Fear and Desire: TV Ratings, Revenue, and MLS’ relationship with the Latinx Community / by Mark Asher Goodman

By Mark Asher Goodman (@soccer_rabbi)

There’s a great little line of dialogue in the 1993 film ‘True Romance’* where Christian Slater tells Saul Rubinek “You have to come to terms with your fear and desire.” This is a phrase I love so much that I would put it in a sermon, if it weren’t for the fact that there’s simply no good way to quote Quentin Tarantino from the pulpit.

Fear and desire - that is the perfect expression for MLS' odd relationship towards the domestic Latinx** market. It also applies well to how MLS and Mexico's Liga MX soccer begin out their strange and exciting new venture, as the two have planned for an expanded 'Leagues' Cup' competition, and are exploring the possibility of interleague play and perhaps more.

MLS knows that there is money: scads of money; oodles of money; dumptrucks full of money; in reaching the Latinx market. Check out the ratings for soccer broadcasts in the US and the most volume, week in, week out, is Liga MX.

Major League Soccer Executives would do anything to produce those ratings, and in turn collect much higher rights fees from television broadcasters. The conventional wisdom is that soccer is growing in popularity; that in the streaming era, live TV will continue to increase in value due to the communal and must-see aspect of it; that latinxs have not sufficiently been brought on board to MLS; and that there will be generational shifts in sports affinity because baseball is slow and boring and football is violent and kids participation in it is dropping. I buy all of those arguments to a certain degree. You may challenge any or all of those assumptions, but at the end of the day, MLS knows it can do better at getting eyeballs on its product and butts into seats.

The potential profits are too astronomical to fathom. MLS’ current TV deal with ESPN and Univision totals $90 million a year. By comparison, the NFL has a deal with more than half a dozen networks worth, in total, $5 billion a year. Major League Baseball collects $1.5 billion total a year from TBS, ESPN, and Fox. Continued growth of soccer, coupled with a potential decline in interest in football and/or baseball, could make this league and its owners obscenely, ridiculously wealthy.

The evidence for the decline of American football and baseball is there. The average age of baseball viewers is 53 years old, while the average age for throwball fans is 47. The domestic league with the youngest average viewers… is MLS. So to be honest, just assuming the league just carries on as normal and doesn’t royally screw this up somehow, the trend for US soccer top tier soccer will be towards larger audiences - and bigger paydays.

Moreover, in 2015, 17.1% of Americans were Latinx or Hispanic. Compare that to 1990, when that number was just 9%.

America's Latinx population is growing, and with their growth comes clout, and money, and cultural change - including a preference for the football that you, you know, actually play with your feet.

The future of soccer in the United States is Latinx.

But there isn’t a simple move for MLS to begin capitalizing on the strong Latinx population in the US. On a small scale, individual teams can add a Mexican National player like Giovani Dos Santos or Marco Fabian and see a slight bump in local interest; but on a long-term and nationwide scale, that isn’t going to move the needle. There have to be bigger, more creative, more systemic, and more risky moves in order to capitalize on this slow tectonic shift in domestic football.

For MLS, the desire is there, but so is the fear.

That fear is twofold. 

First, MLS must contend with battling, and losing to, Liga MX. The fear is that any strategic partnerships like the recently concluding (and now expanding) Leagues Cup, or the recently announced consideration of some form of inter-league play (that article by Tom Marshall is great).

There’s fear that MLS will enter into a strategic partnership in which it will perpetually be consigned to being the junior partner. Individual teams in MLS should be fearful of being dominated by Liga MX fans the way that a USMNT-Mexico match at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena skews pro-Mexico by a factor of at least five to one. It’s bad optics, for sure.

And Liga MX isn’t interested in getting into bed with MLS out of some benevolent sense of doing things ‘in the best interests of soccer’. They want to come to the US and make that money, for the same reasons that the Federación Mexicana de Fútbol (FMF) wants to have a half-dozen friendlies in the United States. There are millions of Mexico fans here in the United States who are FuturamaShutupAndTakeMyMoney.gif for El Tri. Most of them would pay whatever you asked of them to see Mexico’s top club teams like Chivas, Club America, Tigres, Cruz Azul, Xolos, and Monterrey.

How exactly MLS does that is anyone’s guess. In the short run, I think they accept that they lose those popularity battles, knowing that eventually, if they keep plugging away, they will win them. MLS keeps losing to Liga MX in Concacaf Champions League, like Lucy letting Charlie Brown try to kick the football. But they also know that the first MLS team to climb that mountain - and the second and the third - could unleash a cross-border torrent of pent-up soccer excitement. Think 1990s Dallas Cowboys ’America’s Team’-levels of excitement, and merchandising, and you understand why MLS will continue swinging at that football if it kills them.

