Football teams are trying to make it a professional sport
There was so much snow this week in Utah that Real Salt Lake had to move indoors to practice for Saturday’s championship game against Sporting Kansas City.
Welcome to the other football.
Major League Soccer, now 17, is holding its Cup final on a weekend when most Americans think of the college football conference championships or the NFL.
However, not everyone passes the drop focused on a ball that you carry with your hands.
Los Angeles Galaxy number 23 David Beckham chases the ball during an MLS game against Montreal Impact at Olympic Stadium.
“This year we had a game that was against BYU and University of Utah football, and we sold our stadium, which is saying a lot,” the head coach said. RSL, Jason Kreis.
Don’t look now, but football achieves major goals. MLS attendance now outranks the NBA and NHL per game, according to figures released by individual leagues. And MLS is growing, with hopes of reaching 24 teams by 2020.
“We started in 1996,” said Chris Klein, a former player who is now LA Galaxy president. “Quite honestly, there were a lot of times when people who were on the outside didn’t know if our league was going to be okay.”
Now, many teams no longer play in football stadiums, but have their own football-specific venues. A few, like the Galaxy, even make money. “We had 4,500 season ticket holders,” Klein said. “We now have well over 9,000, marching towards 10,000.”
A major turning point was when David Beckham joined the Galaxy in 2007. This season he left, and the England star’s departure had a negative effect on attendance and merchandise sales. “I think one of the most popular people in the world left our team this year, and attendance is down,” Klein said. “But it’s only 4% less, so we feel pretty good about that story.”
The Galaxy have the second-highest attendance in the league, averaging 22,000 fans per game. The Seattle Sounders are way ahead, with double that number. The Sounders outsell the Seattle Mariners.
“I’m thinking in particular of markets like Salt Lake City and Portland [Ore.] and Seattle, you have a real niche for sports fans, people who just love football,” Kreis said.
The Galaxy have tried to create a stronger bond with fans through short documentaries called “Be A Pro”, which highlight the different challenges of being a professional football player. Klein said the nifty videos cost the team “six figures” and also featured products from the Galaxy’s main sponsor, Herbalife.
Asked if the Herbalife battle between investors Carl Icahn and Bill Ackman had any impact on the Galaxy, Klein shook his head, “We haven’t seen any effect.”
A lot has changed for football in the United States besides the arrival of European stars like Beckham. A generation grew up playing football and now loves watching it.
“There are over 50 million football fans in this country,” Klein said. “I think we are now coming to the realization that there are enough people in this country to keep this sport a success.”
“We’re still behind baseball and football, and I believe we always will be, and that’s okay,” Kreis added.
However, a goal escapes the football. “I think the next big challenge is getting people to watch our game on TV,” Klein said. This weekend’s Cup will be shown on ESPN, as will next year’s World Cup in Brazil, and NBC Sports has broadcast many MLS and Premiere League games from England.
“The average attendance in our league, the number of season ticket holders, everything that’s happening in the building from week to week has moved in a positive direction,” Kreis said, “but the ratings for television viewing have not evolved very positively.”
He thinks it will take five to ten more years for American football to reach its full potential. “I hope one day we’ll be like those old NFL players sitting there and saying, ‘Do you remember when it was so bad, and now it’s so good? “
In the meantime, Kreis is looking for victory on the field this weekend, and maybe Real Salt Lake will score financially. “I believe that in 2013 the club could make some money.”
Disclosure: Comcast is the owner of NBCUniversal, the parent company of CNBC and NBC.
—By CNBC’s Jane Wells; Follow her on Twitter: @janewells