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MLS Enters 27th Season in the US

In North America, sports fans are used to engaging with the ‘Big Four’ leagues, which cover the NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB. However, millions more are actually following the ‘Big Six’, which includes the MLS and Canada’s CFL.

For North American soccer fans, the ongoing development of the MLS has been closely monitored since it was revamped in 1996. With multiple failures to launch an economically viable soccer league in the US and Canada, there have been ample setbacks—from lagging interest to cut funds to questions related to expansion teams.

But the MLS seems to be doing well after surviving an uncertain 2020. As the league enters its 27th season, all signs are looking up. The league has 28 teams, with three representing Canada, and two successful series in the MLS Cup and Supporters’ Shield.

While the challenges aren’t disappearing for the fledgling soccer league, it seems momentum is only building. Keep reading for a few challenges the league faces, along with a few victories for the MLS as it enters 2022.

A Big Win: Fanbases Deepening

Some teams have been around for longer than the MLS—and they have the developed fanbases to show for it. For example, the Philadelphia Union may not be the league’s most competitive team, but it’s one of the most popular.

The state benefits from its live betting market, which makes finding the best online odds in PA easy for fans interested in the MLS and other pro sports leagues. In fact, the availability of sportsbooks has helped deepen engagement from fans—which is crucial for a developing league like the MLS.

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Aside from the Union, other teams with loyal fanbases include LA Galaxy (2.2 million fans), New York FC (2.1 million fans), and the New York Red Bulls (960,000 fans).

A New Challenge: Building Profit

As mentioned above, the MLS survived a topsy-turvy 2020 season… for the most part. The league’s New York headquarters saw 20% of staff laid off, according to Yahoo Sports. The league only recently lifted its hiring freeze, in part due to losses of up to $1 billion from 2020.

Clearly, the MLS still has a long way to go before it’s able to build reliable profit, year after year, like other leagues. One of the biggest issues, covered below, is a lack of lucrative media rights. However, some are now wondering if the MLS’s team-owning format works… especially when, according to Forbes, only seven teams made a profit in 2018. 

A Big Win: Expansion Plans Moving

Despite the challenges for the MLS’s pocketbooks, the league is sticking to its plan to expand to 30 teams by 2023. This last year, the MLS welcomed Charlotte FC into the Eastern Conference, which marks the 29th MLS team. So far, plans are continuing for St. Louis City SC, which will join next year with a brand-new stadium built specifically for soccer.

The fact that the MLS is going forward with its 30-team expansion plans hints that the league is more stable than many think. Once again, the MLS is still in the process of developing fanbases that will carry on interest in the league in coming generations. It’s important to note that the next expansion team in Saint Louis will join an underutilized soccer market.

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A New Challenge: Media Deals Still Waiting

As mentioned above, the MLS faces challenges with profitability. However, when it comes to professional sports, long-term media deals offer huge influxes of cash. For comparison, the NBA is currently in talks with CNBC for a 2024 broadcasting deal worth around $75 billion. At the moment, the MLS rakes in around $100 million per year, which leaves around $4 million per team.

Looking forward, the MLS will need to find a way to translate its growing fanbase into big-money broadcasting contracts. This is relevant for local groups like Fox and ESPN, as well as international broadcasters like Univision.