Sounders Insider

Even after World Cup frenzy, Hanauer sees MLS growth as "evolution, not revolution"

USA games in the World Cup drew more viewers than games in the NBA finals, the NHL finals or the World Series. So, Sounders general manager Adrian Hanauer today fielded the every-four-years question about what that might mean to Major League Soccer.

"We know that there are tens of millions of both passionate and casual soccer fans in this country," he said. "And we are slowly but surely bringing them into the fold in MLS. But it is going to be a slow and steady race. I’ve said it a million times: It’s going to be an evolution, not a revolution. Every four years there will be these moments that give us hope, that capture imagine, that drive the passion; but there’s also a reality of a slow and steady growth in the league. Things are getting better year after year after year in MLS, but to some degree you can make the comparison to the Olympics, that certain sports become more popular every four years, and then their growth continues. Some don’t continue. Soccer still is: Media companies are investing in MLS, sponsors are investing in MLS. Ticket holders are investing in MLS. The quality of the product is getting better. But it isn’t going to be a meteoric rise."

That drew the follow-up question of why not revolution? Were those ratings based on patriotism, or were they based on United States fans who love soccer at its highest level, but not so much at the MLS level? If MLS paid Liga MX-like salaries, for example, might they garner Liga MX-like attendance and passion and ultimately revenue?

"For sure Americans want the highest quality, and for sure Americans are extremely patriotic and will support their country," Hanauer said. "It is a bit of a chicken and egg issue. I don’t know the answer to if you spend Mexican league money, does that change things completely. If you spend France-type money, does that change things. If you spend England-type money. It’s also just not in the cards. It’s going to be a slow and steady process. Our objective will be to improve every year and to catch up to our competition every year. It will take time that the strategy is working. Our stadiums are more full. Sponsors are becoming bigger and more plentiful. Investors are investing huge amounts of money in expansion teams and stadiums. There are signs that TV ratings are starting to move. Media companies – ESPN, Fox – are investing. Our owners are investing in youth development, which will continue to improve the quality of the product.

"It’s an interesting philosophical question, but it’s not one that’s economically viable because we just did an eight-year TV deal, (so) for us to invest (millions of more) dollars per team, there’s no additional revenue to be garnered, really. A few more ticket sales, a few more sponsors – but ESPN isn’t going to call us and say, ‘Oh, hey, I know we just signed on for eight years, but we’ll give you another $500 million a year.” But I do think ESPN and Fox and Univision invested because they saw what we have been doing over these years to continue to improve the product, and they are sort of betting on the come."