Football has long had an odd relationship with the United States – and vice versa. While other sports were capturing the hearts and minds of Americans throughout the 20th century, football was rarely part of the nation’s public conversation. And even when it was, it was assigned a different name in the U.S. than that used by the rest of the world.
So when Major League Soccer was established, in 1993, it arrived in the American sports consciousness as a curiosity – or worse, the latest failure-in-waiting for professional soccer in the U.S. But a strange thing happened on the way to the certain doom of the MLS: The league thrived. Success didn’t come immediately, but consider this: MLS has set new attendance records eight years running (the COVID years of 2020 and ‘21 notwithstanding). It wooed the game’s biggest star in Messi to its ranks. In February, the league signed a $2.5 billion streaming rights deal with Apple TV+.
Perhaps we should have seen this coming. As the entertainment landscape continues to become more segmented and other American sports leagues struggle to attract new fans, MLS has experienced growth behind the youngest fan base (39.6 years, on average) of any major North American sports league. Interestingly, that youth is reflected in the league’s embrace of technology – and not just its paradigm-shifting streaming deal. In fact, that trend may be more than just a reflection, but rather a driving force behind the rise of MLS, as well as U.S. soccer at large.
MLS Momentum: a Tech-Forward Approach
The integration of next-generation performance technology in the European Premier League, for instance, may be perceived as a matter of course for the world’s top football collective. But a similar tech development has occurred in MLS – an overlooked aspect of the league’s maturation and growing ability to attract fans, player talent and quality ownership interest. The surge in tech investments in the EPL and other European leagues, and the critical importance of being recognized as a tech-forward league, were clearly not lost on MLS leadership.
By embracing cutting-edge performance technology, a league positions itself as forward-thinking and competitive on a global scale. The shift toward a tech-centric approach becomes instrumental in enhancing player performance, helping optimize athlete health and ensuring that players are able to deliver their best on the pitch. That, in turn, helps attract more of the kind of global talent that had eluded MLS clubs in the early years of the league’s existence.
Still, a league’s technology focus should extend beyond external recruitment, also encompassing the continued development of existing talent within the league. Nurturing and fine-tuning the skills of current players contributes significantly to the overall competitiveness and appeal of the league – two mission-critical factors for an organization that is still working its way up a long ladder of the top global football leagues.
Tech’s Influence Isn’t Limited to Player Talent
So the integration of transformational performance technology becomes a dual-pronged approach for any sports league: attract new talent while simultaneously elevating the capabilities of the league’s established talent base. Yet it’s an objective that doesn’t have to be, and shouldn’t, be limited to the scope of player talent. Club support staff, from coaches and performance practitioners to scouts and data analysts, are increasingly attracted to organizations with differentiating technology resources. And as new tech becomes ubiquitous within a league, training holdover staff to make the most of those resources becomes a top imperative. Tech becomes a tide that lifts all boats.
Especially for a burgeoning league such as MLS, perception is as important as reality. The tangible role that technology plays in fan engagement, league expansion and club development has an undeniable effect in defining the growth arc of a sports organization. Just as pivotal for a league is the leveraging of a philosophical commitment. MLS has demonstrated exactly that by actively positioning itself as a tech-forward entity, one with the capacity to attract and develop top-tier talent while optimizing performance across the organization. Yet, while MLS has made significant progress, there’s potential to explore more advanced technologies like LiDAR, as seen in the European Premier League (EPL), to further enhance performance analysis. Ultimately is they want to compete at the same level as European leagues, leveraging cutting-edge tools to stay ahead of the rapidly evolving sports tech landscape is one they should consider.