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Americans fall for soccer but can MLS cash in?

July 30, 2009

The US national team beat European champions Spain in the Confederations Cup and give Brazil a scare in the final. In the NFL heartland of Baltimore, 71,000 turn out to watch Chelsea v AC Milan.

In Pasadena, Chelsea v Inter Milan pulls in 81,000.

David Beckham gets booed and jeered on his return for L.A Galaxy and the American sporting public laps it up – top sports talk shows, which usually ignore soccer other than to mock the game occasionally, lead their bulletins on the issue.

Giants Stadium in New York sells out with 79,000 for USA v Mexico in the Gold Cup final – even though both teams field reserve sides.

There is more to come — Real Madrid and Barcelona are about to start mini-tours of the U.S. that will bring in similar huge crowds.

In Major League Soccer, the Seattle Sounders average 30,000 for home games in their first season. Philadelphia and Vancouver sign up to became the next teams to join the league.

Television stations now battle for rights to Europe’s Champions League – which will be broadcast on the Fox Soccer Channel while ESPN is already running trailers for next year’s World Cup finals.

No wonder, the Wall Street Journal asks Are Americans Becoming Soccer Fans? Well, are they?

The numbers are impressive and are hard to ignore but it is worth noting, as U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati did this week, that the games that are attracting such huge crowds involve the absolute cream of the crop.

“Clearly we are not getting those attendances at MLS games, and it is an important question as to how we can tap into what is clearly an audience for high-level international games.

“It’s a little bit chasing stars if we think most teams around the world would draw those sorts of attendances. If we were to have a tournament next summer with Stuttgart, Aston Villa, Olympique Marseille and pick another team, I don’t think we’d have those same sorts of attendances.

“The teams that have come are two of the glory teams in Real Madrid and Barcelona, two or three of the top English and Italian teams, really the best teams in the world and biggest stars,” he said.

Nonetheless, the idea that soccer is alien or foreign to Americans or that the game somehow needs to be altered to appeal to those used to the NFL or NBA has been shown to be the nonsense that it is.

American fans will pay top dollar for a ticket to watch some of the best players in the world – soccer has an appeal and a following among a public which, despite the constant crowing of some in Europe, understands and appreciates the game.

The question is – can Major League Soccer tap into this support?

Does the league have the capability to go from its current level (league-wide average crowds of 15,000 and small television ratings) to something more akin to what Seattle have been able to produce – large crowds and being a central component of a city’s sporting life?

The MLS’s prudent salary cap and the very gradualist approach to expansion have been factors in its modest success so far but they could, in time, turn out to be exactly what is holding the game back.

Right from the outset, MLS has been keen to avoid the fate of the previous attempt at a top flight soccer league – the NASL – which after a surge of interest during the glory days of the New York Cosmos – imploded into oblivion after expanding too quickly (and recklessly) and spending too much.

MLS focused heavily in its early years on developing young American talent and in recent years has chosen to recruit relatively cheap foreign players to boost the ranks. While this is a sensible, conservative approach, it also restricts the chances of the league being able to tap in to that market for top quality soccer that has been illustrated so spectacularly this summer.

Firstly, the low level of salaries encourages the best young American players to go abroad – few of the U.S. team that beat Spain actually play in MLS and that hardly sends a message to fans that their domestic product is something worth following.

Secondly, the salary restrictions mean clubs are not allowed to go chasing players on the international market and inject some exciting names and quality from abroad. Occasionally, a bargain gem is unearthed such as Seattle’s Colombian Fredy Montero, but on the whole the foreign players in MLS are not the kind of performers who would put additional numbers on the gate.

Finding players near the end of their careers in Europe, looking for a new challenge and interested in more than just a final payday, is tough and Seattle with Freddy Ljungberg, New York with Juan Pablo Angel and Chicago with Cuauhtemoc Blanco have been among the few to strike lucky.

At the moment there is no real pressure to change the system but that could change next year – a World Cup year.

Should the U.S do well at the World Cup, repeating their surprise showing at the Confederations Cup, the interest level in the game will rise significantly and that could be a golden opportunity for MLS.

First, a U.S success (by which I mean a run to the semi-finals or at least the quarter-finals) would help create a generation of popular new American players and with the increased, unprecedented media coverage of the game, possibly the first household names in American soccer.

