Survey of US Soccer

Every day I see articles that I would like to read. Some I get to, some I don’t. Originally I found this article because I was looking at the comparison of cities in terms of success and support. As I scrolled down to the end, I found a list of questions regarding issues in American soccer and responses from academics. The entire post is quite long but the points made by the panel got me thinking.

The American soccer fan is complex. Their support is divided not only between domestic and international soccer but also further splintered by other US sports. Furthermore, due to the size of this country, not all cities have an MLS team or one even near them, which can lead to a lack of engagement in the domestic league, noted by Charles Parrish, Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Western Carolina University, College of Business, in one of his responses. All sports in this country are fighting for fans’ entertainment dollar, with the big three of basketball, football and baseball having a huge head start. Read Andrei Markovits’ Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism for one view of the development of sport in the United States. TV, talent, money are all factors, and the following questions and responses provide insight and analysis.

Here are the questions and selected thoughts from the panel, including some commentary from me:

  • How do you think the emergence of competition for ESPN in the form of new all-sports networks, and the resulting U.S. television deals for major international soccer leagues, will impact the viability of MLS moving forward?
  • What are the biggest issues facing MLS today?
  • What effect will the U.S. women’s national team’s World Cup victory have on soccer fandom in America?
  • What, in your mind, makes a good soccer fan?
  • If your son or daughter were an elite youth soccer player, would you encourage them to pursue the MLS/NWSL or a premier international league?

mls cup

How do you think the emergence of competition for ESPN in the form of new all-sports networks, and the resulting U.S. television deals for major international soccer leagues, will impact the viability of MLS moving forward?

TV coverage has been slowly increasing for the league. Gone are the days when MLS would have to pay networks to present their games and the recent TV deal has provided some financial and viewing stability for fans. The deal is peanuts compared to the new EPL deal (possibly up to $13 billion over the course of the deal, or around $4.3 billion per year with international rights) but MLS is about incremental growth. The EPL didn’t bring in these huge numbers overnight and has promoted itself and delivered a desirable product. The regular Sunday slots for Friday and Sunday MLS games are a great addition and the league should also work on creating narratives that drive viewership.

In the end, the money should impact the salary cap which should get better international players younger (USMNT members like Bradley and Altidore, other stars like Giovanni Dos Santos, etc) and more well-known names. Joseph P. Little, Assistant Professor of Marketing at Grand Valley State University, Seidman College of Business said that, “Past sports research has shown that star power is what draws fans in and keeps fans.” Matthew J. Robinson, Professor of Sport Management and Director of the Sport Management Program in the Lerner College of Business and Economics at the University of Delaware, made the comparison between the NBA and European basketball with the game across the Atlantic “viewed as a lesser level than the NBA.” Totally agree as European basketball leagues have stars but the measuring stick is the NBA.

I am also hoping that bigger revenues will strengthen the middle class of MLS. While it’s great to have stars, the strength of squad is what keep teams competitive both domestically and internationally. Increasing the quality of players 6-15 is critical as teams compete on multiple fronts and deal with star players leaving for international duty.

mls shield

What are the biggest issues facing MLS today?

When asked this question, the panelists responded with a wide range of thoughts—perception of MLS being a minor league, profitability, attendance/ratings, and competition for the US fan’s sports dollar and attention.

Let’s face it, the talent level of MLS is not the same as the major European leagues and American fans can spot the difference, which Little hints at in his response. This is improving but will take time. Furthermore, Edward M. Kian, Endowed Welch-Bridgewater Chair of Sports Media at Oklahoma State University, stated that “Americans are proud and patriotic. Accordingly, we need more male American soccer stars for the sport to grow to its potential.”

Money drives the modern game and Stephen L. Shapiro, Associate Professor of Sport Management at Old Dominion University, stated that the league is losing $75 to $100 million per year. While teams are investing now for long term growth he mentions that “there is no guarantee of growth”, which could be a problem for the owners and the league. Richard Lapchick, Chair of DeVos Sport Business Management Program and Director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at University of Central Florida, keyed in on the pay structure that impacts the type of team put on the field. If teams are not competitive and star driven “the casual fan will lose interest.” Spend money to make money?

MLS ratings are improving (found this comparison on BigSoccer.com) but as Mark R. Gleim, Assistant Professor of Marketing at University of Toledo, College of Business and Innovation, says, “the league needs to boost ratings if it is truly going to benefit from an increase in networks seeking sports programming.” Putting fannies in seats is also an issue. Robinson mentions that “the average attendance for an MLS game is not far off than the average attendance for NBA and NHL games” but goes on to say that salaries need to increase to bring in better talent to attract more fans.

