Cars streamed westward Sunday toward the far edge of the Kansas City area — enough of them to clog up a freeway exit and more than enough to send us toward a distant parking spot a mile away from our chosen destination.
We had arrived in the area more than half an hour before the start of the event, but by the time we waded through traffic and parked, we were glad for the longer-than-anticipated pregame festivities that allowed us to be in our seats in time for the start of play.
Our destination: not a baseball game. Obviously not a football game — at least in the American sense of the word. Rather, it was a Sporting KC soccer match. Our group of four was part of a crowd of more than 20,000. Combined with other evidence, it was enough to make us wonder: Is it time to consider MLS the fifth “major” U.S. team sports league?
For quite some time, the generally accepted idea has been that the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB are the four big leagues here. This was more or less predicated on attendance, TV deals and instinct.
Let’s take a quick look, then, at MLS: A year ago, per-game MLS attendance was actually higher than it was in the NBA or NHL. Granted, there are fewer games and Seattle — which had 43,000 fans per game last season — skews things a little. But it’s still impressive.
MLS is on ESPN, ESPN2, NBC and the NBC Sports Network. However, TV contracts in the other four leagues dwarf MLS in terms of money — part of the reason MLS salaries lag well behind the others. Many MLS players don’t even make $100,000; some make as little as $35,000 a year while only a handful make $1 million or more. But the average MLS salary is still well more than the average WNBA salary.
Instinct? Well, if you were at Sunday’s Sporting KC vs. Houston match, it certainly felt like what its name indicates: a major league.
Sporting Park was jammed; the home crowd was loud, while a dedicated group from Houston beat on drums and sang songs for pretty much the entire 90 minutes. Both goals in a 1-1 draw were expertly played, while the pace, comfort level in tight spaces and general skill felt like one was watching the highest level of play available in this country.
Is all that enough to consider MLS the fifth major league? It probably depends on how you measure it and how resistant you are to change.