Why is the MLS growing in popularity?

Hosting the 1994 World Cup was widely considered as the moment that soccer had arrived in the United States, with the mass euphoria that comes with having the biggest international tournament in the sport benefitting the country in a number of ways. American fans were already aware of the rules and the star players, but while the World Cup was hugely beneficial from a marketing perspective, there was no domestic league to savour the fruits of the labour from a mass audience who wanted the sport to grow in popularity. That was until the MLS (Major League Soccer) was formed on December 17th 1993 and put the wheels in motion to expand soccer into one of the most popular watched and played sports in the United States. However, in a country where basketball, baseball and American football reign supreme, it was always likely to take time for the MLS to grow in stature. It was not without its teething problems either, as the first few years following its inauguration on April 6th 1996 were dominated by matches played in almost empty stadiums across the country, along with the loss of millions of dollars that resulted in two teams folding in 2002. Fast forward to the present day, and not only does the MLS continue to grow in stature, but increasing number of fans are getting behind their team through Betway and vocal support within packed stadiums that show just how much soccer has grown across the country.

Other sports, such as baseball and American football, have at least seventy years on soccer in terms of history and status, but while the MLS has benefitted from the level of business and money that is prominent in modern day sport, the foundations for any sport to be successful is participation. The younger generation, in particular, have to get on board in order for a sport to grow, and although soccer continues to play catch-up in this respect, it has already become popular. Over 3 million kids now play in the US Youth Soccer Leagues, with those between the ages of 12 and 17 believing that the MLS is more popular than MLB; add in the growing concerns over head and neck injuries in American football and it is easy to see why children may be encouraged to endorse their passion and play soccer.

There are more kids playing soccer across the United States than baseball and touch football, and if the numbers continue to improve, then it certainly bodes well for the future of the MLS and the national team. A contributing factor behind this is the existence of superb facilities across the country, with the Overland Park Complex and ESPN Wide of World Sports to name just two that stand out as leading complexes in the United States. The demand for tournament-standard facilities has coincided with the growth of soccer and the MLS, with a number of states boasting world class facilities that not only help to generate more excitement for the sport at a young level, but also contribute towards producing better players that make a name for themselves in the sport. There can be no question that the United States has become a proud soccer nation, and with more people getting on board through youth level participation and watching the sport, the sky is the limit for the MLS.

Economics is an invaluable part of what makes sport function on a daily basis, and although the MLS struggled to take off during the early years, soccer is now on the upward curve. There are well over a hundred clubs that play in the top four divisions of American soccer, with the NASL and USL enjoying considerable growth in order to satisfy consumer demand for competition outside of the MLS. Clubs in the second and third tier continue to increase in valuation which not only brings the element of stability needed for the sport to grow at a lower level, but also ensure that soccer is a prominent sport in every region of the United States.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber, who previously worked for Burson-Marstellar and NFL International, has been a passionate advocate of expanding the sport in order to include more franchises, with Atlanta United FC and Minnesota United set to become the 21st and 22nd teams to participate in the 2017 MLS. They may not be amongst the favourites according to the odds with Betway (betting odds as of 24th March, 2017) to triumph in their debut campaign, with defending champions Seattle Sounders (8/1), New York Red Bulls (13/2) and LA Galaxy (7/1) amongst those who have established themselves as strong teams. However, with the long-term goal being the existence of a 28-team league in 2020, there is growing belief that the increase in revenue and audience figures would not only see more of the best players in world soccer attracted by the prospect of playing in the United States (and therefore raise its profile beyond what was thought imaginable), but could also result in the sport competing with the likes of baseball, American football and baseball.

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