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Major League Soccer learns from North American Soccer League’s Mistakes

Major League Soccer (MLS), a North American league, may be benefiting from this increase in popularity.

With consistent game attendance and a committed fan base, MLS is approaching profitability, something its predecessor, the North American Soccer League (NASL), was never able to do.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber, blogging on the MLS Web site, argued that soccer has a bright future in America: “Since I became commissioner of Major League Soccer in 1999, I have felt strongly that the seismic shifts in America’s demographics, economy, family, social dynamics and media/technology landscape will drive the popularity of soccer in our country. It is why I was bullish on the sport when I joined the league nearly 10 years ago. And it is why I am now even more optimistic about our future.”

MLS’s predecessor, the North American Soccer League, lasted for 16 years — from 1968 to 1984. NASL attracted international players like Brazil’s Pelé and Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer. Average game attendance during the late 1970s and early 1980s was around 14,000, comparable to the average attendance of 16,770 for MLS games in 2007. NASL at its peak had 24 teams, while MLS has 14.

Yet MLS is a well-established and successful league, while the North American Soccer League floundered and collapsed.

There are a number of possible reasons why MLS is succeeding where NASL failed. The North American Soccer League’s popularity was largely based on its international players.  They brought a high level of skill, but their high salaries made costs spiral out of control.  The cost of running teams was too high and most went bankrupt, leading to the league’s collapse. MLS has more modest salaries, and its teams have a core of American players.

NASL did not improve the level of soccer played by the U.S. national team. During that era, the team was poorly organized, with little time to practice and disappointing results in international competition.  In contrast, the origins of MLS lay in the 1994 World Cup, played in the United States. The U.S. team, made up mostly of MLS players and former MLS players now playing in Europe, has been increasingly successful in international competition, reaching the quarterfinals in the 2002 World Cup.

Individual MLS teams have also been successful in international competition.  In 1998 D.C. United was the first American team to win the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) Champions Cup and the InterAmerican Cup, competing against North American, Caribbean and South American clubs.  In 2000 the Los Angeles Galaxy also won the CONCACAF Champions Cup.

During the NASL era, U.S. television was dominated by three major networks, and NASL was not able to secure a stable TV contract with them.  Today’s plethora of TV stations received by cable and satellite gives viewers ample opportunities to see their favorite MLS teams play on English- and Spanish-language channels.

MLS Deputy Commissioner Ivan Gazidis is optimistic about the future of soccer in America. “MLS continues to make remarkable progress for a young league. We have established stability and we are constructing an infrastructure for the sport across North America that will last for generations,” he said in a blog entry on the MLS Web site.

MLS is set to expand to 18 teams by 2011. While international stars like England’s David Beckham have increased attendance, the core of the league’s players is American. MLS continues to improve the level of soccer in the United States and helps encourage millions of budding American soccer players.

October 7, 2008


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Updated: July 2009