Turn on the television and seal off the mancave: the MLS Cup will be played on Saturday. This year Sporting Kansas plays host to Real Salt Lake as each team shoots for its second championship in the 18 year history of the league.
For those who are unfamilar with U.S. professional soccer the MLS (or "Major League Soccer") has 19 teams scattered around North America. The squads tend to have vaguely European sounding names (DC United, Chivas U.S.) and play in relatively small stadiums in front of crowds that averaged 18,608 for the 2013 season. It may sound like small potatoes compared to the NFL but in the attached clip Simon Baker of Baker Avenue says the MLS has deep pocketed corporate sponsors committed to keeping a toehold in the U.S. version of the world’s most popular sport.
Companies like Microsoft (MSFT) are involved but not in size. “It’s a place marker,” explains Baker, “It says we’re here and we care about soccer moms.” Right now those soccer moms (and dads) as well as their kids are a small but hardy bunch. Some 353,552 people saw the MLS live last year and the average attendance was the second largest in league history. Unfortunately television ratings are a different story. Coverage on ESPN/ ESPN2 saw a decline of 29% to just 220k viewers per game.
Without serious television rights to draw new advertisers in, the MLS will be reliant on the live gate and corporate goodwill to continue to thrive. Baker points to Anheuser-Busch InBev SA/NV (BUD) as a good example of the corporate ambivalence. “Budweiser’s going to be anywhere there’s anyone shouting and screaming and running around,” Baker says, but the dollars the beer king is putting to work are nothing compared to its budget for the American version of football.
The trick for greater penetration is going to be a stronger product. Ironically the global success of soccer (sorry, purists) works against the MLS is some ways. When teams like Baker’s Manchester United are on cable immediately prior to an MLS game it’s immedately obvious that the best players in the world are playing overseas.
“It’s the biggest game in terms of high school and younger so it’s great to see the (MLS) taking off around the country, but you need better homegrown players in there,” Baker notes, “It’s still a second class game over here and a second standard quite honestly.”
In a vacuum the MLS offers exciting games and generally well-run organizations. The league may not be ready for prime time either figureatively or literally but unlike prior men’s professional leagues in the U.S. it’s clear the MLS isn’t at risk of disappearing any time soon.