U.S. National Team captain Clint Dempsey made a surprise switch last week, ditching the Premier League to move to the Seattle Sounders of MLS for a transfer in the range of $9 million. You might have heard Seattle is expecting over 65,000 fans for Dempsey’s home debut on August 24 against the rival Portland Timbers. People attending Sounders games in droves is nothing new. The franchise averages over 40,000 per game.
Here’s something you probably didn’t know: this season MLS is averaging over 18,000 fans per game. The figure is higher than the averages of both the NHL and NBA. Globally, MLS attendance is one of the Top 10 highest attended soccer leagues in the world, drawing more per game than the top divisions in Scotland, Russia and Portugal.
As strong as MLS attendance is, it still struggles to make an impact on television. MLS television ratings stink. ESPN2 was pulling in less than 200,000 viewers for most of its early-season MLS broadcasts this year though that number has risen to over 250,000 for some June telecasts; that figure is even lower for games on NBC Sports Network, which recently crept over the 100,000 view mark.
The league’s current television deal with NBC expires after 2014. Forbes estimated earlier this year the next package could be double the current $10 million, thanks to the addition of another team in New York along with the potential bidding war for the sport if Fox Sports 1 wants to enter the fray. This estimation was before the Sounders added Dempsey, arguably the country’s top player.
Earlier this week, The Big Lead caught up with up ESPN analyst and former MLS GM Alexi Lalas to talk about the Dempsey move and how it pertains to the television department. Lalas was both optimistic and realistic about Dempsey’s impact on the Nielsen needle.
“There’s an element of stars, people want to watch stars, they want to watch names that they know,” Lalas said. “Clint can do a certain amount of that. The ratings won’t change overnight. There’ll be a bump, but the signing of Clint Dempsey won’t change the challenge we face.”
If you’re on Twitter, you’ve no-doubt experienced a ‘Dempsey explosion’ on your timeline whenever he scored while playing for either Fulham or Tottenham. Those explosions might turn into gentle ripples now that Dempsey is scoring against the Montreal Impact rather than Manchester United.
“It’s a slow growth. There’s no magic potion where people will suddenly want to go watch MLS games,” Lalas said. “One element we don’t have yet, Americans in general, who may or may not turn on MLS, perceive the best players are still playing other places. It all comes down to money and to attract players to say this is the best league.”
As with most things associated with U.S. soccer, Dempsey’s return to MLS is another small step in the right direction. MLS spent over $9 million to bring Dempsey back and is paying him a base salary of over $4 million per season.
“I wouldn’t expect it to be a tipping point when it comes to the ratings,” Lalas said. “It certainly won’t hurt. We’ll play it up every chance we get. If people are thinking about it. The return of Clint Dempsey, might be, hey I’ll turn it on.”
During the course of our conversation, Lalas and I talked a lot about Dempsey and the current state of MLS. We touched on his choice to leave Padova in Italy, where he became the first American in Serie A in 1994 and join MLS for its inaugural season in 1996. Here are some of the highlights:
Alexi Lalas: “(Playing abroad is) a very big adjustment. You’re a product of your culture. Our culture is incredibly powerful. In many ways defines who we are. The reality is, unlike most of the world that looks to jump at a chance to come to the U.S. for opportunity, from a soccer perspective it’s the other way around.”
“I jumped at option to come back after a few years in Italy. It’s not that it wasn’t good competition, but the chance to make good money and (come to MLS )… It’s not that (he and other U.S. internationals) couldn’t have gone on in Europe, but the business made sense. It’s the lifestyle. You have family. You have kids and school. As a soccer player, for 90 minutes, that’s the easy part. The other 22 hours and 30 minutes, at times it can wear you down. In that sense (Dempsey’s move) it doesn’t surprise.”
“You shouldn’t have to apologize for feeling comfortable in your own country and for recognizing the benefit of that from a lifestyle standpoint and also a professional standpoint.”
Q: In some quarters, mainly the media, MLS is hammered for its murky and byzantine rules, such as the allocation process and how it was side-stepped for Dempsey. Is this something fans should dwell upon?
AL: “When you cheer what MLS has become, without that ability to be fluid and yes, at times, manipulate, it doesn’t become what it’s become. That’s a hard one to swallow. … I think the league can sustain much more transparency and simplification of what’s going on. … The greater good of the league is often behind many of these decisions. It’s difficult for fans and to be honest, the media. Being on both sides, I recognize the value. It doesn’t mean people shouldn’t bring it up. You can point out the flaws and hypocrisy and still recognize the greater good is being served.
“When Clint stood up there, I was proud. It gave me renewed hope in this league I know and love, not to sound too corny. … Back in the day it was hard to envision. I’m glad we’re at points like this. There are plenty of things that make you scratch your head (about the MLS rules). Those who’ve been around MLS long enough scratch it on a continual basis and sometimes we don’t even scratch.
“If you look at it from a league standpoint, it’s a pretty incredible to be able to roll and act like this on a continual basis. It’s not easy to continually come up with ways to justify acts that don’t necessarily jive with the stated rules or unstated rules.”
Q: Why do you think we’ve seen this sea change in culture in the way MLS is presented, how it’s been able to attract young professional and make it a place people want to spend a couple hours singing, cheering and stuff like that?
AL: “Of late it’s a real recognition that the Barney-fication, the Chuck E. Cheese approach that sustained the league early on is no longer the priority. There’s a whole culture in regard to soccer that needed to be supported and celebrated. The ability to sing songs, drink beer, bring a date or friends. It’s no longer a G-rated experience. It’s not R-rated, either, and that’s okay. People want something different from their MLS experience. This authentic environment and MLS looks that much better.”
Q: Once again this move by Dempsey is connected to Landon Donovan. How much of an impact will it have?
AL: “This only works with Clint Dempsey. How it relates to Landon Donovan is fascinating with his contract coming up. If you asked MLS coaches if you could take Landon Donovan or Clint Dempsey, I’d think the majority would say Landon Donovan.”
Q: Will this move by the Sounders and Dempsey start a trend of Americans coming back to MLS?
AL: “That was how the league was founded back in 1996. If there’s a recognition that it needs to be done again, make no mistake it’s in play next summer. MLS wants to be able to point to the field (at the World Cup) that, hey, these are MLS players.
“You can’t just bring a guy back because he’s American. Some people don’t recognize how difficult the league is. You have to pick and choose.”
Q: Will playing in MLS affect Dempsey as a player?
AL: “We’ll potentially have a lot of MLS players on the field next summer (for the U.S. National Team at the World Cup) and I have no problem with that. Unfortunately if Clint plays poorly, MLS will be blamed. If he plays great, people will say he’s a great player no matter where he plays. You can’t win.
“If Clint has a bad game people will point to MLS. That’s what happens. It’ll be false and wrong and it’ll happen. That’s okay. We’ll go on. As a player, he who he is. To be quite honest, I don’t think he’s changed that much as a player from when he was here (as a player with the New England Revolution). Has he gotten better? Yeah. I’d argue it’s a logical progression. There’s nothing to say Clint couldn’t have progressed just as well as if he was in MLS.
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