The real winner today will not come from Toronto or Seattle. The real winner, big picture, of this giant week and colossal championship is a one-time sporting afterthought called Major League Soccer.
The MLS Cup sold out in 20 minutes. One of the largest crowds to ever watch soccer in North America will be in attendance on Sunday at CenturyLink Field on what should be a cool, cloudy and possibly rainy afternoon. At a time when the National Football League is trying to figure out how to get people in the stands to stay in the stands and enhance their in-stadium experience, MLS is flourishing against all odds.
It’s flourishing at a time when Major League Baseball struggles with live attendance, struggles to maintain its television numbers, struggles to attract a younger audience.
Whatever it is MLS is doing under commissioner Don Garber, it is doing it right.
Seattle, the franchise, is something of a soccer outlier. This team has always drawn well, always been treated like a major league franchise in a city with many of those. For a long time, Seattle stood alone. It has led the MLS in attendance for eight straight years.
In the midst of all that, Toronto FC became important, with the backing of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. After years of confusion, Tim Leiweke rode to the rescue and began throwing money at superstars from other places. Before that, the stadium, the fans, the enthusiasm was there. The team wasn’t.
Then it all came together, the city, the team, the stadium, the right roster, the right management group. It started with Leiweke, who left after changing sports in Toronto forever. But it’s continued on with this soccer team that is back playing for a championship for the third time in four years.
All three times against Seattle.
This year, neither were supposed to be here. The defending champion, Atlanta United, was supposed to knock off Toronto. Los Angeles FC, with the best record in MLS, was supposed to knock off the Sounders.
But there’s something about winners when it matters most. They find a way. They work whatever angles they need. They win when they’re not supposed to.
Which is what MLS is doing as a business. It’s winning when it was once a 10-team laughing stock. It’s winning, not as one of the better leagues in the world, it isn’t that, but as one of the better, growing sporting businesses anywhere.
“We’re capitalizing on the momentum that exists in the sport of soccer in North America,” said commissioner Garber. “We’re basically riding the crest of the wave.
“The other leagues (you talk about) have been around for 100 years and we’re still young. I think our best days are still ahead of us, both in the U.S. and in Canada.
“I never thought we’d be averaging 25,000 fans a game across the league. I never thought we’d have the team values and expansion fees that we have now.”
In Toronto, TFC outdrew the Blue Jays on a game-by-game basis this summer. At BMO Field, it did almost twice the business the Argos did. It remains niche in some ways, but the value of the franchise is anything but.
MLSE paid $10 million for the expansion franchise in 2006. I figured they would be out of business, like previous Toronto teams, previous leagues, in quick fashion. That was the history of soccer in Toronto.
According to Forbes magazine, the franchise is now worth $395 million U.S. — the fifth-highest in MLS. The league’s most expensive franchise is Atlanta United at $500 million — which is greater than some NHL teams.
And the league is growing. It’s 24 teams now. It will be 29 teams soon when Miami, Nashville, Austin, Sacramento and St. Louis are added over the next several seasons. And then a 30th team will be added, because you have to have 30 teams, and that will come from either Charlotte, Las Vegas or Phoenix — most likely Charlotte.
“We’re one of the most admired leagues in the world now,” said Garber. “Managing the game, building the game, I’m feeling pretty good about the way things are going.”
On Sunday, the MLS Cup will go live on ABC opposite Sunday afternoon NFL games. In the past, that wouldn’t have been the best idea. But, now, it’s clear the soccer fan and the American football fan is not necessarily the same person. The league believes, even with a Canadian team cutting into its American television audience. will still do fine on American TV.
Close to 70,000 tickets have been sold — a pace comparable to the Seahawks being in the NFC Championship game in 2014. The championship last year in Atlanta was enormous as well.
This year it was already enormous, and the price of tickets — even on the secondary market — is Toronto hockey-like.
That’s what’s happened with this league. When MLSE invested $10 million in an expansion team years ago, I told one of the leaders at MLSE they were wasting their money, that they would be out of business within five years.
They laughed at me then — and are still laughing. Laughing all the way to the bank.