Is MLS Finished?

If a league says it’s the top dog in America and no one hears it, did it make a sound?

Yesterday, as the Copa Libertadores final played out as the highlight of the evening, Andy Edwards wrote a piece announcing a new MLS hype train: Chicharito had 24 hours to decide on a $10 million deal to join MLS. About 22 hours ahead of said urgent deadline (we presume that the two hours of decision-making involved hysterical laughter), Chicharito responded via a reporter on Twitter that he wasn’t interested in MLS:

In the midst of people going crazy about Tigres and River Plate, the episode seemed like an unfortunate afterthought for Major League Soccer, but it aptly symbolizes MLS’ fight for relevance as it is increasingly drowned out, well, everywhere. And this isn’t just in the international sphere (though this is the primary driver): the carefully crafted association in America between “MLS” and “soccer” among the niche is finally being revealed as largely irrelevant to the American soccer fanbase as a whole.

Yet this seems largely lost on the league’s leadership, which seem content to continue preaching a deep-seated belief that they are the most important league in America. The mysterious MLS TV deal has become increasingly irrelevant as more and more fans find it difficult just to figure out what channels their games are on. Yet that same deal has now fully hamstrung the league as they are now limited by their own overpriced streaming package. In the meantime, the “other league”, the insurgent North American Soccer League, is more than happy to capitalize on MLS’ decreasing relevance. Placing all their games on ESPN3 while announcing “Wednesday Night Soccer” (a set night is something writers such as Zac Wassink had been requesting of MLS for years) on ONE World Sports has made it easier in four years to watch NASL than MLS in two decades for viewers across the country. Whereas MLS had widely touted the value of its television deals, the double-edged sword of being little more than a bundling in a USMNT package left the league no bargaining room as the price of USMNT games went up.

But this isn’t the worst of it. The worst of it is that other soccer leagues are now seeing packed stadiums with thousands of people for their games, from NASL to USL to the recent record-setting NPSL semifinal (that’s semi-pro, for those unfamiliar with it) with over 9,000 people. No cable? No problem. There’ll be a free stream somewhere, whether it’s a soccer game in Cleveland or Detroit or Chattanooga. And while MLS Live was revolutionary in, say, 2007, it’s pretty much nothing that can’t be done by a creative webmaster with a bunch of YouTube streams today.

Because of the league’s near stranglehold on soccer media back then, however, the cracks were largely invisible in what was supposed to be a seamless example of how the American model could be applied to soccer. Those who disagreed could be easily marginalized by a coordinated effort. And if that didn’t work, you could always start a rumor about a “big name” (like, say, Chicharito) coming to MLS, and shoot, no one could even question that. There’s no source, and well, maybe, right? Keep people busy for a couple of months, chattering away about nothing.

And then social media came along and messed that world up.

And then we come to today.

Whether it’s the commissioner of the NASL reminding the BBC about the global nature of soccer and lobbying for promotion and relegation, NBC devoting massive amounts of time and cash to the Barclay’s Premier League, or soccer fans in Detroit telling local fans to watch their local NPSL team, a picture is forming of a soccer world in which MLS is decreasingly relevant.

“Is this Major League? Well, sure it is. Look at all these people!” — somewhere in Chattanooga

And so here we are. If MLS’ raison d’etre is that they are the Major League of the soccer in America, and you can’t find them on TV (but find BPL, LigaMX, and even NASL games instead) and you can’t really create a narrative because it’s messed up by social media, and fans by the thousands are showing up to everyone else’s games too, and you can’t even get free streaming out there because you’re contractually unable to, and celebrities are buying into other people’s leagues… well, maybe I should rephrase that opening question:

If a league says it’s the top dog in America and no one hears it make noise, is it finished?

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