I’m a big fan of the WTF podcast with Marc Maron, and a few episodes ago the host interviewed Jason Sudeikis. The Saturday Night Live star recounted a bit of advice he got from Lorne Michaels about how to make it on the show, and as a comedian in general. He told Sudeikis simply,
“The longer you’re there, the longer you’re there.”
In other words, if you fill a certain space, sooner or later people are going to stop asking what gives you the right to fill it. They might even begin to expect you to be there, and over time some may even want you to be there.
This lesson would apply well to Major League Soccer, whose inaugural season was a mere fifteen years ago. Ever since then, hardcore fans of the league have wrestled over complex, existential question on how best to grow the market for soccer in America. Some are intensely protective of the single entity owner/investor set up, with designated player slots and salary caps. Others (although the number is dwindling in serious circles) want to liberalize player spending rules in order to attract better talent and, in theory, better ratings and higher gate sales.
There have also been persistent questions about how to sell the sport, whether to focus on fans of the European game, or the growing Hispanic audience in the US. And, until recently when Don Garber signaled league expansion would stop at twenty teams, supporters and pundits tussled over which regional markets would be best for expansion, and which should be lopped off at the joint.
Perhaps the best formula for growth in the league though is for it to simply keep existing. The excellent MLS team blog Sounder at Heart has an informative post up on the up-tick in TV numbers and stadium attendances for MLS this season. Part of the happy news has to do with expansion into the vibrant Portland and Vancouver markets, but even compensating for the new fans, the league is doing very well.
A lot of that has to do with the hard work of everyone involved in the sport, from the organization to the clubs to the supporters’ groups. But they’ve been working to grow the league for years now. Gradually as time has progressed, the novelty of a US professional soccer league has worn off, the Beckham mania has died down, and more and more casual sports and soccer fans getting used to the league.
In other words, MLS and soccer in general still needs care and attention to grow in both the US and Canada, but the longer it’s there, the longer it’s there.