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Originally published July 16, 2014 at 5:45 PM | Page modified July 17, 2014 at 8:55 PM

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MLS is making progress in climb toward the big time

Major League soccer has experienced growth in TV ratings and is attracting more star players but still has a way to go to be considered a major sport in the United States.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Inside sports business

Dan Courtemanche had a tailor-made answer last week for folks asking him whether professional soccer will ever “make it” in the United States.

As an executive vice-president and spokesman for Major League Soccer, he gets that a lot. So, Courtemanche simply told them to make sure they tuned in last Sunday night to the nationally televised Sounders game against Portland.

“After that, they stopped asking the question,” he said.

Indeed, there’s nothing like 64,000 rabid fans at CenturyLink Field to give off a big-time feel. Save for the rave green artificial turf, casual viewers tuning in late might have assumed they were seeing a replay of that afternoon’s World Cup final between Germany and Argentina.

And that’s huge for a league striving to overcome arguably its biggest hurdle in joining the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL as a mainstream pro sport: the idea that MLS is a second-rate product. Indeed, those other leagues don’t face that criticism, mainly because they offer the world’s best talent.

Not so for MLS, where discerning soccer viewers know the talent level isn’t what’s found in the English Premier League, Ligue 1 in France or La Liga in Spain.

And it might never get there.

But MLS needs to convince fans it can get close enough to those “big-time” leagues to make its product worth following. So, more than 64,000 fans showing up at the league’s first post-World Cup game won’t hurt on the credibility front.

Nor will preliminary TV numbers released by Courtemanche on Tuesday, showing that 430,000 viewers saw Seattle-Portland on ESPN2. That’s well beyond the 251,000 average for such games on ESPN2 before the World Cup and the 220,000 averaged last season when MLS was outdrawn by the WNBA.

MLS has spent years working to address the “second-rate” issue. It has lured more top names, to the point where a record 22 players at this year’s World Cup came from MLS compared to only six in 2006.

The league has launched a new “MLS is Here’’ advertising campaign to let U.S. fans know the passion, excitement and star power they just watched in Brazil can be seen locally.

“Now that so many people have connected to these players,’’ Courtemanche said, “we have to connect this passion they had of seeing the U.S. in the World Cup into a passion for local MLS clubs.’’

And that, of course, has long remained American soccer’s missing link; an inability to connect passion for the sport to pro-level support.

Americans increasingly love soccer, witnessed by amateur participation levels and the recent TV ratings for World Cup games.

The World Cup final was the most-watched soccer match here ever, as a combined 26.5 million viewers tuned in on ABC and Univision. A record English TV average viewership of 4,557,000 per World Cup match on ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC represented a 39 percent jump from 2010 and a 96 percent boost from 2006.

But American TV numbers are higher for English Premier League games than MLS. Again, that’s the “second-rate” tag MLS must overcome in getting U.S. fans who appreciate Manchester United or Real Madrid to care about Real Salt Lake.

And until that happens, it’s premature to compare MLS to the “Big Four” sports leagues. It isn’t as simple as combining American viewing numbers for foreign leagues with MLS and claiming soccer outdraws the NHL.

You measure the success of American sports leagues based on their value alone.

The NHL might be the weakest of the four major leagues, but it still averages $200 million annually on its TV deal with NBC. That dwarfs the coming $75 million per year MLS will get from a new TV contract with ESPN and Fox from 2015-22 and shows how far soccer still must go.

But it’s getting closer.

Optimists will note MLS currently receives just $23 million annually via TV. So, the new deal offers quite a jump and more revenue to pay higher salaries that lure top players.

It also sets the stage for a growth explosion a decade from now if MLS improves product quality and attracts new fans during the years between World Cups.

Two Sounders players symbolizing the league’s growth plan — Clint Dempsey and DeAndre Yedlin — were on display Sunday night.

Dempsey returned to MLS from Tottenham Hotspur in England last year, something the league hopes more Americans playing overseas will do. Yedlin is a homegrown star who never left and MLS hopes to hang on to.

“Our goal is to become one of the top soccer leagues in the world by 2022,’’ Courtemanche said. “We want to become the elite league of choice for players in their prime.’’

Do that and the only questions he’ll hear about soccer’s place in the U.S. mainstream will be whether it can overtake the NFL.

Geoff Baker is a sports enterprise and investigative reporter who writes a column on sports business. Baker: or 206-464-8286. On Twitter @GeoffBakerTIMES

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