FRISCO, Texas – A nationwide audience gathers in front of their televisions to watch the opening game of another season for one of the most popular leagues in the country. But instead of going deep into the end zone, the kickoff is casually tapped between forwards, and the MLS season is underway.
This is the future that Hunt Sports Group president Dan Hunt and other owners in Major League Soccer hope to see.
On Thursday night, the Denver Broncos and Baltimore Ravens will play the season opener in the NFL, the current undisputed heavyweight champion of sports leagues in the US. And while Hunt isn’t prepared to say that MLS will be on par with the NFL in terms of popularity in the next few decades, he does believe that MLS could be right behind it.
“Up until [the early 1990s], baseball was the most popular sport in the United States and then the NFL has since sailed past it,” Hunt told MLSsoccer.com in a recent interview. “With the growth coming in soccer, it is very quickly going to pass a lot of these other leagues.”
Average MLS per-game attendance has already surpassed the NBA and the NHL, but a wide gap remains between what the traditional big four of American sports command in television rights fees and what MLS pulls in. Hunt believes that international success by the US men’s national team as well as by MLS clubs in CONCACAF Champions League will be key to broadening interest in MLS amongst fans that don’t already follow the league.
He thinks the league can also help drive ratings by being more consistent in the timing of matches, especially those that are nationally televised.
“Our product is on at a lot of different times and I think we need to have that go-to time,” Hunt explained. “For the most part, the [English Premier League's] go-to time [in the US] is Saturday morning. On Sunday, you usually get some other games and one key matchup. It’s my belief that we need to be a little bit more standardized.
“I think that will drive attendance and again, I think that our national team having the success that I hope is coming will drive MLS ratings.”
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Live sports have become a hot commodity in an age where video on demand, DVRs and iTunes give viewers many options to skip advertisers’ messages. Hunt sees the massive contracts signed in recent years by the NHL ($200 million per year over 10 years) or regional deals entered into by teams like the Los Angeles Dodgers ($7 billion over 25 years) and the Texas Rangers ($3 billion over 20 years) and this gives him confidence that the market conditions are right for much larger television contracts.
“These are the most important [TV deals] in league history,” Hunt of MLS' upcoming negotiations as the current national TV contracts are set to expire after the 2014 season. “Your next one always seems to be your most important one. I think they’re going to be a big improvement, but I would tell you that the one after this one could be the life-changing moment in time.”