MLS attendance up, TV ratings lag
NEW YORK (AP):
Major League Soccer's attendance is up and fan interest is booming, even if television broadcasts are far less popular and some young Americans would rather play in Europe.
MLS averaged 22,000 in attendance for the first time in its history this season, ranked among the top seven leagues in the world. The league is set to add a second Los Angeles franchise next year, announce two expansion cities next month and at some point finalise David Beckham's long-pending Miami club.
But viewers averaged under 300,000 for nationally televised regular-season matches, fewer than the average for a New York Yankees game on their regional sports network. Several top young Americans, such as Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie, have chosen to forego the MLS to play in Germany and test their mettle in a more demanding environment.
And worst of all, the United States - whose roster was filled with MLS stars - failed to qualify for next year's World Cup, ending a streak of seven straight appearances in football's showcase.
"We need to use this failure as a wakeup call for everyone associated with the sport at all levels to ensure that we have the right processes and mechanisms and development programmes and leadership and governance in place to learn from this missed opportunity to ensure that it never happens again," MLS Commissioner Don Garber said this week. "Part of the maturation of becoming a soccer nation is recognising that qualifying for the World Cup is not a birthright. It's something you need to earn, and we are unfortunately in the company of some great soccer nations, like Italy and Holland and Ghana and Chile - Copa champions - that have also not qualified."
Launched with 10 teams in 1996, two years after the US hosted the World Cup, MLS expanded to 12 but cut back to 10 after the 2001 season. There has been steady growth since expansion started in 2004. Next year's total will be 23, already well over the norm for a first division, and the league is planning to settle at 28.
MORE STADIUMS COMING
Infrastructure could not be more different than in the early days. The league has 14 soccer specific stadiums, two more renovated for the sport and one built with both the NFL and soccer in mind. Three more soccer stadiums are under construction.
Average attendance is up 60 percent from 13,756 in 2000, boosted this year by 48,200 for Atlanta in their opening season. MLS trails only the Germany's Bundesliga, England's Premier League, Spain's La Liga, Mexico's Liga MX, the Chinese Super League and Serie A, but that has not translated yet into big television ratings.
ESPN averaged 272,000 for 30 telecasts this regular season on ESPN and ESPN2, and Fox averaged 236,000 for 33 broadcasts on FS1 and Fox. In addition, Univision is averaging 250,000 viewers for its Spanish-language MLS telecasts.
But the Premier League attracts a larger audience, averaging 422,000 on NBC, NBCSN and CNBC, even though many matches are on weekend mornings.