It’s a question you both want to ask and don’t want to ask at the same time. Exactly how far back is the MLS Cup from its American football counterpart in terms of popularity? Without a doubt, the gap isn’t even close. But it would be nice to know what you’re up against when you face an upward climb, right?
It almost isn’t fair to compare the MLS Cup today to the NFL’s dominance. American football has grown into a monster arguably too big to fail over the course of a century, while soccer has achieved the same dominance overseas, yet has clung for life on our shores. Picture soccer in America’s existence as a tight rope hanging between two skyscrapers. On one end, it’s the early 20th century when the FIFA World Cup isn’t even an idea yet. On the other, it’s 2015. American soccer is the acrobat trying to get from one side to the other without falling. At the tail end of this rope, the acrobat has finally mustered the courage to stand up and walk, but balance isn’t quite there yet. Major League Soccer represents stability for the past 20 years of American soccer, a feat unmatched even by the glory days of NASL. But American football has achieved and far surpassed stability a long time ago. The theme of the league now is profit. While it still isn’t a fair contest, looking at the NFL after 20 years in its current format might give a better indication of where Major League Soccer is trending.
It’s January 26, 1986. Coach Mike Ditka and Quarterback Jim McMahon have led the 15-1 Chicago Bears to a 46-10 win over the New England Patriots in the New Orleans Superdome. How many people are watching? 73,818 are in the stands, and over 92 million are watching at home, with an above average TV rating of 48.3. For the record, last year’s game between the Patriots and Seahawks set a U.S record with an average of 114.4 million viewers.
Now let’s take a look at MLS Cup 2014, the 19th edition. It’s December 7, 2014. The crown jewel of MLS, Los Angeles Galaxy, are led by Landon Donovan, possibly for the last time to a fifth championship win over the New England Revolution. Total aggregate viewership, from both English and Spanish language networks is a reported 1.887 million, the third highest audience of an MLS Cup since the league’s inception.
Head to head, this is a far cry. But in terms of stability, this is magical. Soccer is no longer “new” around here. The league is getting more mature with a more mature logo, more mature teams, and more mature fan bases in a sense that many fans have grown with the league instead of just showing up once for the social aspect of a game.
This year’s Final competitors are perfect examples of this maturity. The Columbus Crew, one of the league’s original teams, started the year with a grand re branding effort and the results were considerably positive. The team is in a final for the first time since 2008, and attendance went up reasonably higher from 2014 in its now sponsored stadium. The team also has a star who could arguably compete well anywhere in the world in Kei Kamara, and instead of adopting the “FC” moniker that most clubs seem to be using these days to mimic Europe (see NYCFC, Atlanta United FC), the Crew went the Americanized route with an “SC” for soccer club that boldly stands out on its crest. Looking at the first leg of the Eastern Conference Finals against the New York Red Bulls, and seeing the sold out Mapfre Stadium, the Crew are providing proof that sometimes, change is good.
On the other side, the Portland Timbers have been successful in selling out their stadium virtually every game since they entered the league in 2011 even when the product on the field wasn’t as desirable as expected. Finally, the loyal and passionate fans of the Rose City have something to cheer for. While the team name’s history goes back to 1975 and the days of NASL and Pele, this iteration of the Timbers more accurately traces its roots back to 2001 and minor league soccer. The success story of a team rising from ten years in the lower levels to the championship of top flight soccer is a feel good tale that will definitely find appreciation among the passionate supporters of MLS.
But for now, MLS Cup is still a work in progress, and if you’ll be watching on Sunday, that thought might be stuck in the back of your mind. There is no shame in not being the best yet. The key word is yet. Now that stability has been reached, the only way to go is up.