What Can We Infer About the State of MLS From This Year's MLS Cup?
The 2019 MLS season concluded on Sunday, with the Seattle Sounders and Toronto FC fighting for the right to be crowned champions for the third time in four years. The two sides had split the series even, with Seattle winning in 2016, and Toronto getting sweet revenge in 2017. Both previous editions of this matchup took place in Toronto, but this year Seattle claimed home field advantage by virtue of having been the 2nd seed in the West, compared to Toronto's 4th seed in the East. So, as you might expect, the Seattle fans were eager to see their team go for the league's crowning achievement.
The Sounders play their games at CenturyLink Field, also the home of the Seattle Seahawks. For Sounders matches, capacity is limited to 37,722. But the powers that be opened CenturyLink up to full capacity, 69,000, for this tiebreaker. This proved to be smart, as every single seat had been allocated within hours of the matchup being set. On StubHub, ticket prices reached $622. And unlike other one game finals, like the Super Bowl, this event was packed with fans, not corporate executives and tourists.
It is fair to say that the MLS Cup this year was a great success at the local level. The Seattle community rallied around their team for the whole week espousing support and spirit. TV ratings also tell this story. I do not know how Nielsen ratings work, but the Seattle rating was a 13.2, which is the best rating for an MLS Cup in this market ever, impressive considering this is the third Cup appearance in the past four years for the Sounders.
However, nationally, there was actually a drastic decline in TV Ratings, which shows the general public was less engaged. Last year's MLS Cup between Atlanta United FC and Portland Timbers was broadcasted on Fox to 1.563 million viewers in the USA. This year, the game was nationally broadcasted on ABC to just 823 thousand American viewers. Canadian numbers are actually pretty good, with 748 thousand viewers. However, this still marks an alarming decrease. Importantly for the league, there have been multiple credible explanations for why this is the case. What seems to be the prevailing thought is that there was just so much live sports competition at 3pm on Sunday, when the game kicked off. Also live were the conclusions of most early NFL games, the beginning of the next slate of NFL games, Canadian Football League playoffs. Later was a full night of NBA. The day before was a full slate of College Football too. Personally, during this time, I was watching the Jets play the Giants in a New York derby, because I'm a Jets fan and my two friends were Giants fans. They are not big soccer guys, so I would have had to go out of my way to watch the MLS Cup.
This leads to a bigger point though, what would persuade people who are not in tune with American soccer to put it on and give it a shot when those who are fans of the game do not even watch? Some friends from home and I are engaged in international soccer, and were talking in a group chat of ours about how sick the stadium looked -- but also how none of us watched the game even though most of us had watched a Premier League match between Liverpool vs. Manchester City just at 11:30AM. We chalked our negligence up to oversaturation as we are all NFL and NBA sports fans who had already spent part of the day watching soccer. But, we also thought part of it was the lack of name recognition in the game. The best players in the league -- Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Carlos Vela, and Josef Martinez -- all bowed out with their teams in previous rounds. The biggest names in this game were Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore from Toronto FC. Casual American soccer fans who might have tuned in to see the best players excel were likely turned off because in their stead were players who epitomize the failure of the USMNT in recent years (Bradley and Altidore). Of course, Bradley and Altidore are still steady players and leaders of their clubs, but there is no loyalty at the club level beyond city affiliation. It seems to have just been a perfect storm of factors that lead people to not tune in for a couple hours.
The game itself was a great game. After watching the highlights on YouTube the evening of the game, I saw great offense, inspired defense, a vibrant crowd, and some high quality commentating. Seattle overcame a first half barrage of shots from Toronto to score three straight goals in the second half. Jozy Altidore then claimed a consolation goal in stoppage time for Toronto to sweeten the score line to 3-1. The quality of soccer was still below the international or top European league standard, but people always forget that MLS is still in its relative youth, both financially and in prestige. The team makeup of Seattle is pretty ideal for an MLS Franchise these days when considering whether Seattle can build off of their second MLS Cup in four years. Seattle got to this point with good production from young and homegrown Americans like Jordan Morris and Christian Roldan, and veteran studs still in their prime with international experience like Nicolas Lodeiro and Raul Ruidiaz. They have a gritty spirit, great chemistry with one another, and deserve their crowning achievement.
Inevitably though, like all major events in the year of 2019, the discourse surrounding this game will lean towards think pieces on MLS's place in the American sports hierarchy (like this) rather than the actual game, performance, and players. As the league moves into the offseason and another expansion phase, this game is going to be used as a measuring stick for how successful MLS has been so far in developing itself as a business. Now, MLS is not a perfect league and deserves real criticisms, but criticisms based on the national numbers of one game severely miss the point, especially when we see how successfully Seattle the hosted the Cup. My take is that MLS still lags behind the other professional leagues in brand loyalty, but brand loyalty can only be earned through steady growth and a commitment to their values.