The Seattle Sounders drew 66,452 fans for an MLS game Sunday Night. David Beckham was not playing. Fans, more than three NFL games and every MLB playoff game, filled CenturyLink to see the rivalry game with Portland. ProSoccerTalk’s Richard Farley described the scene:
If there was a difference between CenturyLink’s crowd and those you’d see in other famous venues, it was the distinctly North American feel. Though the stadium was a sea of Seattle green, the atmosphere wasn’t defined by supporter chants. ECS and the 1,500 Timbers Army members who’d made the trip north saw their songs and taunts drowned out by applause, grasps, and cheers – the soundtrack you’d hear at football, baseball, and basketball games.
When excitement waned and the nervous murmur died down, the supporters’ would fill the void, just as the songs and cheers at other sporting events attack the idle moments. The more conventional atmosphere was neither good nor bad, better or worse, but it was familiar for anybody who’s used to taking their family to see one of the nation’s big three sports. They would have felt at home. No, this wasn’t a Seahawks game, but the atmosphere was little different.
Bringing in 66,000 was a one-off – the Sounders average around 42,000 – but it’s worth noting MLS draws more fans per game than the NBA or the NHL. That’s impressive for the now teenage league, but it is no benchmark for mainstream penetration. The penetration that matters is in television. There, MLS lags well behind other domestic leagues and even other brands of soccer.
The NBA finals drew a 10.1 rating, which was a mild disappointment. The 2.7 rating for the Stanley Cup Finals proved a major disappointment. Both obliterated the MLS Cup Final, which drew an 0.8 rating. Just looking at soccer, the MLS Cup Final was outdrawn by the UEFA Champions League Final and by the Euro 2012 Final. It attracted fewer viewers than a replay of a Chelsea vs. Liverpool EPL match shown the same day.
MLS has cultivated and catered to the live experience in new markets. That is estimable. We enjoy the odd game and the varied beer selection at Red Bull Arena. But while the EPL, the Champions League and the US Men’s and Women’s national teams have made steady headway on television, MLS penetration has been minimal.
The locus of sports fandom has shifted from the live event to television. It is in the process of shifting to a post-television landscape of ubiquitous Internet and mobile devices. In that climate there are no barriers to a new soccer fan in the US eschewing MLS to follow Chelsea. It presents fewer schedule conflicts, it is easier to find on TV and it is more entertaining.
Americans are embracing soccer. To entice them MLS needs to improve its on-the-field product and to market itself better.
[Photo via Getty]