Again, I am concerned about football in America. And I'm referring to the version played with the feet and a round ball. I did not used to worry about Major League Soccer (MLS). It was a league that simmered on the American sports scene, and as a long-time fan of the game I knew that this league was second-tier, at best. Things changed in 2007. In January of that year it was announced that one of the game's biggest names, David Beckham would be joining the LA Galaxy. Instantaneously MLS jumped up a notch on the American sports landscape. Non-football fans knew who Beckham was and even if they did not jump on the MLS bandwagon, they became familiar with the league's newest acquisition.
What happened immediately after the Galaxy signed Beckham is that television networks started adding MLS matches to the US national television schedule. ESPN and the Fox Soccer Channel upped their number of MLS matches and it no longer became a chore for an American fan to find the sport on the air. As a former ESPN employee, I heard from former co-workers about how much Beckham/MLS coverage did for their ratings. While MLS matches did not come close to the levels of the NBA and NFL games, the coverage was a success. What happened next is what could spell trouble for MLS.
The folks at ESPN are looking at their MLS coverage as their path to a global television presence. They want to bring international football to America and, in the process, take ESPN to Europe, Asia and so on. This season ESPN has started showing live English Premier League and Spanish La Liga games. If you couple this with the coverage of the Uefa and World Cup qualifying matches, the amount we can watch has grown dramatically from the pre-Beckham era.
DirecTV, the largest satellite broadcast outlet in America, has likewise upped the ante with its coverage. DirecTV viewers can watch games on ESPN, Fox Soccer Channel and Setanta. Furthermore, live Uefa matches are shown on DirecTV. You can watch not just selected matches - you can watch every match. Let me paint the picture for you. Last week I was able to watch 10 Uefa matches - four Premier League matches - three La Liga matches-three Serie A matches and two Bundesliga matches. All live. This is over the course of seven days. I do not have time to watch them all so I record a handful and watch a few live. By Sunday evening, I am spent. I am full. My appetite has been more that satisfied. What is the one thing missing here?
MLS. Why would I spend my time watching an inferior product when I can watch Barcelona, Chelsea, Inter Milan, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid? The battle to find quality football is over in America. It is established and it is growing. The MLS is no longer just competing with the big four North American sports, it is battling the Premier League. I am curious to see if MLS teams try even harder to acquire players like Thierry Henry and other international stars who have gone on record that they would consider a move to the US. If the NY Red Bulls had Henry, would I be more likely to watch them? Maybe, but not for long.
The thing the MLS should do in the battle for support is embrace the local fans. The Seattle Sounders have done that and the stands are packed for every home game. Other teams such as Columbus and Toronto are doing the same. As a fan of the beautiful game, this has been a great time for me. That being said, the league that I want to see thrive, MLS, now has another major obstacle in its constant fight to remain relevant.