I had a number of conversations the week prior to the MLS Cup between New York City Football Club and the Portland Timbers that have left me alternatively baffled and pessimistic.
First, talking to one of my Chelsea brethren, a friend who also loves sitting with the Backline at Nashville SC games, I mentioned the MLS final and asked where he was going to watch it.
“I likely won’t watch it,” he said. “I pretty much quit watching when Nashville got knocked out.”
In a twist on this same theme, I was having another conversation with one of my best friends who has been a Timbers fan since their USL days. He travels to playoff games (indeed, we were at both Timbers finals together prior to this one). When I was talking about plans to watch the final, he said, “Oh, I’m surprised you are going to watch. I tend not to watch the playoffs after the Timbers get knocked out.”
A league’s final game, its championship, should be “event television,” something you just don’t want to miss. In these two anecdotes, fans of the sport (nay, of the league), had no interest in watching the final unless their own team was playing.
We all know plenty of folks who are not NFL fans at all who love nothing more than to go to a Super Bowl party. On the final night of the World Series this year, I saw friends cheering on the Braves, claiming to be lifelong fans, whom I’ve never heard say a single word about baseball before.
Now, while such “fans” annoy the heck out of me personally (I’m somewhat the inverse; if I haven’t been watching a sport all season, I ridiculously feel like I don’t deserve to watch the final, but that’s my own personal psychoanalytic hell), they are a weird sign of a certain type of cultural health of a sport. Baseball has periods when it feels like a dying sport, but every October, it rises from the dead.
This year, the final game of the series captured over 14 million viewers. MLS Cup, on the other hand was legitimately excited to bring in 1.14 million viewers, the best it’s done in years.
We all know the importance of television dollars to all sports if they are going to grow and in a contract year with the networks, it’s as good of a time as any to think about those numbers.
So, yeah, 1.14 million is a decent number for any embryonic sport, but what bothers me multiplies the more I think about it. First off, both Liga MX and Premier League games still tend to trounce MLS games for TV ratings. Secondly, as my anecdotal evidence suggests, it’s a number that would likely be much higher if local fanship was automatically translated into national interest.
I honestly don’t get it and don’t pretend to know the solution. MLS can point to a lot of signs of success: millionaires willing to purchase franchises at higher and higher rates; attendance at games continuing to grow; really strong and exciting local fan bases.
Look at Nashville: a few years ago, our only team shut down, and it looked as if there was only minor interest in soccer. I recall finding a Facebook page for people interested in MLS in Nashville, and it was basically defunct. And now? We have a very successful team, and you can’t help but feel the buzz everywhere.
Yet, it appears (and I have no real evidence for this) that local excitement isn’t translating over to national interest. Again, everyone watches the Super Bowl, regardless of where they live; lots of people watch the World Series and the NBA finals, whether they have a team or not.
Some of the logic behind that is circular: you have to watch the Super Bowl because you know everyone else is; there’s something FOMO about it. You have to watch the World Series both because a lot of people will be and because, at some point, everyone went to baseball parks with friends or families to watch games. Everyone has one team they call their own.
But if your own league’s fans aren’t watching the final, it’s not likely that people who don’t watch any soccer are watching it.
I don’t think there is an obvious or easy solution to this. MLS could do with a great Boston Celtics-LA Lakers rivalry; it could likely use a Michael Jordan hero, or an equally sized villain. It certainly needs a story line for the final that goes beyond soccer, that somehow reaches into our cultural myths and desires.
And it’s going to get there, I believe. But until we have those types of heroes , villains and rivalries that gain the interest of soccer fans themselves, it doesn’t stand much of a chance with those who aren’t fans.
In the meantime, let’s just hope the next television contract does a better job of making all games easily available and that variants of COVID pass quickly. This is not a great time to build a fan base. We need as much of a draw as possible.