MLS Interest From a British Perspective (Part 1): British Sports Writer Alex StewartA series of four interviews with British football writers and media professionals discussing their views on Major League Soccer
by Nick Chavez | Tuesday, March 10, 2015
In the first installment of my four-part series, MLS Interest from a British Perspective, I will be interviewing British football writers and media professionals getting their take on the historic deal, about their views on MLS, their opinions on how the average British fan perceives North America’s top-flight domestic league, and what they think about MLS’s future.
This idea was initiated when Sky Sports — which is considered the most prominent subscription television sports brand in the United Kingdom and Ireland, with a global reach — won the rights to broadcast Major League Soccer for the next four years.
Below is my interview with British sports writer Alex Stewart, who is originally from “leafy” Hampshire, England but now resides in London. He writes for Pickles Magazine, a publication which “combines football culture, design and wit.”
He also interviewed yours truly in that very publication with an excellent piece called “It’s No Mickey Mouse League” regarding the growth and changing perception surrounding Major League Soccer. Alex was voted as one of “The Top 25 Football Writers On Twitter” by 90-Second Football for his work on his blog Put Niels In Goal.
So, without further ado:
Hi Alex, do you follow any MLS clubs?
I follow DC United in MLS, having lived there for a year! Sorry.
How do you feel about MLS games being set to be broadcasted on Sky Sports? How do you think the average British football fan feels about it? And finally, how is the British media generally reacting to the news?
I think it’s a great development. MLS has increased in popularity over here, partly as a result of USMNT’s good showing at the World Cup, partly because of the involvement of Beckham, and, most recently and importantly, the signings of Frank Lampard (to New York City FC) and Gerrard (to LA Galaxy), as well as the long-term presence of Keane, the loan signing of Defoe, and so on.
I think the average British football fan, if there is such a thing, welcomes any exposure to a new league and I suspect that the games will be popular, certainly while there’s still a degree of novelty. Gerrard especially has a significant following over here, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Liverpool fans tuned in to see how their former captain and talisman fares in MLS. The British media has certainly been reporting the move and generally cadging it in typically Anglo-centric terms: it’s an opportunity to watch former EPL stars.
I think that this will change when people are exposed to the league and realise that it has differences that make it interesting. It wouldn’t surprise me if there’s a certain hipster cache to becoming an MLS fan too; any new exposure to a league with new players and teams always has a chance of becoming slightly cultishly popular simply because it’s new.
Why do you think Sky Sports decided to pick up MLS matches? What do you think the company hopes and expects to gain from carrying MLS matches?
I expect the simple and accurate answer is twofold: firstly because players like Gerrard are moving there and because there are decent numbers of Americans over here who may wish to watch it. MLS is a growing league, in terms of impact and financial clout, as well as credibility, and not to cover it would be a missed opportunity for Sky, especially when it’s still relatively inexpensive. I suspect Sky will simply see it as adding another feather to an already brimming cap of football coverage, but the marketing opportunities Stateside might appeal to the Murdoch empire, as well as the chance to slake a thirst for soccer for American expats in the UK.
What do you think about the future potential of MLS to be an elite football league by the global standard (especially as spending and salary cap are allowed to increase as it is expected to be in the future)? How do you think the average British football fan feels about this potential? Do you think the British are "rooting" for MLS to improve and become as popular as the other 4 big sports leagues in the US, or they are indifferent?
I think that MLS is always likely to play second fiddle to the big European leagues. Even excellent competitions like the Copa Libertadores have little traction over here compared to Euro leagues, especially now that BT Sport are providing such good coverage of Ligue 1 and the Bundesliga and Sky have been showing La Liga for a long time.
Personally, I think MLS has the potential to be hugely exciting, not least as a proving ground for potential exports to the EPL, and I think people looking for niche football interests will be drawn by things like the salary cap, the new franchises and so on. I’m not sure the average football fan over here is too bothered one way or the other though, especially in terms of whether soccer can compete with baseball etc. Many UK football fans don’t even take an interest in other UK sports, let alone American ones.
Do you think average British football fans are excited about the prospect of watching MLS matches on Sky Sports and will make a point to catch some matches, or not? If so, what would you say is the draw?
I think many people will be drawn by curiosity to start with, or a desire to see the big names who have transferred over from the UK. Whether that initial interest can be sustained is another question. Much will depend on the quality of coverage that Sky provides. With a booming stats culture in US sports, I would suggest to Sky, if it were up to me, to make that a significant plank of their coverage, because it would add a dimension to how they show and discuss games, introduce UK fans to a greater level of stats-based analysis, and could be a way of differentiating MLS coverage from other leagues.
I’d like to thank Alex Stewart for his time in humoring me with this interview. You can follow Alex on Twitter @AFHStewart. You can also check out his blog Put Niels In Goal, best described as “Where Football and other things, literature or art or gaming, meet. A bit niche.” Certainly worth a look.