You can’t keep Major League Soccer out of the news.
The US football season came to an end last month, but it continues to create worthy press.
From the righteous outrage of NYC FC fans against Frank Lampard’s decision to extend his Premier League encore with City instead of lining up for the beginning of the 2015 MLS season as planned (this argument is testament to the weight this league now has; in the past, Lampard’s decision to stay in the Premier League would have been expected) – and now to the global news of Steven Gerrard’s decision to end his Liverpool career for a final swan song Stateside.
“Is it the right move for Gerrard?” is not the right question.
As little as a few years ago, most would be well versed to speak to the limits of the MLS, but now a quip like “…it’s the US, the US don’t get football” is a dated one and one reserved for a league of old which most are becoming to forget.
Yes, the original Major League Soccer (1996 – 2002) left a legacy, but that was a league which became extinct and has now risen again to have almost nothing in common with its former self, except the experience of getting past financial and social challenges to set itself up as a contender.
It’s been a long and defining year for this resurgent league, not least with the World Cup a confident declaration for US soccer energising the nation and upping the dial on the soccer bug.
Its past has seen misadventure, but now it is here to stay. It wants to be somebody.
In moving to the States, Steven Gerrard will not be doing the league a favour.
Beckham may have done so in 2007.
But Gerrard will be heading there when they are on the cusp of a new era.
Firstly, an era with its focus in entirely the right place: improving their greatest asset – the quality of its product. Better calibre players.
Players choosing to play in the States is no longer based on an unrealised, untested and uncertain foundation. Following Henry, Cahill, Dempsey, Defoe, Keane et al…. entering its 20th season, the league will see David Villa, Kaka, Lampard and Gerrard.
Stevie would be in good company and perhaps signal the start of its next beginning.
Secondly – expansion. Notwithstanding Beckham’s global headlines with intensions to start an MLS team in Miami, expansion plans are rife. With New York City FC, Orlando City, Los Angeles, Atlanta… and new teams will only bring further World class talent.
Expansion is interesting on a lot of levels – in light of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules encouraging teams to maximise revenue – Bayern Munich are opening a New York office to leverage the US’s home grown talent potential coming of age.
Thirdly, success begets success and wealth creates wealth. Advertisers have not missed the leagues ascendency and the opportunities to tap into its recent wins for the sport.
The past year has seen the league attract further major marketing partners and most notably – replacing Budweiser – Heineken’s bureoning “vote of confidence” in soccer’s popularity upsurge with its decision to sign on as the official beer of the MLS.
Given Heineken’s sponsorship of the UEFA Champions Legaue, this five-year, $50 million deal is another step forward in their global soccer initiative. Sponsors bring tremendous resources, and not those limited to financial but distribution channels, media content as wel as their consumers and fans. It will be interesting to see how this is leveraged.
And finally, another statement to where the soccer market is in the US is reflected in the bumper new TV media rights it secured which eclipse its previous TV revenue. A critical outlet to push the league further.
But the fight Gerrard is joining to grow the league is just as much local.
So, while the league embarks on a new life stage with this swagger and recognition, it is also a brand in domestic competition for eyeballs against the executive suite of big business “American” sports. It must continue to define itself to break away from its past perceptions as a fringe sport to win its share of the general sports market above the NBA, NFL, NHL and MLB to name the leading ones.
The TV deal was a huge step towards closing this “gap” on revenue other leagues receive from TV.
The MLS actually attracts more fans per game than the NBA. That’s why the Heineken deal was an interesting move in the chess match of global sports sponsorship as they are clearly betting big that the MLS is not done growing.
But those in charge of this league are also clear on these challenegs and the leagues direction. Ahead of its 20th season, the MLS has orchestrated an overhaul of their branding to state its intent. Intended to inspire the next wave of fans, the branding places club identity as more critical than league identity and as the primary connecting point for the fans.
This is a fans game as NYC FC proved with its community approach to launch – giving New Yorkers the opportunity to provide inspiration directly via their own personal badge submissions through an online platform for fans to contribute to the creation of the new team’s official badge.
Its time for clubs to take centre stage and push the league on. Gerrard is the perfect foil to do just that for Los Angeles replacing the role Landon Donovan – and Beckham before him – played.
A swan song worth ending on.
The MLS has proved its resolve and potential. Even sceptics would concede that soccer is on a roll.
But importantly, it is now no longer an experiment; it is time to be a real success story – a darling of the footballing world.
2015 is it’s reckoning and Steven Gerrard can be a part of that. He is joining a growing soccer movement at a time when the strategy is just right – new teams, better players, better teams, stronger support.
Embryonic still – yes – but this league is not complete. And that should be its draw, not a career sign off.