American World Cup fans — the ones who like soccer, and not just the vuvuzelas and the clairvoyant cephalopods — have had a rough go of it since the tournament ended last month. The New York Red Bulls' signing of past-his-prime French superstar Thierry Henry injected a bit of excitement into Major League Soccer by giving the league a second global celebrity — albeit one who can ride the train to work anonymously . Otherwise, it's been a slow month for MLS. Despite hopes of a World Cup bounce , the league's TV ratings are down significantly from last season .
The lack of interest in televised MLS games does not, however, indicate that soccer will languish forever as a quadrennial pastime in the United States. I'd argue that the stateside popularity of the English Premier League is a better gauge of American soccer fandom. The EPL, home to iconic teams like Liverpool and Manchester United and celebrated players like Wayne Rooney and Didier Drogba, is the best soccer product available to American consumers. Most EPL games are now televised by the Fox Soccer Channel and ESPN2. Unlike MLS games, these telecasts have seen a sizable World Cup bump.
According to the Nielsen Company, overall household ratings for last weekend's EPL season kickoff were up 55 percent over last year's opening weekend. This year's debut game on ESPN2 — a 0-0 draw between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur — drew 293,000 viewers, nearly doubling the audience from last year's season opener. Monday's game between Manchester United and Newcastle United was one of the most-watched Premier League games ever in the United States, pulling in 412,000 viewers despite its mid-afternoon weekday start time. Meanwhile, a primetime MLS showcase between Henry's Red Bulls and the David Beckham-less Los Angeles Galaxy drew lower ratings than four morning and mid-day English games.
On the plus side for MLS, average attendance is up to the point that it's surpassed that of the NBA and NHL . The television product, however, is getting worse ratings than the WNBA — a fact I think is directly attributable to MLS's obvious inferiority to both the international game and the corresponding leagues in Europe. While I'd happily soak in the atmosphere of an MLS game, I wouldn't spend an evening watching one on television when I could just as easily watch Arsenal and Liverpool. The Premier League, though, is the perfect gateway drug. The more people are exposed to the EPL, the more they'll like soccer. The more they like soccer, the more successful the MLS — the only option for Americans who want to watch professionals live — will become. The more successful the MLS becomes, the more star players it will attract. The more star players, the better the quality of play — and the more likely I'll be to flip on ESPN and watch an MLS game.
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