Will MLS Overtake MLB in Popularity?

May 13, 2018; Los Angeles, CA, Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles FC supporters section cheers during the second half at Banc of California Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

As the Covid-19 crisis continues, I thought I would give my readers a little taste of sports. A good debate arose several weeks ago, and during this sports hiatus, now is as good a time as any to discuss. …

… Los Angeles Football Club, known to domestic soccer fans as LAFC, has just entered its 3rd Major League Soccer (MLS) season, the League’s 25th. It’s lead owner, Larry Berg, boldly predicted just prior to the season’s start that in 10 years, MLS will surpass Major League Baseball (MLB) in popularity. Possibly even more controversial was the claim by Jorge Mas, the managing owner of the new Inter Miami MLS franchise, that MLS would be a higher quality of soccer than the English Premier League and Spain’s La Liga by 2045. Granted, that’s 25 years away, but whoa! 

My Side

Before we take a look at each prediction, I must first predicate this piece with some transparency. I am not in any way objective about the MLS. Erin and I are huge LAFC supporters, and members of our side’s fan association, known as “The 3252.” I think L.A. Galaxy is trash, and particularly relish beating the bloviating fan bases of the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers (sorry, Stumptown fans!) and the Pacific Northwest superiority complexes that come with them. None of that may affect anything else I say in this column, but it all felt good to say. Ok? So, with that out of the way – Let’s get back to exploring those owner’s bold takes… LA…FC!  LA…FC!  LA…FC!! 

  1. MLS will surpass MLB in popularity in 10 years.

From: Highly Unlikely –> Somewhat Unlikely –> Stasis –> Somewhat Probable –> Highly Probable, you may be surprised that I rate this prediction as Somewhat Probable for the following reasons.

Another Lousy “Apology”

The Astros (and others?) Cheating Scandal – Fans are rightly incensed by the sign-stealing systems that were created by the Astros in particular, given how close the 2017 World Series was and the fact that Astros 2nd Baseman Jose Altuve was awarded League MVP very narrowly over the equally if not more impressive newcomer Aaron Judge of the Yankees. Players are being loudly booed in Spring Training games, and one has to wonder if some Spring Training tourism isn’t born of fans traveling to boo the cheaters as much as to see their own club in action. The League has been deeply damaged by the lack of punitive action taken by MLB Commissioner Rob Manfried, who declined to vacate the Astros World Series title and didn’t hit ANY players with suspensions. In my view, it’s an outrage that the League implemented nothing more than wimpy slaps on the wrist. In addition, the Astros have shown near zero sincere contrition, and their owner has deluded himself with reports he’s privately stated that the scandal will simply float away in the near future, and the team shouldn’t spend much time or money on managing the PR crisis. 

Once play resumes, fans may at first INCREASE attendance if for no other reason than to show up to boo the visiting Astros. This prediction was even made by L.A. sports legend Fred Rogan on his daily AM570 daily radio show, “Rogan and Rodney.” But longer term, this is a league whose players the fans don’t feel they can trust, and a League executive office completely rudderless and limp in its enforcement. Fans will make the sport pay slowly over time for both defects.

The Passive Nature of Baseball Continues to Fail an increasingly ADHD Nation – Many who shun soccer say there isn’t enough scoring and excitement. And while scoring may at times be low, it hardly lacks excitement for those of us who actually WATCH IT. The suspense of penalty kicks, corner kicks, and other set pieces are must watch, as is, frankly, just about every second of a match. There are controversial fouls, controversial offsides calls, and plenty of cheap penalties to boo. Just as one can’t take a second’s pause away from a hockey game lest they miss a huge play or even a goal, so too must soccer fans focus on the entirety of the match so as not to miss a dramatic moment. Most MLS franchises boast an entire goal zone of rowdy and committed fans, who sing chants and wave flags the ENTIRE GAME. It creates a constant buzz of activity and inspired atmosphere without any passivity… an instant short attention span healing device.

Baseball, on the other hand – despite efforts to increase the speed of the game by shortening the time between ½ innings and the time a pitcher has to deliver each pitch – remains a largely passive game. Many fans (like my wife) will only go with me to a game if there are friends to talk to there, turning her head only for a dramatic hit, out, or home run while chatting away most of the game. And it’s like this for many fans. Kids wander around bored. Few fans commit to chants, and a bored stadium often resorts to tired old habits like beach balls and “The Wave” to pass the time in an otherwise game of few true moments. As the speed of life continues to outpace our expectations, and our attention spans are constantly shortened or at least challenged, baseball will continue to suffer.

Atlanta FC fills the same stadium the Falcons use!

MLS is Increasing in Size, Quality, and Popularity Already – The last time the 30 franchise MLB expanded was with the Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays in 1998. It would be hard to argue for expansion that would truly be sustainable anywhere else, especially given the low attendance of some franchises including and especially the sometimes 4-digit attendance Rays themselves.

MLS, on the other hand, has expanded by at least 1 franchise, and several times by 2, in 12 of the last 14 seasons. Current health concerns aside, crowds are filling stadiums, and those crowds, as I’ve stated earlier, are forming committed fan communities that are active online, at games, and even in gatherings outside the stadium. A minor league second division is even starting to take rise in several cities hoping to one day rise in population or popularity to serve as MLS expansion sites.

