MLS survived to see the 25th season on the back of the first generation of fans. Now the league has to develop the second generation to truly blossom.
Major League Soccer was created in 1993, was hyped during the1994 World Cup, and started play in 1996. It was a glorious introduction to the game, considering the results of that USA-hosted World Cup. In those early years, only a handful of American kids could even get a sniff of a European trial without paying thousands of dollars for travel and thousands more for spots on the right teams. Most of those stories ended with a college scholarship. Major League Soccer was going to offer a generation of hopeful soccer professions a local option. The question was, for players and fans, what kind of option would MLS be in the global soccer market?
For most American players, MLS made little difference in their career trajectory. As the NCAA likes to promote, 99% of college athletes go pro in something other than playing sports. MLS needed for those players to become fans of their brand of the game, which included a few tweaks to the laws of the game. It also included little in the way of star power. The first generation of MLS fan had to endure a game they did not fully recognize being played mostly by guys unable to latch on with clubs in more established leagues. MLS lost dollars, fans, and even teams along the way but managed to hold on to enough loyal locals to keep the game going.
Those loyal locals of the first generation built up the culture and even created a recognized cup in the process of creating a dialogue with the league. This 25th season marks the transition to develop the second generation of MLS fans. Major League Soccer has gone from marketing towards suburban families and ticket sales targeting traveling soccer teams to the Tifo Wars of today. MLS has learned a lot in the process, but will still experience growing pains for the next 25 years. There are still at least four more expansion teams to welcome into the league.
Those looking to watch a match in today’s global soccer market, MLS went from a semi-retirement league to one of the most desired destinations for almost every level of player. Miguel Almiron can be sold on to Newcastle while Zlatan Ibrahimovic can leave Los Angeles for Milan without MLS suffering many retirement league comments. The end-of-the-bench talent had caught up to all but the best leagues in the world.
Rising revenues were invested back into the game and the players, though not at the pace some would like. The league also finally realized that growth starts with the kids. Selling youth team ticket packages to the senior matches was not the solution to growing fans and talent. The biggest move to create a sustainable soccer environment was an academy system. Academy kids have friends and families that will attend games regularly. Designated Players only work to improve the game so much. It is the implementation of the academy system that has helped raise the quality of play much more.
The first edition of Major League Soccer was rife with Calvin-ball salary cap rule changes and cheap tweaks on the laws of the game. Contraction, the Beckham rule, and the rise of Don Garber got the league to the 25th season. Hans Zimmer composed a new league anthem for the occasion, to be played in brand new, sold-out soccer-specific stadiums. The anthem at the first game was likely created by an intern using free-use licensed software to be blasted to 20,000 screaming fans and 40,000 empty seats.
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Major League Soccer has invested in the on-field product from both ends. The league has changed tunes on several areas of the off-field methods of relating to fans. For the most part, those adaptations to the approach of the first decade of play have worked out well. The first generation of fans is now bringing their kids to games for entertainment value.
The dark days of MLS are over. Even if MLS falls short of some glory-boy expectations of being the unquestioned best league in the world, the product today is well worth the attention of anyone who loves the game. Even as the league expands, the quality of play rises while the parity gap remains relatively close compared to other countries. MLS is an inviting league, with plenty of colorful characters and storylines. It’s still a bit quirky when viewed through the global soccer lense, in an unbalanced type of way, but it is gaining respect and relevance.
MLS has grown beyond the first generation of fans. The league will face a new set of challenges now that it is on solid footing. The league office will have to continue to work with the clubs to grow an authentic second generation of fan to ensure the next 25 years are far more profitable than the last 25. Do so, and MLS will be promoted to one of the top leagues in the world. That’s not a bad league to have playing in your backyard.