and the start of the English Premier League season (Lets Go Liverpool) I think that its time to take a look at Soccer (aka World Football) in America.
Last week I met with with Steve Hardy who is a professor of Sports Marketing and the athletics faculty advisor at the University of New Hampshire, and one of the most experienced minds in sports marketing. Dr. Hardy literally wrote the book on sports marketing (Sports Marketing Textbook)
Our conversation turned towards soccer and how all the runways are clear for take off for a truly measurable American soccer revolution. Now I know that your thinking “I’ve heard this story before.” However, with the changes in the population of America, the maturation of the youth soccer generation, technological advances in television and the internet, the growing support of major media and sponsors, the upcoming World Cup, and even the sustained growth of MLS have set the stage for soccer to explode in the upcoming years.
First let’s take a look at the last couple times the media said Soccer was going to explode in America and why it wouldn’t work:
NASL: The first real pro soccer league to hit in America. It featured the great Pele, but at the end of his career. This league had a good run of success with the New York Cosmos (Pele’s team) leading the way. They averaged 40,000 at the gate and the ’78 Championship drew a sell out of over 75,000. The league even had a network contract with CBS which is major for a secondary sport like soccer to succeed. The league over-expanded in the 1980’s and when the US missed out on hosting the 1986 World Cup the NASL folded. This league however set the example for the MLS to avoid failure a few decades later.
Here’s a good map of the NASL that includes attendance in the lower left corner: NASL Map
1994: This is the “revolution” I remember. I was 8 when the US hosted the World Cup. I remember ESPN and SI for Kids saying this was soccer’s arrival. On the backs of Alixi Lalas, Coby Jones, and Tony Meola. They even put US National team tear off cards in the SI For Kids ( I know some of you collected them)
This World Cup also was when the MLS creation was announced (more on the MLS later) With a big win over Columbia it looked like the US could make some noise but they couldn’t make it out of group stages. Although the attendance was good the fervor over the 94 World Cup took a hit when the US got bounced. I also think the ”Revolution” didn’t take off because of THESE
However Women’s Leagues have never really garnered a foothold in America because the players the public want to see (US National players) are completely spread out also the big guns (Hamm, Chastain, Lilly, Fawdey) are now retired. I will say that they business plan for the new WPS Women’s League could work as a nice family sporting event, but don’t expect it to prosper.
Now to 2009
Dr. Hardy told me that in the new edition of the Sports Marketing text book every mention of soccer will now be “world football” I like this title for the sport better as well because it helps connect us to the rest of the sporting world rather than be the sore thumb that sticks out by referring to the game as soccer.
Here are the main reasons I feel that World Soccer is about to become a top 4 sport in America:
1) The shift in population in the past 25 years: America is now becoming a true melting pot. Caucasian is now a minority in California. As more spanish speaking and europeans emigrate into America they bring with them a love of world football that they pass on to their children. Take this video for example
This was taken after Italy won the last World Cup in 06, but it wasn’t the streets of Rome or Naples. No, that was the North End of Boston. Also this Summer in the series put on involving some of the top club teams in the world Inter-Milan and AC Milan sold out Foxboro in the matter of hours. More on these club teams later.
2)the maturation of the youth soccer generation- I am 23 years old. I grew up each fall playing soccer. So did almost everyone else i know under the age of 26. Even if you didn’t continue to play in high school (I didn’t) if you played youth soccer you know the basics of the game and can watch a game and understand what’s happening strategy wise. This generation of soccer players also seem to be turning off to baseball. The under 25 generation love to multi task and are always wanting to be connected. that is in direct opposition to the culture of baseball. 4 hour games with 12 pitching changes for both teams is not conducive to the ADD generation. A soccer game on the other hand is over in less than 2 hours. Now, I know that the big knock on soccer is that there isn’t enough scoring, but with the ADD generation its a great game because you can zone out of focus on a game for minutes at a time and tune back in mentally when a team is in the attacking 1/3.
Another reason I believe soccer can gain a foothold in the 16-30 generation is the power of video games. EA Sports FIFA video game franchise is behind only Madden in sales for sports games and is in the top 10 of all franchises in history. The FIFA franchise has helped American kids learn who the best players in the world are and in turn helped them develop loyalty to certain world clubs such as Manchester United, Barcelona, Real Madrid, etc. Soccer video games have gained such popularity has even led to the first major sports sponsorship for Microsoft when they became jersey sponsor of the Seattle Sounders
3) Technological advances in television and the internet- This brings me to my next reason. television and the internet has advanced so much in the past few decades that access to the top world club teams and international games has become accessible for Americans. People like me can now watch a Liverpool match live on a Sunday morning (which I did today DAMN Tottenham Hotspur) In the 1990’s and early 00’s a soccer fan would have to find the hole in the wall English or Irish pub usually with a name like Hooligan’s or something just to watch a game live on satellite. The internet boom with sports allows fans in America a chance to get news about their clubs and favorite players easily. In fact fantasy English Premier League has taken off this season as ESPN Fox Sports and facebook have had major increases in their soccer fantasy leagues. The facebook EPL fantasy game had over 2 million signups before the season began just in America. With more accessibility American soccer fans can expand their fan hood to the other side of the Atlantic.
4) The growing support of major media and sponsors- This weekend as the EPL kicked off their season and they have a new media outlet showing a few games a week and that is the World Wide Leader ESPN. And everyone knows that when ESPN gets behind something they go all in behind it. Example: First and 10 is still on the air. ESPN also has the rights to some La Liga (Spain) games. Now, the games they got were the equivalent of Patriots v. Lions as the major teams face off against the relegation crew, but its a start.
Now ESPN did lose the right to the Champions League which is the crown jewel of club soccer to Fox, but with a major market for Fox Sports there are now multiple major sports outlets showing World Soccer along with the normal slate of mildly watched MLS matches.
ESPN has already started a major marketing push for the 2010 World Cup with its coverage of the Confed Cup this summer and initial reports look like its working as the USA-Brazil game garnered a 4.0 share with over 4 million people tuning in. I expect the 2010 World Cup to be the spring board event for soccer in America.
The only problem I see with soccer not taking of in America is the MLS. The problem I see with the MLS is that in America we want to see the best. We have the best in football, basketball, baseball, and even hockey Americans get to see the best not so in soccer. The MLS is nothing more than triple A soccer. They get the up and comers in America and the older Euro stars on their decline (see David Beckham) The major problem is with this is that the American stars that would be needed to be the face of the new soccer revolution are being lured to Europe where they can earn millions and come back with a model from the Milan Runway on their arm. Since the Confed Cup where America was introduced to up and coming stars, Charlie Davies (Manchester NH!) and Jozie Altadore have both gone over to Europe. Davies was already playing in France but Altidore as well as Clint Dempsey, and Oguchi Onyewu have signed on to teams in Europe and Landon Donavan (America’s biggest soccer star) is set to leave after the MLS season.
Somehow Americans will have to get by the fact that we don’t have the top teams and never will but MLS is doing their best to help bring in the major club teams from Europe to play MLS teams to help open the American public up to World Soccer. Chelsea, Real Madrid, Barcelona, AC Milan, Inter Milan, and Everton all played games this summer in America. By playing here in America they open their brand up to a new audience in America and the MLS has a chance to show Americans that despite not having the top teams that the MLS can be a good secondary league in America.
Now I have to say until I lived in Ireland and was forced to quickly choose a team or not follow sports for half a year I was a normal American non soccer fan, but I am now fully on the bandwagon and I think in a few years the bandwagon will be overflowing with new active soccer fans.
Maybe one day an American stadium will look like this for a game.