The last time the MLS Player's Union and MLS sat down at the table and hammered out a CBA it was 2010 (You can read what happened leading up to the 2010 CBA in part 1 here). At the end of the 2009 MLS had an average attendance of 16,037 and were just about to add the Philadelphia Union to the league with two more teams on the horizon, the later two paying expansion fees of around $34 million. The average TV viewership on ESPN came in around 284K viewers while Fox Soccer broadcasts came in at a paltry 53,000 viewers. With all that said the last five years there have been quite a few changes in MLS and for soccer in America in general.
While I have been following the Timbers for a long time I do not have enough time in my day to focus on soccer in America so I turned to Author Sean Reid (Lovethysoccer.com) to help me delve into the evolution of soccer since the last CBA was signed. As to Sean's qualifications he spent five years roaming this country experiencing soccer around this great nation. He conducted interviews with many people involved in the many different levels of competitive soccer and took of this knowledge and essentially wrote the bible on American Soccer.
Here is our conversation (The block quotes are Sean's response):
Stumptown Footy: Your book Love Thy Soccer delves into the rich history of soccer in America and is in my eyes a bible for American Soccer fans. Through the research you conducted for your book what major changes have you seen in MLS in the last 5 years?
The most significant changes I think involve the league's growth and prominence - and that's been well covered, and deservedly so. But I think what's also fascinating is the role other bodies outside the league have played. A third of USL PRO is now made up of what are essentially MLS reserve teams. Fans and supporter groups have grown exponentially to not only take greater ownership of their clubs but also cultivate that culture and the passion behind it in other non-MLS markets. And that's fed back into MLS's most proven growth strategy: to entreat exceptional existing soccer clubs to join them in the top division.
SF: With the strong upsurge in supporters' groups and the role they play in driving interest in soccer do you think this increase in the quality of the atmospheres will help MLS? Do you think it will help MLS translate to TV?
It ties directly to tv ratings and overall exposure of the sport. Why was Portland, along with Kansas City and Seattle one of the most frequently televised venues? They brought a spirit that lifted the audience and inspired the players. It's not a good story all around for American soccer, but it makes for good television when you have a stadium full of fans chanting in unison. It's also a counterpoint to foreign teams or leagues that don't have the same support - so naturally, the stronger the matchday atmosphere, the better it looks for MLS.
SF: What do you think the biggest obstacles are for Soccer to become a major player in the sports landscape in the USA?
Leadership. This isn't a slight on men like Sunil Gulati and Don Garber. In my opinion they've both done an excellent job, respectively, of elevating the profiles of the Federation and the national team, and MLS is growing by leaps and bounds. But as soccer continues to grow across the pyramid and in nearly all commercial sectors of the country, you could argue that they are simply "running" their shops well, rather than leading the country in a unified direction. Soccer in America has always been a fragmented enterprise. I think if you had true forward-thinking leadership - individuals, be them Gulati or Garber, or others - they could do more to present a unified and cohesive vision for the game in this country and not be simply content to grow their own brands.
SF: The terms "Eurosnob" and "Europhile" are used to talk about someone who only follows big European teams. Are we seeing less and less of these types of people or does MLS still have a ways to go to capture their fandom?
I don't think so. MLS has developed a strong enough following that I don't think it needs to justify itself to Eurosnobs anymore. But it can't abandon its local markets. MLS would do well to ratchet back the top-down approach and work more toward more local autonomy within its clubs. This I think would please fans as a whole as well as attracting those fringe European-only fans. Honestly though, the term Eurosnob, while I use it in my book, in the last five years you see it used less. It's becoming for me almost less derogatory than it is sorrowful. I think people are finally seeing what they're missing here.
SF: Where does soccer go from here?
That's up to us all. Fans and those in charge at the top. And that's a point I make in the book, really. Everyone loves the game. We collectively have to work together to ensure that it moves in a direction that does more good than bad, and is successful for the right reasons. Fans will never unanimously agree on every detail or decision made by club or national leadership, but they are an infinitely more creative voice in a larger collective. The beautiful thing about our game at this point and time is that it has grown into an accessible and truly emerging democracy, as far as American sports go. It's up to everyone and for the good of the game, I believe, to keep it that way.
SF: You traveled this country talking soccer with fans and essentially lived a dream of mine. Any amusing or funny moments you would like to share?
I had some really great experiences. Hanging out with Marcelo Balboa over a couple of beers was a true highlight. Not only was the man gracious enough to spend more than hour sitting down with me after calling a game, but he waited over forty-five minutes in the lobby of my hotel for me to find my way back from Commerce City to meet him! The class and candor he showed was pretty remarkable and incredibly humbling. I would also say that in terms of supporter party atmospheres, no one can touch the Midwest. I'd say Chicago's Section 8, the Louligans in St. Louis, and the entire weekend and gameday atmosphere surrounding Sporting Park in KC and its contingent from the Cauldron were all very good to me.
Soccer is growing and that is a good thing but it will probably make this CBA negotiation a little more intense compared to the last two. Be sure to check out the final piece in this three part article. A special thanks to Sean for answering my questions!