Don Garber and the MLS are on the doorstep of an opportunity the league has never had. The recent success of the World Cup, due in no small part to ESPN pushing soccer in an effort to bolster their ratings, has increased the visibility of soccer in the United States. On the heels of such success, the MLS has a chance to piggyback on the ratings wave and carve out a larger niche in the American sports market.
The recent expansion success stories in both Seattle and Philadelphia have breathed new life into a league that seemed destined to flounder in mediocrity. The addition of Seattle, and the record attendance numbers that came with it, showed that soccer can be a success in new markets, if sold to the fans in the right way. Philadelphia followed by pledging its support and building a beautiful new stadium, generating plenty of interest for their new team.
The addition of Portland and Vancouver in 2011 gives the MLS the perfect storm. As we all saw during the US Open Cup game, the rivalries coming to the MLS create an exciting environment that can invigorate the fan bases while drawing in the casual observer. Seattle took busloads of fans to Portland, supporters groups chanted back and forth during the game, and the play on the field was spirited, albeit sloppy at times.
The rivalries between Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland should be marketed heavily by the MLS. It's one thing to have quality soccer in front of a listless crowd in Houston. It's another to play it in front of a large crowd of rowdy rival supporters. Seeing an environment where fans are singing, cheering, and supporting their team with all they have creates interest outside of the hardcore fan.
The MLS has a chance to market itself in many ways following the success of the World Cup on ESPN. One of these ways should be pushing the already developed rivalries between teams in their league. Rivalry games should be featured and promoted prominently to the national audience in an effort to show off the passionate fans and spirited play in the MLS. If Garber and the MLS want to capitalize on the growing soccer fan base, this should be one of the ways they do it.
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