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Foreign Investment Proves That The MLS Is Here To Stay


lampardAs the only midfielder to have ever scored over 150 goals in the Premier League, Frank Lampard enjoyed a prestigious career as a footballer. His top-flight trophy cabinet holds 3 Premier League titles, four FA Cups, two League Cups, two Community Shields, a UEFA Europa League trophy, and the most demanded trophy by every player, a UEFA Champions League. The London born playmaker has an extraordinary collection of individual awards, including a Ballon d’Or Silver Award and a FWA Footballer of the Year award, both from 2005, paving the way for a further 41 awards deeper into his career. The 36 year old veteran and most recent recipient of the player of the decade award has really won it all. However, like all thriving careers, the time to hang up his boots had allegedly arrived. With the burden of age, Lampard was unable to renew his contract for Chelsea and did not secure an extension on his loan deal at Manchester City after the 2014/15 season. The majority of new talent derives from players below the age of 26, placing interest from top clubs away from legends like Lampard. Yet the footballing ace has been given one more chance from the land of opportunity itself, and will begin playing in the highest American division, Major League Soccer (MLS), for new club New York City FC. This transfer is far from a move seeking relaxation and retirement preparation, with recurring demands for an impact similar to that of Lampard’s former England teammate, David Beckham. gerrardFriend and foe, Steven Gerrard, too will make his move to America’s growing MLS, where he will accompany Lampard in a new chapter of their careers.

The responsibility for an increase in the popularity of the MLS being rested upon a player like Lampard’s shoulders is growing more common every season. Whilst he and Gerrard will become the two most recognized players in the league, others such as Italian and ex-Juventus winger, Sebastian Giovinco, hold a similar role in bringing foreign attraction to the league. Several other strategies have been implemented into the MLS expansion plans, initiating the league’s revival from economic depression when two teams were put into administration, effectively withdrawing from the league in 2002. In the following years, the MLS has blossomed and established itself as a viable league in world soccer. Since the first match of the MLS in 1996, the league has witnessed the creation of new teams, a greater skillset exhibited by soccer players, and international support, inflating the quantities of viewers, allowing the MLS to expand into the entity it is today, and moreover to continue the growth of the market.

Since 1996, the division one league has doubled its original quantity of ten teams, and aims to introduce another four ‘Expansion Teams’ before the end of the decade, increasing the sum of MLS teams competing as well as expanding the MLS’s market. In 2001, the economic situation of the MLS was so poor that two clubs, the Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion, were dissolved. The formerly low level of MLS interest left the quantity of teams set at ten for a following three years, until it regained two more teams for the season of 2005/06. The effect of axing two teams raised concerns about a result that would be contrary to the current, and future, addition of teams that are expanding the modern day league. In 2001, ESPN journalist, Jeff Bradley, addressed the potential outcomes of trimming the number of teams, believing the MLS…

“Can cut a lot of costs by getting rid of two teams and that money can be re-allocated in a number of ways to make the league stronger. But from an image standpoint, you wonder if it will look like the league is starting to crumble if you begin to disband teams.”

Unable to address these economic issues, league expansion took the hit in exchange for an increase of league stabilization. The MLS had seemingly hit an economic low with little chance of revival. However, since 2005, the MLS has experienced a constant upturn, expanding its number of teams and profiting from its growing markets. League commissioner, Don Garber, when asked about the introduction of more expansion teams during the MLS all star 2013 halftime showed his intentions of growing the league, stating…

91017“Four more teams… Getting player development going on at those academies. Getting more fans. Growing our footprint. Raising our popularity and interest, which we need as we go and try to achieve that goal of being one of the top leagues.”

The commissioning spearhead continued to share his ambition, claiming that the financial success of the league over the last five years may create a demand for even more teams than the already planned 24. As more clubs have been created, fanbases have grown to support a new hometown sport, expanding the club’s market, and in turn, the MLS’s market.

Future teams like Minnesota FC, have been given strong financial support to provide them with the facilities to grow a large fan base in a market located strategically to expand the league. Minnesota is expected to enter the league in 2018, however, if fellow expansion team Los Angeles Football Club (LAFC) fail to prepare their new stadium for a larger fan base before the 2017 season arrives, Minnesota will gain early entrance while the introduction of LAFC will be delayed one year. Garber believes that Minnesota can represent everything about expansion of the league. The MLS commissioner is aware that,

“[The owners] are totally committed. They love this game, they love this city and they’ve got a great plan for a building. They represent exactly what we want and what we need to continue this momentum that we have, that’s really stimulating the growth of our league.”

Garber’s decision to rely on Minnesota evolves not only from the financial stability, but also from the promising market potential. The locals of Minnesota and the rapidly expanding league share similar characteristics, being young, diverse, and “empowered by people who are the next generation of great sports fans.” With statistics and economics on his side, Garber’s blessing to a side that had been on the brink of extinction only two years earlier allowed the club to expand under new ownership from Dr Bill McGuire. With everything on track, Minnesota looks set to provide their soccer-craving locals with a downtown stadium deemed for future success and international events.

Another reason the MLS has undergone expansion is due to foreign players entering the league. An acceleration of the MLS’s level of talent, often deriving from abroad, has attracted more viewers and created a large buzz, increasing the hype for MLS events. On social media sites, “MLS’s 34 percent year-over-year growth in team chatter is all the more impressive when you compare it to the growth seen in the other leagues… MLS’s growth seems almost unprecedented.” The MLS’s 34 percent increase is an incredible feat, considering that three of America’s ‘big four’ sports are finding difficulty to grow in popularity from their preceding year(s) at all. As idolized players search for success on new land, a plethora of international fans have gained interest in the MLS, expanding its markets and the league overall.