All of these are factors in attracting the US sports fan. Many of the panelists noted the strength of the other sports, especially American Football. Nancy Lough, Professor of Educational Psychology & Higher Education at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, College of Education, goes on to say, “There was a time when football season was clearly demarcated by the start and end of the season. Those lines are blurring, with expanded media covering all aspects of the mainstream sports seemingly non-stop. For the MLS to squeeze into this mix remains a significant challenge.” The beautiful game is seen as a niche sport, outside the sporting mainstream, and Delancy Bennett, Assistant Professor of Marketing at Clemson University, College of Business and Behavioral Science, states that the challenge for MLS “is to become this part of people’s lives and how to do it better than lacrosse, mixed martial arts and the number of other growing sports.”

WWC

What effect will the U.S. women’s national team’s World Cup victory have on soccer fandom in America?  

Since the late 1800’s, men’s soccer has started, declined, rose again, declined, came back, and gone away. Currently the men’s game is in a growth phase after a 100 years of trying and failing. 100 years. It’s still outside the mainstream and is on the fringe in terms of coverage. Couple the fringe element with women’s sport that Lough says receives as little as 2% of overall coverage from ESPN, and I just don’t see how it can compete.

Several women’s leagues have come and gone since that magic moment in the summer of 1999. Similar to the men, there has been a stop/start pattern, and while Robinson draws a comparison between the women’s leagues and the WNBA that has led to the development of international success, the women’s game is way behind the men’s game and I’m not sure if it will ever by successful. Yes lots of people, casual and hardcore, watched the Women’s World Cup Final. That’s great but will American fans support a women’s domestic league?

The response from Parrish summed up the state of play:

The U.S. women’s national team’s World Cup victory will impact soccer fandom in a similar manner to the 1999 victory and the runner-up finish in 2011. We should expect a spike in interest immediately following the tournament. Fans will fill stadiums to watch the team play exhibition matches in the hopes of catching a glimpse of this generation of heroes during the team’s nationwide victory tour. Unfortunately, this level of interest in women’s soccer will dissipate and it is unlikely fans will turn out to watch these same women compete in the National Women’s Soccer League. It is unfortunate yet we have to realize much of the interest we recently witnessed relates to feelings of nationalism and does not necessarily reflect an interest in the sport on its own. The phenomenon is comparable to gymnastics and ice skating, both of which enjoy spikes in interest every 4 years during the Olympics. Fans want to see U.S. athletes succeed yet interest is not sustainable beyond the event time frame.

supporters

What, in your mind, makes a good soccer fan?

This question elicited some interesting responses:

Little: “Three characteristics make a good sports fan from a business point of view: passion for the game and players, discretionary income to spend, and leisure time.”

Oregon: “Consistency and loyalty; not only watching the big time games that are nationally talked about but the smaller games and events as well.”

Parrish: “A good soccer fan is first and foremost both knowledgeable and passionate about the sport. Also, soccer fans tend to identify with and show high levels of loyalty towards their team or teams. Consequently, a good soccer fan is willing to support his or her team(s) whether at the top or bottom of the league.”

Kian: “A good soccer fan is someone who watches matches on television, attends some in person, and buys merchandise.”

Americans love sports and the traits mentioned above can be seen in sports fans across the country. The key is getting sports fans to bring that energy, loyalty and money to soccer and then getting them (and in some cases Eurosnobs like me) to focus on the domestic game and getting them engaged—watching, going, fantasy, etc.

youth soccer

If your son or daughter were an elite youth soccer player, would you encourage them to pursue the MLS/NWSL or a premier international league?

This is a huge, complex issue. I have spoken with coaches, fans and players and have come to the opinion that there is no one way. At this point, I would say keep playing, say yes to every opportunity whether at home or abroad and see what happens. Whether it’s being a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond, the spectrum of possibilities is wide from Michael Bradley to Jay Demerit to the recent crop of homegrown players breaking through at FC Dallas.

Little would encourage players to international teams due to the salaries, sponsorship opportunities and prestige. Lough concurs and says that “The MLS can remain an option, but all athletes and those who love them, tend to want to see them at the highest levels of their sport”, which goes back to the league’s status around the world. However Robinson takes a more positive view: “If they want to play at the highest level right now that would be international, but is great now that young kids have a professional league in the U.S. to which to aspire. That is huge. That was not there 30 years ago. Soccer in the U.S. best days are ahead.”

I have been following the game for 20 years and have seen a lot of growth. Issues still remain but the overall direction of the American game is positive. While the US Soccer pyramid is dysfunctional, there is at least a pyramid in which teams and players can find their level. The National Team has been to every World Cup since 1990 and is no longer completely in the shadow of Mexico in the region. Media coverage continues to grow and fans have more access than ever before. There is strong core of soccer fans in this country and the next step will be capturing casual fans to create sustainable, vibrant men’s and women’s leagues.

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