Although it might seem unfathomable now that an MLS team will eventually become a massively global brand that is as popular as Club America in Mexico City, it can happen. Anyone who has traveled abroad extensively knows that Michael Jordan made the Chicago Bulls logo completely ubiquitous from Hanoi to Huatulco. It can happen in a blink.

MLS is going to struggle in the short run but, as long as they play Liga MX more, in more consequential games and not just friendlies, and continually change and tweak league rules to improve the chances for MLS teams to compete on a level playing ground, in the long run, it will eventually work out.*** Because Arthur Blank is a billionaire, and he wants to win, and eventually, billionaires get their way.

Around the league, the brighter minds of the MLS media intelligentsia agree that activating the latinx market for MLS teams has not been a substantial priority to date. Jeff Rueter, who writes for The Athletic on Minnesota United, told me:

"I think there's untapped potential within just about every MLS market. Liga MX continues to get better TV viewership figures than MLS, and much of the league's supporter culture is predominantly Anglo-skewed with a few notable exceptions. In Minnesota, there isn't a prominent latinx supporters group that's acknowledged by the club or the Wonderwall. This, despite one in 20 Minnesotans identifying as Hispanic as of 2013." 

Jonathan Tannewald, MLS beat reporter for The Philadelphia Enquirer, echoed those sentiments almost verbatim, saying:

“I don’t think the Union do enough to market to the local Latinx population, and they never really have. They don’t do much marketing in Spanish and don’t have the staff to do it (a problem that’s common across MLS). They only this year started televising games in Spanish - and only four all season. So it’s not surprising, even though it’s disappointing, that there have been very few Mexican national team or club jerseys visible in the stands all year.”

The team and market I have covered, the Colorado Rapids, Latinx fan outreach has not been a priority in my time. Our latinx fanbase is represented best (or maybe just loudest) by Mile High Lokos, a sub-clique of the larger supporters group C38. They bring the drums to section 117, and a lot of the passion and energy, as well as the most colorful Spanish language swearing. But Rapids marketing and outreach across Denver is scattershot - equally distributed to youth soccer tournaments, elementary school visits, and ‘street team’ events at the local pub. It also widely know, and I can corroborate, that the Rapids front office is forced to run lean and mean in order to minimize operating cost losses in order to please Kroenke Sports and Entertainment, their corporate overlord.**** Spending on everything is limited, so the fact that marketing to latinxes is insufficient is merely part of a larger malady.

Another indicator of a lack of effort towards the Spanish-speaking market is the lack of active Spanish-language twitter accounts for most MLS teams.

The only clubs I found with active Spanish twitter accounts were Seattle Sounders, Minnesota United, Portland Timbers, NYCFC, LAFC and LA Galaxy. That is indicative of a situation in which some cities with massive latinx populations (Chicago, Philadelphia, San Jose) are simply not being reached to their potential.   

Which brings me to the long-awaited second thing that MLS front offices fear, and that is that the growth of their latinx fanbases would come at the expense of their white fanbase. Put less delicately, there’s no avoiding the possibility that the racial makeup of it’s fans is a concern for MLS. The league has long been marketed primarily to soccer families, and soccer families in America are overwhelmingly white, suburban, and affluent.

The lack of a concerted effort by many MLS teams to aggressively market to the latinx population leads me to conclude that the league is somehow afraid of  big cultural change. It could be that front offices and club leaderships are predominantly white, and hence the teams aren’t even aware of their blind spots. Most modern businesses know that a diverse workplace produces a more diversity-aware company. Maybe MLS clubs need to hire more latinx individual, or promote them higher up the corporate ladder. 

It could be that change is hard. MLS teams have been marketing to suburban soccer moms and dads, and that’s where their databases are, and that’s who have historically have shown up to games and bought tickets - the “if it ain’t broke” mentality. And that’s understandable, except that the fear of exploration, risk and failure results in these teams leaving money on the table.

Maybe past failures have soured teams. Several folks I heard from over twitter expressed a feeling that, with regards to Latinx outreach, “my club tried that once and it didn’t work.” Which is legitimate, except that the doubters of the world said the same thing about MLS back in 1996 - since the NASL folded in 1982, clearly soccer was never going to happen in the US. Sometimes the effort is lackluster, or sometimes the timing isn't right. MLS needs to try again, and keep trying until they get it right.

