Sports Business Daily has the latest numbers on how MLS fares with avid sports fans (subscription site*), and they're certainly encouraging. A full point rise in the percentage of people "very interested" in MLS is even better than encouraging; a four point gain in people "a least a little bit interested" in the league is also a good sign. It appears, based on poll numbers (an inherently flawed measurement of such a large group, to be sure) that MLS has done enough right to capitalize on the greater interest in soccer resulting from the World Cup.
In August, 8.4% of avid sports fans said they were "very interested" in MLS, compared to 7.3% during the same time period in '09 and a 6.1% average over the past year. Also, 33.9% of sports fans said they were "at least a little bit interested" in MLS, compared to a 12-month average of 29.2%. Additionally, 2.4% of sports fans in August said MLS was their favorite spectator sport, marking a 12-month high.
Or perhaps Major League Soccer is slowly seeping into the public consciousness in a way only time allows. Fifteen years is but a blip the greater scheme of things, and there's a reasonable argument to be made that the first 10 or so years the league was nothing more than a curiosity; soccer hadn't worked here before, surely it won't again, so why invest in a product that is A) of questionable quality (a function of player salaries, mostly) and B) doomed to fail? Even sports fans with an interest in soccer had to have found it difficult to care.
With the advent of the Designated Player rule (which gave the league at least a few highly-paid players and therefore a bit more credibility) more stadiums in which the game can be presented properly, and time for the league to take on a "permanent" feel, it makes sense that more fans would show interest. Simply by existing, MLS gains more attention from year to year; the gains may not be as large or come as quickly as some might hope, but as sports fandom is built on routine and the aforementioned permanence, logic dictates time is the overriding factor.
That doesn't mean that ticket sales or TV ratings will trend upward in equal proportions; simple interest, perhaps least effort a fan can give towards any particular sport, does not equate to the more active decision to buy a ticket or turn on a game. The SBD numbers deceive if extrapolated out into hard population numbers and should be viewed as a general indicator rather than a specific one; turning this information into a negative (MLS isn't getting all of theses supposedly interested people to watch/attend!) is too easy, and the wrong way to consume them. Again, small victories.
Undoubtedly, MLS needs to leverage the existing soccer fan base. That concept is not new, nor does the SBD poll increase the impetus to do so. The poll is encouraging, if only because it indicates that MLS is slowly sinking into the sports consciousness of the avid American sports fan. The result of that slow saturation should be higher TV ratings and better attendance, but neither of those things will come immediately or without continued efforts on the part of the league to improve their visibility.
Signings like Henry, Marquez, etc., combined with the World Cup interest from this summer likely gave these numbers a bump. How much of it is temporary, and how much is an indication that actual progress is being made is impossible to know. Still, even if MLS only gained half of what the poll indicates, there's reason to be encouraged.
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