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MLS better positioned to reap benefits of Henry et al

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MLS
MLS

The U.S. soccer scene that Thierry Henry will discover is a substantial notch above the scene that David Beckham came upon just three years ago.

The pace of development in the game here is certainly more plodding than some people would like. But for such a major undertaking, it really does move at a nice pace, all things considered.

The important message here is this: MLS and the domestic soccer establishment in general is far more prepared to reap the publicity benefits of a player like Henry now – in a lot of different ways.

Think for a second about the stadiums Beckham initially encountered as he landed on MLS shores in 2007. Three of the first five MLS stadiums Beckham visited fell squarely into the “less than perfect” category. The Galaxy played on the artificial turf at BMO, then inside the ill fitting NFL stadiums in New York and New England. Both of those also were burdened by the fake grass. Beckham even famously complained about the pox of arty turf, to the high embarrassment of MLS.

 

This stuff matters. The cameras and reporters follow Beckham. What they see screams “temporary.” They tell stories as if MLS was the circus – you know, the circus comes to town, everyone has a good time and then the performers move on.

Dedicated stadiums add a real sense of permanence, a better sense of “place” for professional soccer in theUnited States.

Now look at Henry and the Red Bulls and what they’ll be seeing in the near future:

Henry will play three months of MLS regular season matches and only once go into a stadium that’s not made for soccer. That will be next week down in Houston. And while Robertson Stadium is far from perfect, it does have grass, at least. And the atmosphere is pretty impressive (even if the bathrooms in the old stadium aren’t). And besides, Houston is pretty close to breaking ground on their own ground, a great thing.

Otherwise, the Red Bulls visit Toyota Park in Chicago, BMO Field (now with grass!) in Toronto, Rio Tinto Stadium inSalt Lake CityPizza Hut Park in Dallas and the Home Depot Center in Los Angeles in addition to their home games at beautiful Red Bull Arena.

That’s where Henry and the Red Bulls will be tonight, facing the nouveau riche of Manchester City. (That game is on FSC, by the way, at 6:30 p.m. ET.)

Also consider the footprint of MLS. As Beckham was announced as Major League Soccer’s bell cow in January of 2007, MLS had just completed a season in which just 12 teams competed. Now, Henry is part of a 16-team league. By next year, it will be an 18-team operation.

That’s vital – and it’s critical that MLS keeps expanding its national footprint. Yes, I know the dangers of unchecked expansion, and these things should be carefully governed so that expenses don’t spiral beyond control. (I’m a little concerned about the long-term ramifications of the third DP, for example.) But generally speaking, MLS has no presence in markets where there isn’t an MLS team. So there are wonderful cities in this big ol’ country where MLS remains little more than a rumor. Think about San Diego and Miami, two markets where World Cup ratings were quite strong. There’s no MLS awareness in those markets. (Well, there may be a little in Miami, where MLS failed in nearby Fort Lauderdale. That’s an unfortunate legacy, to be sure.)

Nor is there an MLS presence in AtlantaAustinBaltimoreIndianapolisMemphis, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Phoenix,San Antonio and St. Louis, to name some markets. (Obviously, some of these markets have professional teams, and they all know about soccer generally. But MLS is clearly the country’s most visible professional soccer property.)

So there’s plenty of work to be done.  But the landscape in 2010 looks a lot better than it did just three years ago. Henry is here, and he may soon be joined by a couple of other giants of the global game. MLS is much better positioned today than yesterday to exploit the attached PR blast.