Apr 24, 2020 - Sports

MLS' quarter-life crisis is exacerbated by coronavirus pandemic

Data: WorldFootball.net; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios
Data: WorldFootball.net; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Major League Soccer should be celebrating its 25th season right now. Instead, the league is waiting out this pandemic like the rest of us with a tentative return date of June 8.

Why it matters: Despite rising team valuations and soccer's growing popularity among young people, MLS attendance has declined for two straight seasons and the league faces an uncertain future heading into the 2022 World Cup cycle.

The backdrop: Like any startup, MLS has seen its share of peaks and valleys since launching in 1996.

  • Turbulent early years: MLS lost $250 million in its first five seasons and nearly folded in 2001. The league survived, but not without cutting two teams to get back down to the number it had launched with five years prior (10).
  • Expansion: Since 2005, MLS has added at least one new team every year in all but two years (2013 and 2016). Six more expansion teams are planned between now and 2022, meaning MLS will have gone from 12 teams to 30 in the span of 17 years.

The big picture: The last two decades of MLS attendance growth — including its ebbs and flows — is a result of a variety of factors, but can also be neatly tied to how the USMNT has performed at the World Cup.

  • 2002: USA reaches the quarterfinals on the backs of young stars like Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, leading to a 12% increase in average MLS attendance between 2001 and 2007.
  • 2006 and 2010: The 2006 team showed promise with an exciting draw against eventual champion Italy, and the 2010 team advanced to the knockout stage. The ensuing domestic fervor led to three straight years of steady growth in MLS attendance.
  • 2014: The team made the knockout stage once again, narrowly losing to a strong Belgian squad. The next year, MLS attendance rose a best-ever 12.7%. Things were looking great, until...
  • 2018: Disaster. USA failed to qualify entirely, and MLS attendance growth has since dipped in consecutive years for the first time since 2008-09.

The bottom line: The next couple years were an opportunity for MLS to flex its way to a new level of popularity alongside an improving USMNT team powered by established, young stars like Christian Pulisic.

  • Instead, all that progress has been put on hold. It's certainly not a death sentence, but it is a quarter-life crisis.

Go deeper: Major League Soccer embarks on its 25th season

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