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The most evident impact of foreign expansion has even been titled the ‘Beckham Effect,’ as the experienced English midfielder carried his followers with his career over the North Atlantic, stimulating a mass expansion of fans for the MLS. Beckham’s LA Galaxy teammate and possibly America’s most loved homegrown player, Landon Donovan explained how, “Before David came and someone walked down the street and you said, ‘I play for LA 458724094 copyGalaxy’, they would say, ‘Who’s that?’ After David left, if you say you play for LA Galaxy, people reply, ‘That’s amazing.’” Beckham’s presence placed LA Galaxy on soccer fans radars, furthermore providing global recognition to the MLS. Director of the USC Annenberg Institute of Sports, Daniel Durbin, supports the impact Beckham is believed to have left upon his exit from LA Galaxy following the 2012 MLS Cup Final, claiming, “Beckham was a perfect match for that [LA Galaxy FC’s] environment. It turned out even better than expected with LA having a very strong team and MLS starting to pick up a fanatical fan base.” The current success of the league is accredited to LA Galaxy’s number 23 superstar in Donovan’s eyes, as “The level of awareness he has brought has been priceless.” The Beckham effect expanded the league’s fan base massively, selling an average of 300,000 number 23 shirts every month during his six-year spell at the club. The change in levels of fans was drastic and a continued hope has emerged that a “Lampard effect” or “Gerrard effect” could bring similar fortunes with TV deals and new stadiums for larger viewing.

Modern stadium complexes, such as that of expansion team Los Angeles Football Club, have been constructed in order to attract large crowds and integrate soccer into new areas of the United States. Stadiums profit clubs through ticket revenues, but their markets expand through increased merchandise sales and larger demand from sponsors too. Club president, Tom Penn, believes that having the club’s own 250 million dollar stadium will…

“make us real and give us roots and really define what we’re all about, including our name, our colors, everything, it had to come from where we were going to be. So to be authentically LA, right here downtown, was very important to us.”

With the backing of managing partner Henry Nguyen, downtown LA looks to become a soccer hotspot for the game’s future. Nguyen does not solely want his complex to be any average stadium though, making a day out at the stadium the full experience complete with a selection of restaurants, retail shops for club merchandise, offices and conference space, plus a world football museum, and a plaza. The club brand reaches out to millions of new people through the stadium complex even if they aren’t there for the game itself. The stadium complex will enlarge the local fan base, which will grow extensively if the team’s success can live up to the quality of their new stadium’s facilities.

Supplementing the foreign talent and stadium quality in the league, television deals for broadcasting rights have become lucrative as more people are drawn to the MLS, spreading soccer throughout the young population and increasing the demand to host larger scale soccer events. As expansion has not shown any signs of diminishing, the increase in popularity, according to Forbes journalist Chris Smith, has,

“helped MLS sign an eight-year, $64 million TV deal with ESPN in 2006, which provided the league’s first media rights fee, and by 2007 MLS was successful enough to attract English superstar David Beckham, arguably the most popular soccer player in the world… The designated player rule that was formed to facilitate his entry has since helped MLS add other global superstars like Thierry Henry and Robbie Keane.”

Large television deals have provided access for people to watch the MLS abroad, drawing fans to the gigantic complexes for a live experience. In concordance with Lampard and Gerrard’s departure to the MLS, Sky Sports has expanded its range of coverage to televise live MLS games. Participants of the expansion, like Beckham, are happy to see that televised games are expanding to some of the most popular sporting channels in the world, “Having fantastic partners such as Sky Sports on board will not only add to the coverage of the game, it will also broaden its appeal outside of the US,” said England’s famous number seven. Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) secretary, General Jerome Valcke, announced that audience levels in the United States has been outstanding, and larger than that of the National Basketball Association (NBA). Television deals, stadiums, and star players have facilitated the expansion of soccer to younger populations. With 20 million young people playing the game, America holds the largest level of youth soccer in the world, making Valcke certain that the augmentation of inspired fans has created, according to Exeter Express & Echo article, “a commitment from FIFA to work with US Soccer” leading to US Soccer developing, “an interest in hosting the 2026 World Cup.” With every passing World Cup, the United States progress further and receive greater recognition. President Barack Obama congratulated two of America’s star players, Tim Howard and ClintDempsey, proclaiming the way they, “captured the hearts and imaginations of the whole country is unbelievable and shows obviously the sport has been growing steadily.” 

140607 MNTvNGA gate

As a result of domestic league development, the national team has raised its quality, and seek to compete in their next few campaigns for the World Cup. The hope for national success relies upon domestic level of quality increasing, which is achieved by expanding the league to increase competition and fan bases.

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Foreign superstars, new teams, and continuous waves of growing support have all instigated an expansion across the MLS. Teams like Minnesota FC and Los Angeles FC both are positive additions to the MLS, due to their economic stability and local markets. Expansion teams like those two provide a basin for new domestic soccer talent, as New York FC represented when signing Lampard. Bringing in idolized players that may be beyond their best has proven to be a smart move for expansion with “The Beckham Effect”, taking the MLS fan base to new heights from 2007 onwards. Foreign players continue to enter the growing league, rekindling with the feeling of playing in their prime by captaining small-scale American teams for the sake of creating a larger fan base. The league has gained international prestige due to the successful world cup campaigns by the national team, raising awareness of soccer domestically in America. If the cycle continues, and plans are not interrupted, America could slowly expand a sport and make it so popular that development brings huge competition and development for MLS soccer.

 

 

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