For those still not aware, the orange team playing the role of the Washington Generals in Saturday’s MLS Cup was the Houston Dynamo.

It was easy to miss, what with all the hype around a single player on the LA Galaxy who happened to be married to a former pop star. That player—David Beckham, for those living under that infamous rock where like-minded Luddites apparently reside—was playing his last game in MLS and the league didn’t even try to pretend that it cared about much else.

It’s funny. Despite being a league that preaches the value of balanced rosters and forces its clubs into collective meritocracy (MLS prefers to call it parity), MLS sure does fawn over celebrity.

Now, let’s be fair: Beckham was a decent player, especially when surrounded by some quality pieces. However, to suggest that he was the most important piece of the Galaxy, or the most important player in MLS in 2012, is disingenuous.

What he was, and what he’ll be when he takes his road show to Paris, Beijing, Sydney, South London or the Moon, is a marketing machine. This, of course, isn’t news to anyone that has walked the Earth at anytime over the past 20-years. And, unfortunately, it’s through that lens that you must view him and, by extension, the last six years of MLS.

So, the Dynamo—back-to-back Eastern Conference champions and two-time MLS Cup champions—didn’t matter. This was the crowing moment of a six-year odyssey and MLS needed the story to end with confetti falling down on the great Brit’s head.

Now that MLS can enjoy the outcome it was so desperately cheering for, it’s time to analyze whether the whole thing was worth it. MLS observers are collectively writing the sequel to Grant Wahl’s The Beckham Experiment.

The results are mixed.

Those that are prone to see the positive influence of Beckham will look at the massive expansion that has been a cornerstone of his time in the league. Starting with Toronto, MLS has gone into Seattle, Portland, Vancouver, Philadelphia and Montreal. They also went back into San Jose, after the previous club there was moved to the aforementioned Houston.

Those cities came into a league that had a ‘hook’ in David Beckham. And, to some degree, the success MLS enjoyed at the box office (if not in the TV ratings) had something to do with the profile he provided MLS.

In turn, that success allowed many of those cities to build stadiums, which, ultimately lead to the long-term viability of the league.

Beckham gets a lot of credit for stadium expansion in MLS. How much of that credit he deserves is debatable, of course, but it’s difficult to separate how much of the support you see in places like Seattle, Portland or Kansas City is a result of the awareness he provided and how much was already there at the grassroots level.

Both sides of the debate have merit. The Timber’s Army for example were out in numbers to watch Portland back when it was playing the Puerto Rico Islanders. It would not be remotely fair to associate their MLS support with any single player, no matter how famous he might have been. However, even in Portland, supporter’s groups are a small portion of the total attendance, and the club needs the casual sports fan to buy in to fill grounds. Even in Portland you’ll find fans that were there because of No 23.

So, Beckham was important to the league, and without him it may not have expanded much beyond the niche fan it always had.

At least indirectly, Beckham has made MLS something people want to go and see. Attendance is at an all-time high and enough of the people he helped bring into the stadiums for the first time have stuck around to become fans of their local side. As such, the league will be just fine without him in 2013.

What Beckham failed to do, however, was to convert enough of those single club fans into fans of the league as a whole. That indifference manifests itself most obviously in the league’s TV numbers, which continue to struggle.

The MLS Cup drew a terrible 0.7 share in the US. To put that into context, the Tour de France came in at a 0.8 this year in the post-Lance Armstrong, this-sport-is-dirty-beyond-repair era. The numbers are slightly better in Canada. TSN reported that 187,000 Canadians (in U.S. terminology that’s a 1.4 share) watched the final and 335,000 watched the Vancouver Whitecaps playoff game against L.A. (works out to a 2.5 share).

MLS soccer in the US is next to invisible in United States and even Beckham couldn’t move the dial. As the league enters the next phase of its history—the post-Beckham-era—improving TV viewership is the biggest challenge it faces. The question that should be keeping Don Garber up at night is: how can MLS convert local fans into league fans and get them on their couch watching games that don’t involve their hometown team?

If the league is to take another step forward and legitimately start to compete with the second tier leagues of Europe and South America, it is imperative it finds a plausible answer.

Comments (13)

  1. meritocracy…or mediocrity?

  2. Both work…

    (Adding lines because my comment was to short)

  3. *Too* short, too.

    I love it when I make dumb typos

  4. Just a quick comment on the TV numbers:

    The MLS cannot schedule their championship match against the SEC Championship in the US. College football is a beast of an entity and played a critical factor in the low numbers. So what are the options? Scheduling a final against the NFL is also a poor choice, so my suggestion would be to stage the game on a Friday night and promote, promote, promote the hell of it.

  5. With vastly superior leagues in Europe, MLS TV ratings will never do well. It’s fun to watch your local team live, when it’s the best league in US/Canada. However, the level of soccer is not high enough to interest neutrals who are not hard core soccer fans. Aside from LA, who really, cares to watch most of the other teams in the MLS, unless you are a fan of one particular team.