Secondly, the World Cup always creates new international stars and soccer fans in the U.S would love to watch those who impressed in South Africa play in their own grounds.

Now, I am not suggesting that MLS rip up their sensible approach to salaries but some flexibility to allow teams to capture some of the spirit (and personnel) of the World Cup would surely be a smart move.

After all, what a waste it would be if the U.S managed to capture the imagination of the sporting public with a heroic run to the latter stages of the World Cup only to see the handful of remaining MLS players, such as exciting midfielder Stuart Holden, leave to play in Europe.

The U.S national team is slowly becoming a respected force in the global game. The U.S public is waking up to the entertainment that can be offered by the sport and MLS has the potential to become the biggest and best league outside of Europe’s elite.

For years the talk has been of the potential for the growth of soccer in the U.S – now that growth is happening, it will be fascinating to see how the game progresses in the next couple of years.

PHOTO: AC Milan’s Ronaldinho attempts a bicycle kick as team mate Massimo Oddo (C) and Chelsea’s Frank Lampard (8) look on during the first half of the World Football Challenge soccer match in Baltimore, Maryland, July 24, 2009. REUTERS/Hyungwon Kang

Comments

This prospect (of MLS cashing in on U.S. soccer interest) has been elusive in the 14-year history of the league. There was a surge of interest in the beginning, but this quickly proved to be short-lived (that and the league failed to take advantage of it). MLS also failed to capitalize on the U.S. national team’s historic run to the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals. The Beckham ‘experiment’ worked in attracting numbers, but as a recent book points out, fans were mainly coming for Becks the celebrity, not Becks the player. As a plot to increase genuine interest in the league it was a failure. In short, the league has hitherto just not done a very good job of taking advantage of what is undoubtedly a huge stateside interest in the sport.

But there are some promising signs that the league’s “grassroots” efforts are finally paying off. Toronto FC, which joined the league in 2007, sell out every game. Seattle Sounders FC, an expansion club this season, have attracted record crowds. The Philadelphia expansion club that joins next season has already sold something like 10K season tickets. There are several “soccer-specific” stadia that have opened the last couple of years that finally give fans the proper experience (an intimate setting, natural grass, no football yard lines, etc.).

Of course many of these grounds (in Dallas and Chicago for example) now sit half empty or worse a half decade after they opened. We’ll have to wait and see if Toronto, Seattle and Philadelphia prove to be novelty acts as well.

 

Stadium as half empty because that is what the Internet can pull in. A right coverage from the media raising the expectation can do the rest. The success in Seattle is because the local media participates of that success, it is the talk of the town. The local media in Chicago bury all news related to MLS with other articles. Soccer is a whole new vice, a new addiction, and it’s hard to replace the old ones, its hard to brake with the old ones.

Posted by angel | Report as abusive
 

MLS is one of the most successful ambitious leagues in years. Their business model has sports flaws, but is financially sound and secure, and is ultimately the reason why a soccer league in America, in which the likability of the sport is often questioned, is able to operate for 14 years, attract the likes of David Beckham and stay consistent during a huge financial recession (please look at the WNBA and AFL as poor models).

The boring salary restrictions are surprisingly the answer to the references to the NASL’s failure. Though they certainly need to be raised to protect the lower level talent in the league, the Stuart Holden’s and Kyle Beckerman’s will still get a hefty six-figure payday, something not too shabby for their young careers.

Attendance is one factor of success and there is a common trend to where it is done right and where it is done wrong. First, it is worthy to name teams with good attendance numbers over the years: DC United, Houston Dynamo, Los Angeles Galaxy and the newer franchises Salt Lake Royals (had to correct the embarrassing name), Toronto FC and Seattle Sounders FC. All of these franchises play in a downtown stadium and has amble public transit (LA and SL are technically out of downtown, but both cities are “Los Angelesized” bleeding driving cities, not dense walkable cities, which doesn’t change their lifestyles.). If you don’t want to see half-empy soccer-specific stadiums, then don’t build them 45-minutes out of the city hub like FC Dallas did. Or 30 mins out like Colorado did. Cheap, smartly located, downtown stadiums = good attendance numbers for MLS teams. Luxurious, suburban stadiums are difficult for families and driving drinking buddies to attend. BMO Field is a shining example of what needs to be done.