And finally, perhaps there are concerns within MLS front offices that the growth of Latinx fans in their stadia would result in a decline in white fans - that MLS will come to be seen as a brown sport, an immigrant sport, with all the fierce and ugly political trappings of the modern Trump era. MLS is clearly trying very hard to avoid getting too political these days - witness the interminable fight over the Iron Front logo and whether that is ‘political’ speech or just ‘anti-racist, don’t cross the line’ speech by fans. Don Garber came from the NFL, and Don Garber roughly follows an NFL-style playbook as commissioner of the league. That playbook attempts to play it safe and keep the league away from Colin Kaepernick-style controversies, and Garber’s moves around the three arrows flag seemed determined to keep the league from alienating politically moderate and right-oriented fans. Those same fans might also be alienated by a Spanish-language focus at games and a growing latinx fanbase.

It cannot be said with any certainty that the league is willfully and overtly targeting one racial population over another, or that the efforts are league directed rather than the individual myopia of the majority of teams. But at the end of the day, the evidence laid out above has led me to sense that the league is afraid of the latinx market while similtaneously wanting to tap into it. They will need to come to terms with their fear and desire, both as they proceed in their relationship with Liga MX and with the domestic latinx MLS fanbase. Ultimately, another, more classic aphorism sums things up in this regard: “Fortune favors the brave.” 

Mark Asher Goodman is a freelance soccer journalist. In addition to his past work for ASA (here and here) he has also written for the Denver Post, The Athletic, and SBNation/Vox.

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* True Romance is a fascinating movie for a zillion reasons: Bronson Pinchot (Balki Bartakamus!) doing cocaine; , James Galdolfini in a bit part before he was in ’Sopranos’; Samuel L Jackson and Gary Oldman and Val Kilmer in oddly tiny cameo roles; Brad Pitt in almost a walk-on role as a monosyllabic bonghead; Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken in maybe the best dramatic scene of either of their careers. 

Most interestingly, if you didn’t know, is the odd backstory of its creation. It was a Quentin Tarantino script, sold to Tony Scott and Jerry Bruckheimer after Reservoir Dogs but before Pulp Fiction. Scott directed it and cast in a big budget kinda way but with the quirky dialogue and minute pop cultures references unique to Tarantino in his early phase. Apparently Tarantino hated the results so thoroughly he demanded his name be taken off it. I like to think it’s a great film precisely because it is one of the rare times Tarantino let someone else mess with it - they dialed down the Tarantino-ey-ness to a less insane level. Sure, the slick production values are sometimes off-kilter, but it’s shot and lit in misty, gauzy moments with lots of odd colors, especially the scenes of gangsters acting menacing. I don’t think this film has gotten enough respect, and I will go to my grave believing that. It’s like two weird incongruent things grinding against each other and thats why it works. If you haven’t seen this movie, put on a Hawaiian shirt and find a pack of Chesterfields and do it now. You’re welcome.

** The term Latinx has overtaken the term ‘Latino’ because Spanish words have gender and making everything ‘latino’ favors men. Seems fair. I’m new to using it, too.

*** A potentially interesting ancillary effect of a growing relationship and competitiveness between MLS and Liga MX is the possibility of promotion/relegation. I’m not going to explore it here, but there’s no way around the fact that Liga MX has pro-rel and Liga MX is the more powerful of the two entities. MLS is already near the unwieldy-phase of its expansion at 24 teams - adding Liga MX teams to competition produces a league with 19 more teams might be the death-knell of all that sweet sweet expansion team cash. MLS will need to find growth and profit without expansion, and as soon as someone figures out how to do that with pro-rel, it’ll happen. A compact with Liga MX, though, may be the catalyst to produce some urgency on that matter.

**** Sam Stejskal wrote the definitive take on this a few months back in The Athletic. 

https://theathletic.com/957889/2019/05/02/the-rapids-needed-to-fire-anthony-hudson-but-true-problems-lie-higher-up/

The killer paragraph for me was “Sources said the business side of the (Rapids) organization has long been understaffed, as well. The club don’t even have a head of public relations. Communications Manager Luis Aguilar has been the lone employee in the department since their former senior director of communications left the club to join USL last September. Every other team in MLS has at least two full-time PR staffers. The vast majority have three or more.”

Since that was written, Aguilar has left the Rapids, reducing the communications staff in Commerce City to zero. Media requests and official comments currently get processed by the video production team.