MLS looks to capitalize on World Cup boom

STEVEN SANDOR, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:07 PM ET

The World Cup is a television sensation, with ESPN and ABC pulling in viewers like soccer never has before.

So, how does MLS build on the momentum?

Friday's 10 a.m. ET game between the U.S. and Slovenia likely won't do the crazy numbers of the U.S.-England game, but ESPN and ABC have enjoyed a major success with this tournament. MLS teams have sponsored viewing parties at their stadiums. The Portland Timbers unveiled their new logo for the 2011 MLS season during a World Cup viewing party.

ABC got 13 million viewers for its U.S.-England broadcast.

Spanish-language Univision got another four million, making the it the most-watched first-round World Cup game in American history. And ratings for the other games are up across the board.

Those numbers mean the U.S. national team beat the first four games of the NBA Finals. That's more than double the 8.28 million who watched Game 6 of the Stanley Cup final on NBC - with two major markets involved.

What's impressive about the ratings ESPN and ABC have enjoyed south of the border is that these games are happening early in the morning and in the afternoons. On weekdays. And the numbers are being compared favourably to NHL and NBA events which begin in prime time.

"We know that we don't have to create a soccer market; the fans are already there," said MLS president Mark Abbott. "We see it in the TV ratings, we see them at the viewing parties."

Now the key is to get all of the fans of the global game to support the likes of FC Dallas and the Colorado Rapids. MLS has created a "pub network," where promotions for MLS are brought to soccer-friendly bars across the United States that are opening up in the mornings to show games.

MLS has unleashed an ad campaign, airing during ESPN, ABC and CBC broadcasts, showing highlights of MLS games under the "90 minutes" tagline.

Of the 23 players on the American roster, 17 are currently in MLS or spent years in MLS before going overseas. The league will also build on that.

But, even the league knows all the fans aren't going to flock to MLS games as soon as the World Cup ends. It's a slow process.

"The World Cup certainly raises the profile of the sport," said Abbott.

"But we are aware that the sport isn't going to change overnight. But the raising of the profile of soccer is good for the league."

And, when America cares about something, that enthusiasm spills over the border. Canadian fans, by the sellout crowds in Toronto and the fact the Vancouver Whitecaps have already sold out their first allocation of season tickets for the 2011 MLS campaign, are already ahead of our friends to the south when it comes to embracing the game. But, if the U.S. perception changes that soccer is major league, then the whole continent picks up on that.

Need any more proof that soccer has broken through?

On the day the World Cup kicked off, fiery conservative pundit Glenn Beck used his show on Fox News as a platform to attack the beautiful game.

"... the soccer thing, I hate it so much - probably because the rest of the world likes it so much, and they riot over it, and they continually try to jam it down our throat."

His rant got a lot of play in the mainstream American media. Beck made the relevance of soccer in America an issue.

In the past, soccer would have simply been ignored by the mainstream media. But, now it's a talking point. Beck did a heck of a lot to raise the profile of the game, not hurt it. He made soccer sound subversive or, in other words, cool.

Cool enough to become the latest American TV sensation.


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