Though football, or soccer, is the most popular sport in the world, it’s a relatively new offering in the US and Canada. Worldwide, some 3.5 billion fans (according to World Population Review) tune in annually, while only around 25 million tune in to North America’s MLS league.
This is slowly changing. In fact, the MLS plans to expand to 30 teams before 2025. Most recently, the league expanded with Nashville SC and Inter Miami FC, located in Nashville, Tennessee, and Miami, Florida, which began competing in 2020.
The latter is an incredibly strong testament to the budding popularity of soccer in the US; typically, rural states like Tennessee focus exclusively on American football. Even the NBA has yet to land a team in the state. The second example, Inter Miami, is co-owned by David Beckham, which highlights another nod in favor of the MLS: involvement from global superstars.
Which of the two latest MLS expansion teams will find success first? And will that success be based on revenue and fan engagement, or performance in the MLS?
Acquiring Fans & Constructing Identity
Nashville SC faces more challenges in building a fan base than Inter Miami. The new Miami side will also benefit from the influence of Beckham, who’s a majority shareholder for the team. He knows how to command both on and off the field, and his side will benefit from those years of experience.
However, now that Tennessee has launched online sports betting, locals will have access to Tennessee free bets from top sportsbooks that cover the MLS. While the availability of point spreads and moneylines won’t be enough to endear a population to soccer, it’s a layer of fan engagement that didn’t exist before the team’s launch in 2020.
So far, both teams have built fledgling fan groups. Nashville SC’s fan base is popularly known as the Backline. They’ve formed a community with the intention of supporting Nashville SC throughout their season with initiatives like the hashtag #FirstinLastout.
Still, the Beckham advantage can’t be understated. Already, Inter Miami fans called themselves La Familia, a nod to bonds in the sports community. The team has recently debuted an immersive fan engagement video streaming app, called the Inter Miami Mobile App. It allows viewers to host remote watch parties and connect as they support their favorite team members.
A Close Look at Each Roster
Since the season start, Nashville SC has been making waves with its improved record; they’re currently in third place in the Eastern Conference, while Inter Miami lingers in 11th. Nashville’s success has been credited to head coach Gary Smith’s smart moves in the offseason.
Nashville has three stars that could easily turn the team into a national title contender; Joe Willis, Hany Mukhtar, and Walker Zimmerman. Nashville SC’s goalkeeper, Willis, is known for his quick and tactile abilities. Mukhtar, coming from Germany, originally struggled up top but has since found his footing in the midfield.
Zimmerman, meanwhile, is leading the charge in the backfield, still hot from last year’s MLS Defensive Player of the Year award. Meanwhile, Inter Miami seems to be relying heavily on star Lewis Morgan. This year, he’s seen help from Rodolfo Pizarro, who became the clubs first MLS All-Star player.
With only two years under their belt, Nashville SC is on a fast track to becoming one of the league’s greatest contenders—despite being in a region that has traditionally been cold to the sport. Last year, they advanced to the conference semi-finals, where they lost 2-0 to Columbus Crew SC.
Inter Miami will need to keep reworking their roster and formation until they can find a winning scheme. However, they’ll have a softer cushion in the meantime, as their vibrant fanbase continues to increase in one of the country’s most soccer-happy regions. Historically, an MLS club will survive longer if it manages to build a passionate fanbase rather than post winning seasons.