The Rise, Fall, And Rise Again Of American Soccer
Major League Soccer (MLS) and its team owners are scoring big this year. In March, a minority sale of the Orlando City FC valued the franchise at $490 million, a staggering figure considering the league was on life support less than two decades ago.
Riding its highs and lows since the late 1960’s, American soccer has been on a single-minded mission to build a fan base in a country whose sporting tradition is rooted in football, baseball and basketball.
MLS is now 23-franchise strong after adding Los Angeles FC, which debuted in 2018 with a new $350 million, 22,000-seat, soccer-specific stadium.
A Miami team and a Nashville club are also slated to kick off in 2020. The former is owned by David Beckham, the retired English player whose contract with MLS during his tenure with LA Galaxy included an option to own an expansion team at a discounted franchise fee.
The pay-to-play fee is now $150 million, nearly 4x the $40 million that Montreal Impact paid to join in 2012, and 15x the $10 million that Toronto FC had forked over in 2007.
Clearly, the game has moved into a new dimension.
After languishing in the dark ages, American soccer took off in 1968 with formation of the North American Soccer League (NASL).
The impetus was the surprisingly large American TV audience that tuned in to the 1966 World Cup and a subsequent documentary titled “Goal!”, the first World Cup film released in color.
‘Sports illustrated’ featured the first soccer player on its September, 1973 cover issue with the heading ‘Soccer Goes American’.
Stars like Brazil’s Pele, Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer and Holland’s Johan Cruyff were brought out of retirement and signed onto the field to help stimulate interest in the game.
By the end of the 1970’s, NASL reached its peak with 24 teams but the media buzz around America’s growing sport belied the financial health of the league. NASL had over-expanded and over-spent to recruit talent on the pitch.
In 1984, the league that introduced soccer to the nation collapsed, weighed down by red ink and team contractions. But NASL didn't disappear without leaving a legacy. It planted the seeds for youth soccer and the lessons of the need for financial restraint.
When MLS picked up the mantle in 1996, it did so with a centralized structure that controlled costs and decision-making. Though, the renewed experiment was not without its challenges.
Most Americans still greeted the low-scoring sport that was played in shared stadiums with a big yawn. Soccer purists also balked at its low caliber and some of the modified rules.
MLS moved to invest in soccer-specific stadiums and while still preserving a salary cap, implemented the Designated Player Rule, which helped bring back top international players. Beckham was the first one in 2007.
While half the teams are still reporting operating losses, the picture today is a far cry from 2001 when the league racked up cumulative losses of $250 million.
Adidas renewed a 6-year contract with MLS for $700 million ($117 million a year), 3.5x the $200 million deal it inked in 2010. Combined broadcasting rights by Fox, ESPN and Univision are also $90 million a year.
No doubt, the world’s most popular sport has dug its cleats on American turf. But with valuations starting to skyrocket, let’s hope the ball doesn’t become a bubble.
FOOTBALL October 19, 2009 New England Patriots quarterback, Tom Brady, throws five touchdowns in the 2nd quarter against the Tennessee Titans. It was an NFL record for most TDs in a single period and the Patriots went on to crush their opponents 59-0. They wrapped up the season with a 10-6 record and ranked 3rd in the AFC. But going into the playoffs, they lost to the wild card Ravens 33-14.
BASKETBALL October 12, 1999 Former basketball star Wilt Chamberlain dies of heart failure at the age of 63. The 7’1” Chamberlain was a Harlem Globetrotter in the late 1950s before joining the NBA to play for the Warriors, 76ers, and Lakers. One of the greatest in the sport, he is the only player in NBA history to score 100 points in a single game.
BASEBALL October 17, 1989 An earthquake in San Francisco with a magnitude of 6.9 cancels the 3rd game of the World Series between the two local teams, Giants and the Athletics. The quake caused significant infrastructure damage, including a power outage at the stadium. The Series was resumed on October 27th and 28th with the A’s sweeping their opponents 4-0 to capture the national title.
HOCKEY October 14, 1979 Future ice hockey star, Wayne Gretsky, scores his first goal in the NHL. Gretsky put in 20 years with the league, playing with the Oilers (4 Stanley Cups), Kings, Blues, and Rangers. “The Great One” led the NHL with more regular season goals (894), assists (1,963), and points (2,857) than any other player. Upon retirement, he was inducted immediately into the NHL HoF.