By Jonathan Lewis | 24th AUG 2021
The MLS has grown enormously both in popularity and revenue generation since it’s inaugural year back in 1996. Just 10 teams competed in that first season compared to the 27 that are battling it out in the 2021 season and there is no doubt that quality of the league has drastically improved over the years too. Having said that, there is still a large gulf in class between the MLS and the top leagues in Europe such as the Premier League, La Liga, the Bundesliga and more.
The best players in the world game flock to Europe to have the chance to play for the biggest clubs in the world and compete in elite competitions like the champions league. The MLS is still in a position where its young stars are leaving to seek opportunities in these European leagues, and although viewership is growing, South American leagues are also still seen as having better support and quality within their ranks. The power of money in leagues in China and the middle east also make it hard to rank the MLS over these leagues in terms of star power, but the overall quality of teams is arguably better in America than say, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
The expansion of the MLS from 10 to 27 teams has allowed the league to enter new markets in the US, thereby increasing its fanbase and there are further plans to add new teams in the coming years. By the 2023 season there will be 29 teams in the MLS as teams from Charlotte and St Louis are added in 2022 and 2023 respectively. Plans to introduce another team, in Sacramento, are on hiatus following the lead investor in the club pulling out due to the financial impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. These new markets will join Nashville, Miami and Austin as the most recent editions to the MLS, and the hope is that this will further increase the league’s fanbase and reach.
The notoriety brought about by Inter Miami’s addition, due to the club being owned by David Beckham, is exactly what the league needs coming up to a point where they will be renegotiating their media rights deal which expires in 2022. MLS commissioner Don Garber sees it as vital that the current deals with Fox, ESPN and Univision, worth a combined $720 million, are improved upon as the league only makes around $90 million from these deals when all is said and done. The MLS is not on par with other big four sports leagues in terms of its viewing numbers though, and investing in young talent and new stadia is another key strategy that Garber is focused on in order to improve the on-field product and attract more viewers and better players to the league.
The legalisation of sports gambling across multiple states in the US is also exposing the MLS to bettors and the availability of odds for MLS games at an online sportsbook will certainly add a different level of interest from casual fans who can now bet on the games. Expansion will still be a focus, but with the cost of entry into the MLS higher than ever, it may be not be a worthy option for investors who could outright buy a club in one of Europe’s top leagues for the huge $325 million entry fee paid by David Tepper to get the Charlotte franchise into the league. This is why the media deals are so crucial, as if they are able to secure a bigger package in negotiations, the entry fees for clubs won’t be nearly as high anymore.
The aim is to appeal to younger audiences, and to global audiences, through a media package that is diverse and allows viewers to experience the action on multiple platforms. The MLS is currently shown in 190 countries worldwide including on Sky Sports in the UK and DAZN in Germany, Italy and Spain, and securing an extension to the league’s international tv rights deals will be another key strategy to ensure the continued growth of the league and expansion of audiences. With more international players in the MLS than ever, fans from around the world can have a vested interest in certain teams too, so continuing to broadcast the games around the world will certainly help to create new fan interaction and grow the league around the world. Young players from Europe and South America becoming familiar with the MLS on television will also help to promote it as an option for these players to play in the US instead of the traditional leagues around the world.
Expansion and media deals are still the key to the growth of the league, but, when the league does settle on the final number of teams and the markets are set, the stress on the media deals will be larger than ever to develop new audiences around the world. For this is how the league will ultimately grow in quality and notoriety, when foreign players and fans begin to come to the MLS for quality and entertainment instead of other leagues. Stars from around the world such as David Beckham, Thierry Henry and Zlatan Ibrahimovic have graced the MLS, but this hasn’t been in the prime years of their careers, and the end goal for Garber and the league is to be able to keep young American stars in the MLS and to attract global stars to teams like LA Galaxy and Inter Miami while they are still dominating at the peak of their powers.
Jonathan Lewis is an MFF sports writer