MLS seeks growth with help from afar

08 March 2012 11:46

Major League Soccer remains confident of continued growth on the eve of its 17th season, but the North American football league admits much more needs to be done to join the sport's upper ranks.

"We feel very good about where we are but we're mindful that we still have a long way to go," MLS commissioner Don Garber said on Thursday.

The 17th MLS season opens on Saturday with reigning champion Los Angeles Galaxy hosting Real Salt Lake, expansion side Montreal Impact at Vancouver, Kansas City at DC United, Columbus at Colorado and New England at San Jose.

The 19-team league, which includes three Canadian sides and 16 American squads, drew 5.4 million spectators for an average of nearly 18,000 a match.

Seattle Sounders draw 38,400 a home match, levels unseen since the heyday of Pele with the New York Cosmos more than 30 years ago.

National Football League, Major League Baseball, National Basketball Association and National Hockey League teams remain the North American elite, but the world's most popular sport is stable and growing.

"We just feel good that we've got momentum," Garber said. "We're smart enough not to put time frames on when we will be the fifth major sport. We feel we're the fifth major sport today.

"If we're focused on building this league smartly and strategically we're going to be more popular every year."

MLS television ratings lag even as Americans tune in for English Premier League matches and Mexican league telecasts on Spanish-language networks, but Garber is convinced strong ratings for overseas leagues help MLS as well.

"As more and more people get engaged in the sport, that's positive for MLS," Garber said. "Because we're here. The Premier League is not going to be putting down a flag in this country. Nor is the Mexican league.

"We're offering the best quality soccer in our country and I believe that has some value.

"It all feels like a massive tidal wave that keeps rising. I would like to see this translate into television ratings."

That priority has made the MLS-co-owned Soccer United Marketing a valuable part of the league's operation, owning US national team rights and Mexican TV rights in North America, a key factor in winning Hispanic fans for MLS.

"We don't need to convince them soccer is a big sport. We need to convince them being a fan of MLS is an important part of their soccer experiences," said Garber.

A salary cap has averted the glut of high-paying teams hording top talent, enabling every club to have some title hope at the start of a season.

"We think it's the most competitive league in the world top to bottom," said Garber. "Every MLS team at the start of the season has a belief it can win a championship."

Growing attendance moved MLS to award the playoff championship match to the finalist with the best regular-season record, a move MLS had feared before over drawing enough fans on short notice for a title match.

"Now I have absolutely no doubt that whatever team earns the right to host that game will be able to pack that stadium," Garber said.

Nine teams, 14 new owners and 14 new stadiums have joined MLS in the past 10 years with another being sought for New York once a new stadium site is chosen.

"When we get the stadium lined up there will be no shortage of people lining up to pay $100 million for a 20th MLS team," Garber said.

"The sport is still emerging in North America. We go in expecting we will have a tough fight and lots of challenges. When we have successes we feel it's well earned."

Source: AFP