When soccer icon David Beckham decided to take his talents elsewhere this past offseason — leaving the Los Angeles Galaxy in Major League Soccer for Paris Saint-Germain in France — many loyal MLS fans feared the worst.
And this fear was certainly justified.
In six seasons with the Galaxy, David Beckham had a tremendous impact on the state of soccer in the United States.
Since his first game in 2007, the MLS has added five teams, while also increasing the average attendance at an MLS game by 3,000 fans. Teams that were lucky enough to schedule a game against Beckham and Co. in his five-year stint in America were likely to experience the benefits of the “Beckham bump,” which was a rise in attendance at games just to see him play.
But that was then.
Although it’s still considered a fringe sport in the United States, just outside of the big four — basketball, football, baseball and hockey — soccer has slowly but surely found its niche since MLS’s origins in the early 1990s.
However, without its poster boy to advertise across the country, American soccer seemed poised for an identity crisis when the red carpet was rolled out for opening weekend in the MLS March 2 and 3.
While teams continued to bring in new talent, none of the names were on the same level as Beckham’s — a name that is estimated will sell 22.7 million dollars worth of jerseys in his one-year contract with the Paris-based team — and so it seemed the MLS might fade back into the sports shadows without a new player to take the torch.
But when the curtain was lifted for the opening act of MLS, and America’s best soccer was put on display Saturday, those who predicted an early exit stage left for the league could not have been more wrong.
Of the season’s opening nine games, five of them finished with an attendance above the 2012 average of 18,807, two matched it, and only two fell below it. Leading the way Saturday was a raucous 38,998 crowd at hand for the Seattle Sounders’ first home game against Montreal.
This begs the question: What has changed?
The answer to that question is certainly not a simple one, as there are many factors that play a role in a league’s success, but the underlying factor contributing to continued growth for MLS soccer seems to be the direct result of a changing culture around the sport in the U.S.
Like never before, the league has developed a sense of pride, a sense of camaraderie among its fans, spurred on largely by the MLS’ ability to market the league more effectively than in past seasons.
I have seen this pride firsthand.
Not long ago, after writing a column that lightly chastised the league and predicted MLS had reached its peak importance in America, my inbox was inundated with emails and comments from MLS fans across the country telling me I was wrong — some of the comments even longer than my column itself.
While I brushed it off at the time as a few crazy fans too prideful to recognize a stagnant league when they saw one, I now see that they were the rule, not the exception.
The MLS is here to stay, and the league itself has played a critical role in the successful branding of the fledgling league, especially heading into a 2013 season without the Beckham brand to help it out.
While league games have typically been scheduled throughout the week in past seasons, the MLS made a move this season to host over 90 percent of its games on the weekends; the majority of those games have start times between the primetime hours of 7 p.m. and 10 p.m., which will make the league easier to follow than ever before.
Even more importantly, the MLS has finally realized the tremendous power that rivalries hold in the world of sports.
If there is one thing sports fans love more than cheering for their own team, it is cheering against the villains they despise.
With the development of league rivalries over the last few years, such as Seattle, Portland and Vancouver in the annual Cascadia Cup and the Los Angeles Galaxy vs. Chivas USA (also based in Los Angeles), the league has decided to take a play out of college basketball’s playbook by creating “rivalry week,” which is scheduled to take place March 16.
The chance to watch bitter rivals face off all in one day is enough to make a diehard soccer fan’s mouth water, and is sure to draw in a few casual sports fans along the way.
In essence, the MLS has proved it is not about the players. After all, they will come and go.
Instead, it is the fans who determine whether or not a league is successful.
Now that the MLS understands that, the sky is the limit.
Nick is a junior majoring in journalism and political science. Think he is wrong? MLS doesn’t stand a chance unless it brings in better talent? Let him know at [email protected] or send him a tweet @np_daniels.