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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

American Pro Soccer Proves Skeptics Wrong

ZURICH -- American professional soccer, a sport derided by so many as a non-starter in the land of baseball, basketball and American football, has taken off beyond all expectations, according to the league's owners.


More than halfway through its first season, the Major League Soccer, or MLS, is drawing more fans to the stadiums and attracting a bigger television audience than its creators had dared to expect.


The 10-team professional league is in advance of all its major targets and has silenced detractors who doubted it would ever happen after its launch was postponed twice.


It took just 47 matches to draw 1 million fans, six weeks earlier than predicted. Average crowds are just under 20,000 when projections were for 10,600 paying fans.


MLS chairman Alan Rothenberg said the average at the end of the season was expected to be between 16,000 and 18,000.


"That's 40 percent to 60 percent above projections which is terrific," he said.


But MLS officials admitted the real test for the fledgling league, which kicked off only in April, will be next year when it is no longer a curiosity driven by the league's' huge marketing and publicity machine.


"You couldn't ask for a better start but at the same time none of us are saying the job is done and that we can sit back and rest on our laurels," Rothenberg said.


"There's a lot of work to be done to keep it up and improve on the standard. But we couldn't be happier with the first half of our first season."


He said the league was ahead of its projections on ticket revenues, sponsorship and licensing revenues, although it was by no means moving into profit.


"From a business stance it's very encouraging. It's been great and I would never complain about anything that's happened. It's just been awesome. But I think of a truer test as being a year from now," he added.


The United States was awarded the 1994 World Cup by FIFA, soccer's governing body, on condition that a professional league be set up before the finals. That failed to materialize and then the projected 1995 kick-off was postponed to 1996.


"For a few years before the World Cup, the media was very negative, saying FIFA had made a mistake awarding World Cup 94 to a Third World soccer nation and that we'd never pull it off," said Rothenberg, the driving force behind the 1994 World Cup and the hugely successful 1984 Olympic soccer tournament. "Well we did that but then there was the notion that a pro league would never happen, that we would never get it off the ground," he said.


But once the league started and the fans flocked to watch the games, the media detractors were won over, said Rothenberg, in Zurich for a FIFA Congress.


"The reaction has been universally positive. I have not read one commentary that has said crowds are not big enough. They have been mostly positive or without opinion," he said. "The play has been of a high level and very entertaining and the fans have reacted positively."


Television stations ESPN and Spanish language channel Univision are also pulling more viewers than either anticipated.