Depending on who you ask, what math you use, this is either the third or fourth era of MLS as a league. There’s no longer any question that the league will survive (barring some utterly moronic labor disputeohwaitthatswhatshappeningrightnow.) And indeed, MLS has grown significantly every year for almost a decade now in most every measurable category. They’re making more money, have more profitable teams, get better media coverage, have more butts in the seats.
Their new TV contract with Fox Sports, ESPN and Univision is bringing in $90 million in revenue per year, a huge increase over the old contract. Charging $100 million for an expansion team would have been unheard of in 2009 (The Seattle Sounders expansion franchise was purchased at $36 million seven years ago.) There is still a lot of catching up to do before reaching the likes of the NBA or NHL (not to even speak of the behemoth that is the National Football League,) but MLS is on a sharp curvature in the positive. Math. Point is, this isn’t your grandpa’s youngest child’s MLS.
For these reasons, and for myriad others, MLS has chosen 2015 to make a real statement and usher in a new age. This is why they’ve invested in U.S. National Team talent. This is why they have a new crest (pictured above), replacing the 1990’s era cartoon foot. This is why their new television deals dictate national broadcasts every Friday and Sunday for the entire season. This is why they’ve mandated that all MLS teams have a USL affiliate. This is why they’ve changed the playoff rules… wait, no, they do that every year. But those other things are results of a purposeful transformative process.
Today the league has 20 teams, thanks to the addition of Orlando City and New York City FC (as well as the subtraction of Chivas USA.) For two years, MLS will have the same 20-team format that most leagues around the world do, including the EPL and Bundesliga. And with solid ticket sales in each of the new cities, the league could average more than 20,000 fans per game for the first time in its history.
The new year does come with some questions. The last time MLS was on FOX was an unpleasant situation for all involved, and NBC is going to be sorely missed. NYCFC's relationship with their parent club brings comparisons to the Chivas disaster. MLS won't have the boost of the World Cup to drive television numbers. The vacuum that Thierry Henry and Landon Donovan leave behind will need to be filled by another face. And of course, a work stoppage looms like the shadow of Mt. Rainier, with the potential of exploding and ruining everything they've built.
Over the coming weeks, leading up to MLS First Kick, we will answer or elaborate on some of these concerns. Focuses will included continued attendance growth, the look of the league, the USL program, and the latest rosters. We don't have all the answers, but we have most of them.
One thing won't change: Come March, every team will again have the same goal. Become MLS champions.