When David Beckham decided to leave Real Madrid and join the LA Galaxy in 2007, there was a lot of excitement among American soccer fans and a ton of skepticism from American sports “experts.”
Major League Soccer had just ended it’s 11th season (the 2006 season). At that time, the league consisted of just 12 teams in 11 U.S markets, the average league attendance was 15,504, San Jose had just lost a team to relocation, and only 4 soccer specific stadiums were being used.
In just one season, David Beckham’s MLS contribution raised the overall league attendance by more than 1,200 fans per game (a really big number in sports leagues). The LA Galaxy alone averaged 4,000 more fans per game thanks to the Englishman. Estimates today suggest that the LA Galaxy are worth over $100 million and that Beckham’s presence has tripled the value of that franchise, making it a brand recognized around the globe.
Of course, Beckham was not the only new arrival in MLS in ’07. Mexican sensation Cuauhtemoc Blanco joined the Chicago Fire, Juan Pablo Angel joined the New York Red Bulls, Luciano Emilio went to D.C. United and Guillermo Barros Schelotto brought his magic to Columbus. Each added value to their respective clubs, but nothing like Beckham.
Fast forward to the current 2012 season. The league now has 19 teams in 15 U.S and 3 Canadian markets, with an average leauge attendance just shy of 19,000, and 16 stadiums now operate as either soccer-specific or are designed specifically with soccer in mind. Two of those stadiums just opened this season. A new TV deal with NBC has already paid dividends in ratings with only half the season gone by. The value of MLS clubs is on the rise with Forbes reporting that D.C. United was recently valued at $50 million. The Montreal Impact, the newest MLS expansion team, paid a record $40 million expansion fee to join the league.
Due in large part to the success and recognition David Beckham has received during his MLS tenure, other high profile international superstars are actively considering MLS for their future. Cristiano Ronaldo has many European leauge years ahead of him, but even he is thinking out loud about the MLS for his later career years.
Can you imagine if Argentina’s Lionel Messi joined an MLS team? Heck even if he was 32 or 33 by the time he got here, he would still be one of the most entertaining soccer players on the planet to watch live.
Recent attendance figures for both league and non-league games are also encouraging as they show American soccer fans will spend real money to see world class players. 60,908 fans in Seattle watched their Sounders route the LA Galaxy on August 5th. Montreal’s 2012 home opener against the Chicago Fire drew 58,912 and another 60,860 crowd in Montreal set the all time attendance record for soccer in Canada. Milan defeated Chelsea in an exhibition in Miami on July 28th in front of 57,748 fans. Toronto drew 47,658 to the Rogers Centre for a CONCACAF Champions League game against the LA Galaxy on March 7th.
In 2011 there were several notable crowds for exhibitions including 61,308 in Chicago, 57,305 in Philadelphia, 56,211 in Los Angeles, and 51,523 in Foxborough, MA outside Boston.
It’s not all roses of course. D.C. United is a top candidate for relocation if their struggles continue with the District of Columbia for a new stadium. Chivas USA has largely worn out is welcome at the Home Depot Center in L.A., which now has to tarp off vast sections of the stadium because of a lack of interest in the team. FC Dallas lost the naming rights on their stadium after Pizza Hut pulled its name off the place. New England is still stuck playing in Gillette Stadium, the 68,000 seat home of the NFL’s Patriots. The cavernous environment is bad for soccer and no attempt has been made to improve the atmosphere for the much smaller soccer crowds. San Jose can’t get a stadium deal done and is stuck playing in a cramped minor league baseball stadium.
So it’s not all perfect and those franchises that a struggling detract from the wild successes in Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto, Philadelphia, Salt Lake City, Kansas City and Houston.
Teams are gaining traction in their local markets and ticket sales are perking up. With so many teams now playing in stadiums they own, profit potential has exploded. Sponsorship deals are now coming not only for stadium naming rights, but also for promotion on the front of jerseys and during telecasts on NBC Sports Network and ESPN.
There is a long road ahead for the leauge to shore up its weaker clubs and carefully examine new markets (Miami, Orlando, Vegas, Phoenix, St. Louis, Sacramento, Ottawa, etc.) However, the league has demonstrated an ability to expand, build new stadiums and draw fans by the tens of thousands to their games in the midst of a recession that is harming most American sports leagues.
That is quite an accomplishment under good economic circumstances, let alone bad ones. Thus, profitability for a few teams is already here and if the trend continues, more teams will join them. The European leagues have inflated the salaries of international superstars, so the league will need to generate huge sums of money from the vast North American market place to compete for top flight talent which is unlikely in the short term. However, as big investors look around the country and take note of NFL stadiums full of people watching soccer and MLS team valuations rise, it is only a matter of time until they put their business muscle to work growing the beautiful game into a premier league to be reckoned with.