When it comes to North American pro sports leagues, fans and media members have long referred to a “Big Four.” The National Football League, Major League Baseball, National Basketball Association, and National Hockey League dominate the sports pages, radio stations, cable networks, and online discourse.
However, it may be time to discuss a “Big Five.” Major League Soccer (MLS) began in 1995 and has seen enough expansion and increased revenue to make them a fifth major league alongside the old Big Four. So, what’s making Major League Soccer more popular in the U.S. and Canada? Let’s explore the rise of this ascendant league.
All the Right Moves in All the Right Places
Being in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago is not enough. MLS took notes from the NBA and NHL when designing its league map. All three leagues balance major metropolitan markets and smaller, boutique markets where one team is the only game in town. MLS brought pro sports to college-town Columbus with the Crew in 1995 and did the same with Austin F.C. in 2021. In 2023, MLS will capitalize on the acrimonious departure of the Rams by adding St. Louis City FC, where longtime St. Louisans will tell you that in this city of immigrants, a “football” was always black and white.
A Rising Tide Lifts All Leagues
Speaking of being the only game in town, MLS is anything but that. Soccer is the world’s game, with many prestigious leagues worldwide. As sports television keeps expanding, stateside viewers have enjoyed the English Premier League, Germany’s Bundesliga, La Liga in Spain, Italy’s Serie A, and Liga MX from just over the Mexican border. Then there’s the World Cup, which is about to get underway. Those other leagues don’t take attention away from MLS—they spark more interest in the game at home.
Coming to America
For years, MLS was a distant fifth among America’s five most popular sports due to a talent gap. While the NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL all feature the best in the world, MLS never had the horses to compete with European leagues. That’s changing. A higher level of talent is part of what’s making Major League Soccer more popular. Players find that playing for the rabid fans of Chelsea, Real Madrid, or Inter Milan goes from being in the spotlight to living under the microscope. The relative obscurity of American clubs allows their stars to shine under less scrutiny, yielding a better product for MLS fans.
Less Talk, More Action
American sports play out in spurts. NFL games feature so many commercial breaks that the Super Bowl is as important to the advertising industry as it is to football teams. Baseball is frenetically trying to speed up its sluggish pace of play, and basketball’s endgame of fouls and free throws brings exciting contests to screeching halts. Not so in soccer, where the clock runs continuously save for halftime. Americans’ attention spans are getting shorter. MLS doesn’t give them opportunities to look away.
With thoughtful expansion, top-level talent, and an appeal to changing viewing habits, we’re going to watch Major League Soccer continue its upward trajectory. The world’s game of football is finally getting its foothold.