Don Garber still stands by his claim that MLS will be one of the top leagues in the world by 2022, and the attendance and TV numbers from 2015 seem to back up his stance.
In an interview with Sky Sports News HQ, Garber addressed the state of MLS and how much it has grown in just 20 seasons since its inception. He said the growth of the league and fanbase has been dramatic, and it is only expected to rise.
“Most people don’t think of our country as a soccer nation,” Garber said. “Our goal was to make America a soccer nation, to get people to grow up and want to be fans of their local MLS team, support their national team, and here we are averaging almost 22,000 fans a game.
“We’ve had tons of sell-outs and 15 soccer stadiums are being built. We are a league on the rise and that speaks of how great our country is and how supportive it is of the sport.”
The support Garber mentions is not only coming from those who attend in person but also those who watch at home.
Viewership and attendance numbers support Garber’s claim that the league is improving not only year to year but also in 2015 alone.
In the month of August, three MLS games were aired on ESPN instead of ESPN2, and hundreds of thousands more people tuned in to watch. For example, the LA Galaxy vs. Seattle Sounders match garnered 549,000 eyes and 183,000 people watched on ESPN Deportes, combining for a total of 732,000 viewers.
As a comparison, MLS was averaging 283,00 viewers per game earlier this season in May. Mays figures were already an 18 percent increase to the number of viewers from games aired on all ESPN networks in 2014.
“We had 65,000 people last weekend at a Portland-Seattle game,” Garber added about the high attendance numbers. “Our New York City team — that is owned by the folks over at Manchester City — is averaging over 30,000 fans a game. Orlando average over 30,000 fans a game, too. So from an on-field perspective there are great signs.”
Garber said one demographic MLS is trying to appeal to is the 18-35 age group, but women are also a huge part the league’s success. According to Sky Sports, 37 percent of an MLS crowd, on average, consists on female support. Garber said that lots of women are involved with the sport, whether they played in school or just supported since they were young, so the statistic does not surprise him.
“The youngest percentage of our fanbase that are millennials is higher than any other league,” Garber said. “Research in the United States has said that the 18-35 group, their second favorite sport after the NFL is professional soccer.
“That speaks to what the opportunity is. It allows us to invest more in our players and our facilities, it allows us to have that energy to think about 20 years, 20 teams. Imagine what our league will look like 20 years from now or 50 years when we’ll still be relatively young in the lifespan of a professional sport. So it’s very empowering.”
Garber also pointed to the improved academy systems as a sign of growth. FC Dallas had five Homegrown signings lace up in Sunday’s 3-0 win against the Columbus Crew, and the league commissioner thinks that that is a sign of just how popular the sport has become. He said the academy is only just three years old, but the fact that a team can develop and field five professionals is a remarkable feat.
With attendance numbers high, TV viewership on the rise, high-profile players entering the league and young, promising talent being developed every year, Garber thinks MLS is well on its way to its goal set for 2022, with him saying: “I believe without doubt we will.”
“When you guys had the LA Galaxy-New York City game and Steven Gerrard came on and said it will be one of the best leagues in the world within 10 years, we didn’t feed him that,” Garber added. “Think of the soccer movement, and all that we’re doing to invest in players and facilities, and becoming a league of choice for guys like Sebastian Giovinco.
“I do believe in 10 years’ time or less, people will think of us like Serie A, La Liga, and hopefully the way they think about the Premier League. If we continue to do things right and stay to our plan.”