Would you believe that soccer in the United States is the second most popular sport among ages 12-24? This is a statistic that has recently been released by Rich Luker who works for ESPN. He developed a complex database supporting that soccer in the United States will be just as popular as the MLB and NBA. What are some of the causes in this jump in popularity and how can we increase the popularity and compete with “American” Football?
First, let’s take a look at the popularity through people actually physically playing the game vs. watching. One of the most interesting aspects from Rich Lucker’s “Soccer’s big takeover” article was the correlation between age and social changes. He stated that in the thirteen year old age group soccer is considered a bonding time with your peers. However, once teenagers reach middle school there starts to be more cross-bonding with the opposite sex. This is where you generally start to lose players to other sports that are considered more “manly” and more aggressive. He stated, “you simply can’t beat the social lubrication of the homecoming football game.” So how can we compete?
If we as a sport want to compete with the other big time sports in America we must adjust our system and change the way we develop our players. We have to get rid of middle school and high school soccer and have it strictly at the club level. Many will argue against this next notion but we also need to get rid of college soccer. Middle school, high school and college soccer are damaging our development. We need to have our players training and learning under qualified coaches where it is their full-time job to educate them on the game.
I know the next question will be asking, what about education? I am a firm believer in continued secondary education and I think it’s important for all professional athletes to finish college. If done properly, you can continue to play for your club teams and get your secondary education. It’s done in the European countries and it can be down here. At the club level you could have different tiers similar to that of the English system. You have your youth teams, reserve team and first team. You work your way through the system and if it doesn’t work out you have your education to fall back on. Education and soccer can co-exist. That’s the only way we will be able to compete with the big time sports. That’s the only way we can compete with the big time countries. Our system in developing players must change.
Going into a different direction the amount of viewers of the game has increased dramatically; which is where a lot of the increased popularity in the United States has come from. Since the MLS was founded in 1996 it has increased its number of teams from 10 to 19 (sixteen in the United States and three in Canada). In the 2011 season there was an average attendance of 17,872 supporters which was the highest in their league’s history. The average attendance surpassed for the first time that of the NHL and NBA. The CMO of the MLS, Howard Handler, has credited this to the construction of soccer-specific stadiums. Howard insisted that these stadiums get the fans closer to the players and creates a better atmosphere.
These numbers could be sold short considering how poor the economy has been. As Luker explains through the lack of discretionary spending power. The good news about this is there has been an increase in televised games. Last year the MLS partnered with NBC Sports and announced that they will be televising 45 league games along with 4 United States National Team games. The MLS has also gained leverage with marketing partners Microsoft, Pepsi, Unilever, Adidas, Budweiser, Home Depot, Panasonic, Visa and VW.
More importantly there has been an increase in the number of overseas televised games. The Fox Soccer Network (FSC) is part of many basic cable packages now and ESPN has gained rights to games as well. Technology has made it even easier to access games through live streaming. Twenty years ago you couldn’t find a soccer game on a television in the United States. The popularity of soccer in the United States doesn’t have to be a direct link to the popularity of the MLS. To increase the popularity of soccer in the US we need to make more leagues available to watch.
Even though we have seen increased popularity there is still a lot of work to be done here in the United States. In order for our sport to become the most popular our National Team is going to have to compete at a higher level and the only way we can do that is by changing the way we develop our players. If we are able to compete at higher levels we will start to attract the best players in the world to our homegrown league, the MLS. We have been able to get some of the high-profile players like David Beckham which has been great for marketing purposes. However, we are getting these players at the butt-end of their careers. We want them when they are in their prime! We want the Ronaldo’s and Messi’s to be playing on our home soil, in front of our crowds, in our country. Our country aims to be the best at everything we do, it’s in our blood, it’s in our genes. Let’s maker soccer better here in the United States, let’s change the game!