AP Sports Writers
Even before millions of people packed into outdoor fan parties, ran out to bars for long lunches and sneaked peeks of games at their offices during the Americans' World Cup run, Major League Soccer began thinking about how to convert some of those fans into supporters for its own teams.
Playing its 19th season and preparing for an expansion to 24 teams in its post-David Beckham era, MLS has grown in support and interest but remains a feeder league -- with most young star players it produces leaving for more lucrative contracts in Europe.
MLS Commissioner Don Garber wants to change that quickly, and it only helps his cause when stars such as Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley come home to play on U.S. soil.
"We want to be thought of the way the Premier League is thought of, Serie A is thought of, La Liga is thought of, the Bundesliga is thought of," Garber said. "When people think about the best leagues in the world, everybody knows who they are, and we want to be one of those leagues."
Dempsey and Bradley each returned to MLS from Europe in the past year. Jermain Defoe joined Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill as the league's top international attractions. David Villa and Kaka already are signed for 2015 and Frank Lampard may be on the way, too.
Garber has set 2022 as the year for MLS to achieve his goal and says that while the league has come a long way, it still has a lot further to go.
To attract top players, MLS must pay top prices. Part of the funds will come from new eight-year broadcasting deals by MLS and the U.S. Soccer Federation with ESPN, Fox and Univision that start next season and will average more than $90 million annually.
MLS says sponsorship revenue has nearly doubled since 2010 for the league and its marketing arm, Soccer United Marketing. Among the corporate partners investing in soccer are Adidas, Allstate, AT&T, General Motors' Chevrolet division and Continental Tire.
From Seattle to Salt Lake City, the California cities of Los Angeles and San Jose, from Kansas City to Houston and up to Toronto, general sports fans watched their local MLS players along with the die-hards during the World Cup.
Now, MLS' tallest task is to get those same supporters -- and more -- to attend league games each weekend. MLS was much more central to this year's tournament, sending 22 players for an increase from six in 2010.
"Any time there's a World Cup it's going to put a focus on soccer for this country, and if there are guys playing in MLS it can only help boost the sport in general and also our league," said Real Salt Lake midfielder Kyle Beckerman, who started three games in Brazil.
People now in decision-making positions got there in the era after the 1994 World Cup in the U.S., which drew a record 3.6 million fans. They've viewed shifts in the taste of American sports fans and the population as a whole, where there has been a growing Hispanic population.
In addition to 16.5 million who watched the United States' World Cup loss to Belgium on ESPN, there were 5.1 million tuned in on Spanish-language Univision. The 24.7 million total watching the U.S. draw against Portugal topped the averages of the most recent World Series and NBA Finals.
"We have been dealing with a generation of soccer moms and a massive youth participation," Garber said. "They now have gone through a generational turn. They are now influencers. They grew up with the game. It's certainly not foreign to them. They care about it in ways that their parents did not and now they are becoming MLS fans and becoming soccer fans overall."
But only a fraction of the people watching the World Cup have tuned into MLS. ESPN2's regular-season average dropped from 259,000 in 2012 to 206,000 last year, the first season after Beckham's departure. It rebounded to 251,000 this year, and the league hopes having regular time slots as part of the new contracts will provide a boost.
Marc Ganis, president of Chicago-based consulting firm SportsCorp, says the league should be happy with steady if not spectacular growth.
"Major League Soccer is still not a top American sport but it has elevated itself dramatically over the last four, five years. But it is still a select market, relative niche sport and likely will be for the foreseeable future, and that has to do with the predisposition of the American market more than anything else," Ganis said. "There is really nothing MLS can do to change that. They can enhance their position as they have, but it will not likely be viewed as one of the great American sports in our lifetimes or the next for a variety of reasons that cannot be changed simply by better management."