Soccer is the Only Sport More Popular Among Latinos Than Baseball, Football, Basketball and Boxing – A 2018 poll shows that soccer is the most popular sport by age among American Latinos (75%), with baseball placing 4th (68%) https://www.statista.com/statistics/980657/hispanics-popular-sports/  Latinos remain the fastest growing population of color in the United States. The demographics speak for themselves.

So, will MLS surpass MLB in popularity by 2030?  I don’t know. But for several reasons, I think I make clear it has a somewhat probable chance.

  • MLS will be a higher quality of soccer than the English Premier League and Spain’s La Liga by 2045

This bold claim is one almost impossible to predict given it’s 25-year window. I won’t spend as much time on this one except to point out several factors that will have an effect on either answer, one in particular of which has nothing to do with soccer.

The Climate Crisis – None of us really know how much soccer will be played in 25 years unless major steps are taken on climate. Several cities in each league (MLS, EPL, and La Liga) are in coastal zones that will be affected by sea level rise, including brand new Inter Miami. Will temperatures and humidity mean changes as drastic as expanded rosters, shorter halves, or even moving soccer to quarters with air conditioned breaks between each?  Will infectious diseases – that will only be worse and spread more quickly as our climate declines – dissuade several promising young stars from beginning promising careers in their teens in the first place, or take out more players or its biggest stars for longer durations over major illness or even death?

Then there’s the question of climate refugees. If the climate worsens as much as most scientists predict, will America’s northern cities like Seattle, Portland, Minneapolis/St. Paul, New York and Boston still have thriving franchises, joined by perhaps 5-6 Canadian franchise cities (plus existing clubs in Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal) to keep the MLS alive if cities like Los Angeles, Miami, Houston and Dallas become unlivable, or so unattractive to players that they’ll seek play in northern towns?  Will Canada overall become most desirable due to “moderate weather,” or perhaps England seizing more stars from the warming confines of La Liga?  Will ALL teams be forced indoors?!

Carlos Vela… he’s good!

The Attractiveness of Playing in the United States – Will pay be competitive with the large contracts Europe’s star players can secure in the EPL and La Liga?  Some players have – but David Beckham was already a grizzled veteran before his large contract to play for L.A. Galaxy.  Will YOUNG European stars, in their early and mid-20s, be willing to commit to MLS clubs for 5 years?  Will the ownership groups be able to lure them to do so?  Carlos Vela came to MLS when he was 28/29 years old from La Liga. Still in his prime, but surely not 24. And it won’t just take more Velas, a few years younger, to convince more international players to come to MLS. Vela and others attracted here have largely been from Mexico and Central and South America. The European players in MLS are with few exceptions not household names back home. When they have been, the MLS has largely been a retirement spot. Great players to be sure. But can we attract Germany’s best young players?  France’s?  What about the hot new stars of Croatia?  To truly be an international landing spot, it’s going to take younger, proven World Cup level stars to make the move and put MLS on the minds of even a small minority of most Europeans. In short – more Velas? Ok. But It will really take the first Kylian Mbappe, and more of his ilk from Europe to make this happen, not just the Western Hemisphere.

Irish Retiree

Will MLS commit to a stronger Academy System, or Promotion / Relegation?

As I alluded to earlier, a second division is emerging in the U.S. in smaller markets. If it grows large enough to serve as its own league, it would behoove MLS to make it an official 2nd Division, and create a Relegation/Promotion system. The bottom 4-5 clubs in points during the regular season (given we’re approaching 30 clubs soon with next expected expansion teams in Austin, Charlotte, Sacramento, and St. Louis) should be relegated to the 2nd Division the following season, and the 2nd Divisions top 4-5 points earners are promoted to the MLS 1st division for the following season. They will remain there so long as they can stay above the bottom 4-5 in points each season. Now, one may ask – how does this help the QUALITY of the MLS?!  Simple – a system of consequences and reward drive better play. Better play will attract more and better players from around the world, and the quality of MLS play will improve as a result.

MLS should also offer a soccer academy system that specifically targets promising U.S. teens. But I have a strong feeling the corrupt and otherwise always terrible NCAA will fight them all the way. I should really do a whole column on the NCAA and how we should scrap it and build a new one from scratch… but I digress.

So this second prediction is much murkier and will depend on a number of factors to go just right, some of which need to be conducted and aggressively instituted by MLS.

I hope this has given you all a little sports reprieve as we all suffer through the sportsless world and each do our part to flatten the curve. Be well.

2 Comments

  1. Some great points. I would add a couple things. MLS will be the best when it pays the most. In order to do that it needs to increase it TV ratings. Right now the in stadium experience is fantastic but the TV ratings are abysmal. The only way MLS is making money right now is selling franchises and some think it is a ponzi scheme.

    https://deadspin.com/is-mls-a-ponzi-scheme-1797509617

    The 2026 World Cup in the US is going to be critical. If the US has a competitive team and a star emerges that will be amazing. America loves star power and they need a soccer star. Some are starting to emerge like Pulisic, Reyna, Adams and McKennie. Those guys should be the heart of that 2026 team. But is there a 15 year old out there right now who will be a 21 year old break out star for the U.S.

    Before the MLS is the best it has to become a successful feeder system for the rest of the world. Can MLS teams can make a profit developing talent and then selling to bigger leagues that will incentivize the development of world class academies like Ajax and Dortmund.

    It is a great story and interesting question because unlike most things in life, the problem can’t be solved by just throwing money at it. The U.S. tried that with the failed NASL and now China is trying it. It is a tough challenge that is going to take decades to solve, if ever. It is fun to be the underdog every once in a while.

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