PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- When people who vehemently loathe Major League Soccer have to construct an argument for not watching the league, it's going to be a good year for MLS.
Major League Soccer's 2014 season opened this weekend with a full slate of matchups, but also a scolding from Deadspin writer Bill Haisley. In a lengthy screed against MLS, Haisley dismissed the league as inferior to European leagues, its business practices as manipulative, its fans as pedantic geeks and its culture as a knockoff of European names, chants and tradition.
In response, former Dallas FC player Bobby Warshaw didn't strongly argue any of those points, but noted that none of it makes the league all that different from the National Football League or the National Basketball Association. It's going with what works and making a more exciting game by doing so.
Though Deadspin eventually pushed back with a somewhat unrelated piece questioning the methodology of an ESPN survey that found Major League Soccer is now equal to Major League Baseball in its popularity with U.S. children, none of the above would have seen the light of day if there wasn't reason to anticipate the upcoming MLS season.
For one, some of the greatest U.S. players are actually playing in their home league this year. U.S. Men's National Team captain Clint Dempsey starts his first full season with the Seattle Sounders this year after a controversial transfer in 2013 that the league insists is well within its "designated player" rules (a case it made to us in an email following an MLS playoff story we ran last season). Michael Bradley, arguably the most important U.S. men's soccer player since Landon Donovan, just transferred from A.S. Roma to MLS' Toronto F.C. for $10 million, and joins a roster that just added Tottenham's Jermain Defoe and Brazil's Julio Cesar.
After a three-year run on NBC and NBC Sports Network, MLS just signed an eight-year, $70-million-a-year deal with Fox and ESPN. The 19-team league also announced the addition of New York City FC and Orlando City SC for the 2015 season, and awarded a Miami franchise to an investment group including David Beckham for a debut pending the completion of its stadium.
That brings a second team to New York and the first new franchises to Florida since the league folded the Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny in 2002. MLS wants 24 teams by 2020 and Commissioner Don Garber has discussed Atlanta, Minneapolis, San Antonio, Sacramento and St. Louis as potential sites.
Combine all of the above with the fact that this is a World Cup year that should boost U.S. interest in soccer anyway, and this should be a huge year for MLS. For all of the reasons mentioned above, it may be only a small window for greatness as well.
The Fox/ESPN deal looks great on paper -- especially with ESPN hosting the World Cup and Fox hosting the next two in 2018 and 2022 -- but it requires a little perspective. MLS bolted from Fox as quickly as it could in 2011 because it felt the network wasn't giving soccer or MLS the treatment it deserved. NBC not only cobbled together some great soccer coverage, but it became so adept at it that it wrested coverage of the English Premier League away from Fox. When Fox and ESPN wanted MLS back, they made a monster offer -- in MLS terms. By comparison, NBC's new deal with the National Hockey League costs it $200 million per season to cover a sport that's supposedly on the wane in the U.S.
The lucrative part of that deal is the U.S. men's national team matches that are packaged with MLS broadcast rights. While MLS clubs will get $3 million more apiece, Fox and ESPN get a league that saw ratings decline 29% during its time on ESPN and ESPN2 and saw them drop 8% on NBC Sports in 2013. Last year, a playoff semifinal between the Portland Timbers and Real Salt Lake drew so few viewers that it was not only the lowest-rated broadcast among the 139 programs ESPN aired that week, but it was beaten by a rerun of Everybody Loves Raymond.
Those are mid-market teams that average more than 19,000 fans per game and rank among MLS' Top 10 for attendance. If those towns aren't tuning in to watch MLS games, nobody is.
Though total MLS attendance has risen every year since 2002, average attendance still fluctuates and dropped 1.1% last year after reaching a league-record 18,807 in 2012. That typically gets a boost during World Cup years, with average attendance in 2002, 2006 and 2010 rising 5.8%, 2.6% and 4%, respectively, but that event hasn't cured all of MLS' ills before. The last time the league dropped teams, it did so after the U.S. men's team best-ever World Cup run.
The league is clearly hoping that dropping two teams in Florida and yet another team in the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Philadelphia will stir up rivalries like the Vancover/Seattle/Portland Cascadia Cup contests in the Pacific Northwest. However, the two-team approach didn't work in Los Angeles, where MLS just had to buy out Chivas USA, and expansion of any kind tends to dilute the talent pool and diminish the product on the field. With the MLS players' union's deal with the league expiring this year, additional issues with the talent are about the last thing Major League Soccer needs.
For a league that is just completing its shift from oversized football stadiums and owners with multiple franchises to soccer-specific stadiums and owners for each team, MLS is stepping into yet another period of uncertainty. This is going to be a great year for MLS and its fans and a great chance for casual soccer fans to finally hook on with the U.S. version of the game.
Where MLS takes all of this year's potential in 2015 and beyond is anyone's guess.
At the time of publication, the author held no positions in any of the stocks mentioned.
This article represents the opinion of a contributor and not necessarily that of TheStreet or its editorial staff.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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