Tonight, Major League Soccer holds its All-Star Game in suburban Philadelphia. A team of MLS stars team up to take on Chelsea, the reigning European Champions. The proverbial sport of the future in America (and Canada) has started to see significant breakthroughs in recent years. MLS is experiencing steady growth, summer tours of big European clubs are a smash hit, and TV ratings for major international competitions often impress. The question is, how did this happen? Soccer may or may not be the sport of the future, but for all the ridicule, it is clearly in the process of breaking through to the top tier of sports in North America. While still lagging football, baseball, and basketball, it is basically on par with hockey, considered the fourth big sport.
Even more encouraging is the support among a younger demographic. “Pro soccer” is slightly ahead of the NBA in second place amongst 12-24 year olds, the percentage of Americans who describe themselves as “avid” MLS fans has grown 250% since 2000. That graph also shows that more people are avid fans of international soccer, which is no surprise since that’s where the world’s best (Landon Donovan excluded) spend their peak years.
The trend for both domestic and international soccer in America is positive, which begs the question of how it happened. Below are a few factors I see contributing to its rise. There are lessons for all of us in our work from how the sport is making its presence felt.
The Fan Experience
As an underdog taking on the established leagues, MLS has had to focus on creating a positive experience for fans, most of whom do not have the same loyalties to franchises or the sport itself as the big four enjoy. Aiding this has been the development of soccer-specific stadiums for 14 of 19 clubs, which optimizes the live viewing experience. Clubs like Sporting Kansas City are at the forefront of developing interactive, fan-friendly amenities at their home park.
It is the only major sport that embraces supporters’ clubs, which help drive support, and as Roger Bennett’s excellent feature explains, promotes rivalries like no other league.
Outside the park, it uses social media aggressively and effectively, and its MatchDay App features live streaming, and extensive highlights posted shortly after games finish, among other features.
Kids Play Soccer
As of 2010, more than 4 million kids under 14 played organized soccer, double the number from 1990. This creates a natural awareness and interest that doesn’t exist among someone whose never played – and may have a harder time understanding – the game. Events like hosting the 1994 Men’s World Cup and 1999 Women’s World Cup have further helped catalyze interest in the sport, both playing and watching.
Related to this, demographics have helped significantly, in particular the growth of America’s Hispanic population, who has long embraced soccer (both in the US and abroad). Soccer is by far the preferred sport among that demographic.
Technology and Globalization
The growth of cable and satellite television, and the internet, has facilitated being a fan of teams and leagues that are played outside your region, or abroad. Viewers can get up to the minute information over the internet, and watch games on a live stream, or on cable channels ranging from ESPN to Fox Soccer. Outside of the logistics of getting to watch a game in person (and the different times they air on TV), there’s very little difference between following Manchester United and the New York Yankees, for example, if you live outside each’s home market.
It also can’t be understated how little connection there actually is between being a fan and seeing a game live. At the 2011 Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Dallas Cowboys COO Stephen Jones noted that less than 5% of declared NFL fans see a game in person in any given year.
The Local Connection Has Helped
Paradoxically, the local appeal of MLS clubs has also helped. The league’s creation happened to coincide with a period of time when the big four leagues were aggressively chasing additional revenue, often through relocation and/or building new stadiums. These new stadiums inevitably came with a greater focus on corporate clientele through features like hospitality suites, and a price increase for everyone’s ticket. This made it harder (and more expensive) for the average fan to attend a game.
I believe that with many fans priced out, an alternative like MLS became more appealing. Features like Supporters’ Clubs and soccer-specific stadiums have helped create a sense of community among fans.
The Minor League Experience
It’s undeniable that the quality of play (and players overall) in MLS lags behind the major European leagues, and will continue to for a long time (if not indefinitely). Yet, on some level, I see this working to MLS’ advantage. This, combined with passionate fans and cozy (~20,000) seat stadiums recreates the feeling one gets at events like minor league baseball. You feel a connection to the local club, and get to see a combination of up-and-coming stars (who will usually end up in Europe) and famous stars winding up their career (Thierry Henry, Alessandro Nesta, and David Beckham – to name three – all have decorated European careers).
Soccer – in particular MLS – has succeeded by carving out a niche (through careful expansion and the cultivation of friendly stadiums and strong fan-bases), gaining exposure and familiarity (largely through greater youth registration), and catering relentlessly to their fan/consumer base. It may not be the sport of the future, but it’s a big part of the sporting landscape in the present, and there’s no reason to think it won’t continue to be for a long time.