Pro Soccer Kicks Up U.S. Fanbase

With record attendance for its championship game last week, Major League Soccer is hoping Americans may finally be ready to kick up a storm over the world's most popular game.

Coming just months after this summer's World Cup, the MLS Cup on Oct. 20 drew 61,316 spectators -- the largest crowd in Cup history -- to Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass.

TV ratings for the league are also up, and MLS officials are ready to expand from 10 teams to 14 by 2006.

"We’ve had more cities knock on our door, expressing interest in MLS teams," said Simon Borg, MLS spokesman. "Ten cities are being considered right now."

MLS television ratings rose 23 percent after the World Cup, according to Mac Nwulu, ESPN spokesman. ESPN2 broadcast the matches that attracted 172,000 households post-Cup.

The higher television ratings reflect greater acceptance of the sport, maintained Borg. “We’re in 10 markets right now so the fact that people are watching all across country says the interest isn’t just local.”

There is still a long way to go, of course. MLS is doing better financially, but still loses money.

"Our business is in better shape than it ever was," MLS commissioner Don Garber said at a press conference before the final. "As long as we remain moving in the right direction, our investors will remain interested."

He wouldn't say how much money the league lost, but court testimony in a recent lawsuit by the players showed the MLS lost $250 million in its first five years, the Associated Press reported.

But soccer's popularity is on an upswing, while more traditional sports are floundering. Through the first four games, the World Series averaged an 11.0 rating, compared to 14.4 last year, according to Nielsen Media Research. Tuesday's game drew a 10.8 national rating, the lowest ever for the third game of the Series.

Average MLS match attendance was up more than 5 percent in 2002. Average game attendance in 2002 was 15,818, which Borg said “compares well with average attendances in other soccer-playing countries. It holds well even against Brazil (a five-time World Cup champ) who has had numbers lower than that.”

The Colorado Rapids led the league in attendance with approximately 20,900 fans per game, an increase of 25 percent over 2001.

"A lot of things played together for our favor this year," said Rich Schneider, director of media relations for the Rapids. "We had the runoff effect of the U.S. team playing well in the World Cup. One of our players, Pablo Mastroeni, played there and played well and that drummed up interest for our team.”

Schneider said Rapids fans are mainly families with kids who play soccer and native Spanish speakers with deep-rooted appreciation for game.

The league is also emphasizing the development of home-grown talent in an effort to win over more American fans.

“We will continue to develop American players because we’re confident they compare with any players…the World Cup showed that,” said Borg. “We now have stars that are known, people know their names, know their faces, Landon (Donovan) and Clint (Mathis) foremost." he said.

“There are American stars now, which you couldn’t really have said a few years ago,” he said. “They performed well on the world stage. We’re banking on these guys.”