Written by: JP Lococo (@jp_lococo)
Edited by: Curt Ashcraft (@cashcraft740)
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With only one week remaining in the MLS season, I thought I'd give the average soccer fan a reason to tune into soccer in the United States this weekend. If you have been following Major League Soccer this season, then you will understand how important these last couple of weeks has been for all the teams involved in the playoff race. Sure, there is college football to watch on Saturday and the NFL on Sunday, but there is actually important soccer to be played as the season begins to wrap up and all sports fans should pay attention. Don't act like you won't be watching the World Cup in Brazil next summer either. The sport of soccer is coming and as MLS continues to grow, here are 3 reasons why you should pay attention to MLS this weekend.
Reason 1: Almost every team has been involved in the Playoff Race
To be exact, 16 of the 19 teams in MLS were still fighting for the playoffs only two weeks ago. The parity in MLS is unseen in the European leagues as they are dominated by larger clubs with more money and resources. The Spanish La Liga is realistically dominated by two teams, England has 3-4 teams fighting for the top spot and the same can be said for Germany, France and Italy. But that is not the case in Major League Soccer.
If you look at the Eastern Conference, you will find that only THREE points separate five teams with one game remaining. The West is not much different. Five points separate the current number one seed from the fifth seed.
This scenario is a fans dream. Regardless if you are currently in the playoffs or not (top five teams in each conference qualify), you still have a reason to watch and root on your team late in the season. Sure, expectations are higher for certain teams but it doesn't get much more exciting around the league knowing that with one week left in the season, there are 13 teams still fighting for postseason play. For you mathematicians out there, that is 68% of the league.
Reason 2: The Supporters' Shield champion will be crowned!
If you aren't familiar with the Supporters' Shield in MLS, it is an annual award given to the Major League Soccer team with the best regular season record, as determined by the MLS points system. Along with the MLS Cup and US Open Cup trophies, the Supporter's Shield is considered the third major award across the league. Currently, the New York Red Bulls have a slight lead for the award with 56 points. As you can see here, a lot can still change this weekend.
With Real Salt Lake winning their final game Wednesday night, they have finished the season with 56 total points which ties them with New York. Charles Gooch of the Kansas City Star went into deeper details on how Sporting KC could end up on top by stating, “A New York loss or draw against Chicago (at home on Sunday) and a win by Sporting Kansas City in Philadelphia (on Saturday), would mean Kansas City would take home the Shield -- and the automatic Champions League berth and theoretical home field advantage it brings in the playoffs.” The bottom line is that the Red Bulls are the only team that controls their own fate. If they manage to beat a tough Chicago Fire team at home Saturday, then they will take home their first ever Supporters’ Shield Trophy.
In the unique scenario of Sporting KC & New York both losing, the door will then open up for Portland to take the trophy with a win at Chivas USA on Saturday.
This is why you have to love MLS and the playoff format. Not only do you have two –thirds of the league still playing for a playoff berth, but you have the top teams still playing hard for trophies even if they have clinched a playoff spot. The format is working out perfectly this year by forcing clubs to remain relevant and competitive throughout the entire season. Again, all you can ask for as a fan are story-lines and more are developing in MLS each week. For more info on the playoff scenarios, go here.
Reason 3: Better Ratings = Growth
Most fans don't try to understand the importance of TV ratings to a growing league such as Major League Soccer. Why would they? But the reality is that good ratings for MLS on NBC Sports & ESPN mean very good things for the league. Through these contracts, television networks disperse an enormous amount of currency worldwide to soccer leagues and their clubs. Television rights and distribution are the lifeblood of any league in any sport across the globe. The television contracts for each club in their local market are equally important for the same reasons. The money off these deals is cycled back through the clubs and can be used to help create a positive image of their brand to the community.
The NFL & the English Premier League both earn over $1 billion annually from their current TV deals, which exemplifies the amount of money that is out there. Major League Soccer receives an estimated $27-$28 million from its various deals with ESPN, NBC Sports and others. The current contracts with MLS are up after the 2014 season and negotiations for the new deal are expected to begin soon.
So how exactly does watching your local club play on TV actually translate into growth of soccer in the United States? Simply put, better local ratings results in better local TV deals for individual clubs. Better TV deals for clubs equals more revenue streamed into the club for development of talent and brand awareness in the community, which in turn is better for the league. Better ratings for the league will eventually result in better TV deals on the national level.
When MLS enters these negotiations shortly with NBC & ESPN, they will need leverage. Why should NBC & ESPN increase the amount of exposure for MLS if the ratings show that people aren’t watching? Just for the record, a lot more goes into these negations than just TV ratings but I thought we would keep it as simple as we could for the sake of this article. As the game grows, MLS will want to earn the right to push the game out to a national audience in a prime timeslot and they will need the backing from the public to accomplish that goal.