity in the long run). They should borrow a little Latino flavor of 'gooooolazo' shouts instead of silently (boringly) recognizing a goal. Many times all we have is one goal throughout the full 90 minutes of a match. So every goal needs to be treated as a last buzzer beater shot of a winning game, as it is done in basketball.
MLS, come back to your American roots. Back to all Americans, like the Brazilian Pele years. At the same time while you are looking back, look towards the future demographic for the sake of the league's success. Embrace what is already a proven American broadcasting model. We have more than enough material to work with here, than to be focusing overseas. While your at it, take a look at, what is hands down, the best sports post-match show in Inside The NBA with Charles Barkley. You will learn what it truly means to entertain your sporting viewing audience.