    As a neutral you are interested in good soccer. When you can choose to watch the Premier League, Champions league, or the New England Revolution/Chivas/KC, etc., the choice is not difficult and MLS will continue to struggle. Why would a soccer fan in North Carolina care to watch TFC v. San Jose? It’s not great soccer and it’s not of any personal interest. Maybe they would enjoy watching Chelsea v. Man City for the entertainment value.

    The TV ratings won’t improve until the MLS is strong enough to remove or drastically increase the salary cap; that may never happen.

    • Except MLS isn’t directly competing with Chelsea v Man City. MLS kicks-of after those games are over.

      The Mexican league is more relevant to MLS’ TV numbers.

      • A casual soccer fan will probably watch 1-2 games a week. If he or she can watch a few Champs league, or top Euro div games a week verses a few MLS games a week (featuring MLS teams in other cities), I’d imagine most would opt for the better soccer, rather than sitting down for a PVR’d match of New England v. Chivas. If NE and Chivas were top flight clubs featuring the world’s best players, it might be a different story.

        When NHL and AHL games are both on TV, people arn’t interested in AHL games for the most part, aside from people in the AHL city. Whether the AHL game is on at the same time as an NHL game is for the most part irrelevant, to the casual hockey fan. Even without NHL on TV, people arn’t that interested in AHL hockey.

        Aside from the couch potato/soccer nut who watches 25 games a week, It doesn’t matter if the games are on at the exact same time of day so the “directly competing” doesn’t really play in.

      • I love the sport in general and will go see the local side play several times per year. (Necessitating about a 2 mile drive – can’t say I’d go an incredible lot further though.)

        But watch the MLS on TV? No, I’ve got time to watch maybe 3 full matches a week. I’ll catch MCFC live and then pick two good matchups off Fox Soccer 2 Go and watch them on delay.

        The MLS to me will always be “chance to soak up the atmosphere of a live match when not back in Europe.” I can’t get emotionally invested in even following the local club because I am used to European football. Where there is relegation, and where there is NOT an idiotic Americanized structure of playoffs where you routinely get the league title being contested by the clubs with the 4th and 7th best records.

  6. I can’t speak to American markets, but at least in Toronto you can watch sports highlights shows on TSN and Sportsnet every day all season and never see highlights of games involving two American teams. It’s really hard to care about a game not involving Canadian teams when they get 0 coverage throughout the year.

    I did watch the final but I do like to watch some of the better MLS teams (LA, Seattle). I do see European soccer as somewhat of competition for TV ratings, even if they aren’t at the same time. If you’ve already watched soccer for 2 or 4 hours on a Saturday, it might be harder to get up for yet another game, at a lower quality no less.

    For me along with increased coverage of non-local teams, the best thing they can do is to increase the level of play, and it’d be great to see that manifested in some CONCACAF Champions League winning teams.

  7. In my opinion, MLS is ALWAYS going to struggle on TV until they take some steps forward in terms of putting better players across the field. You really have to go to the games and watch live to build a strong connection to the team.

    Having golden boy passing it to some NCAA plumber making 50k per year might work from a marketing perspective, but it doesn’t work from a viewers POV. There are some good teams in MLS, without a doubt, but overall I think there are some laggards on every team that really drag the quality down.

    It can be frustrating.

  8. The Liga MX final apparently had 3 million people in the US watching, so MLS has a far way to go to match those numbers.

  9. Examining my own soccer fandom- I go to home Timber matches partly because the whole atmosphere of an involved crowd in a full stadium cannot be duplicated on tv. All our home games are televised (because they’re sell-outs), so I could watch on the couch or in a local tavern, but I choose the better experience.

    I watch Premier league because (like people do with the NFL) I’ve decided to back a couple teams for all kinds of personal reasons. I seldom watch a match up of two teams I care nothing about even if they’re top four teams. Yes, curiosity makes me break this rule if there’s some noteworthy player that I want to see in action.

    With MLS, I must admit that there are a lot fewer tv games I watch not involving my team. There’s a few teams I watch to root for whoever their opponent is – dislike of a rival can be a viewing motivator. MLS has a lot fewer players who are stand-outs where I would watch because of that player. With MLS having so many solid (dull) journeyman players, I really don’t expect anything magical to happen in most games and that’s a problem. A lot of successful MLS teams play a very well drilled formulaic style. If the chance for transcendent moments of skill is hardly ever there, why spend 90 minutes semi-bored?

    It’s all about the return on investment of time as a viewer.

  10. Amp up the fantasy football & gambling opportunities. That’s how I got into the EPL. That’s why I recognize most EPL players. That’s why I’ll watch West Brom vs. Reading. That’s why I have a soft spot for lower-profile players like Yakubu, Saha & Morten Gamst Pederson from teams I would otherwise not care about.

    Fantasy football has tricked me into wasting a lot of my own time on familiarizing myself with and cheering for players in a league…. OF A SPORT…. that I didn’t give shit about before 1996.

    For that I will be forever thankful.

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