I love the MLS. And the cult factor developing within the league is truly making teams like SSFC, TFC, DCU, Houston Dynamo and even RSL desirable within the community. Screw the talent, get the cult status.

Posted by Phil | Report as abusive
 

Phil,

It is interesting that you use the term ‘cult factor’ because I have often felt that soccer is a kind of subculture in America and the MLS is almost like the ‘cool band’ you are into during college days.

I like that vibe – I like talking to the bloggers who love MLS and soccer in general. My local team is Miami FC who have a tiny following but great people who truly love the game.

But if MLS is going to be a viable long term professional league (and I personally think it is) then it can’t remain a subculture with a cult following. It has to go mainstream.

That doesn’t mean aping mainstream American sports – we don’t need cheerleaders, quarters or pounding music every time there is a free-kick…..but it does mean appealing to the kind of people who attended Chelsea or Milan matches but don’t yet follow MLS.

Your points about accessible stadiums are spot on – and I also think that Seattle has succeeded by becoming a fun place for people to have a few drinks and a laugh. Too much soccer has been marketed as an activity for nice families with their soccer playing offspring – that alone won’t work.

But interesting times…..

Posted by Simon Evans | Report as abusive
 

the world football challenge was an amazing success, and a couple of american footballers are making a name for themselves abroad.

the MLS has improved, in terms of quality and followship but its miles behind the likes of the Premier League, La Liga and Serie A.

angel is right in saying the media needs to take a part in it, and seattle is a great example of that.

 

What really needs to happen is everybody get their own soccer specific stadium. That will increase revenue (they aren’t renting a death trap at a ridiculous price) and there will be far more stability and fan intake.

As for the salaries and players going overseas, I agree that salaries need to increase at somepoint, but not until more people are coming into the stadiums and paying for them. Also, players going overseas is ultimately a good thing. This league will reach true legitamacy when the young stars of today come Back to the league (similar to McBride) and teach the youngsters what it means to be world class.

I have faith in the league, and we Need a good world cup, and time to help it grow.

Posted by dude | Report as abusive
 

“Too much soccer has been marketed as an activity for nice families with their soccer playing offspring – that alone won’t work.”

Cheers. “A Friday night out” and “a weekend tailgate with your buddies” are how die-hard soccer fans here in America like to spend their time. We honestly also need soccer moms and rec-league teams dressed in their uniforms, but my demographic will be loyal, even during a Red Bull season (let’s not get into the name debate).

Posted by Phil | Report as abusive
 

MLS, only 13 years young, is doing just fine. Attendance is around 15K. Houston Dynamo, DC United, Toronto FC, Seattle Sounders, LA Galaxy all have a solid and devoted following. RSL, KC, and Chicago Fire are getting there.
In time(3-5 years) the salary cap must be removed, and the format should be tweaked a bit. A single table is a must, and, in time, playoffs should be scrapped in favor of a regular season champion. “Americanizing” the league isn’t necessarily good for the sport in the US.
Also, the league should adjust its calendar and not play while international tournaments are taking place(World Cup, Gold Cup, etc.)
There are ways to go, but for a truly baby league, the league is viable and the opportunities for growth are limitless!!!

Posted by Ivan | Report as abusive
 

I’ve attended these matches featuring teams visiting the USA since I arrived in the USA in the late Fifties. My first was USA v. England in 1959 at the old Wrigley Field in Los Angeles, attendance 10,000. I’ve seen many of the world’s biggest club sides and quite a few top national teams play here.

Crowds in the Sixties usually were in the 20 to 30,000 range. In the Seventies and Eighties, sttendance sometimes approached 65,000. Later still the Los Angeles stadiums got filled to near 100,000 when the Mexico national side played. Leading Mexican club sides also drew huge crowds. What is encouraging about the last couple of years is that even when no Mexican side is involved, crowds for these big matches have approached or exceeded 90,000.

Last Saturday night’s meeting between the L.A. Galaxy and Barcelona was a treat; some superb football before 93,000 fans, many of them wearing Barca shirts, in a beautiful setting at the Rose Bowl.

Were L.A. to have a top-level team of its own in a first-rate league, attendance would be no problem. It’s all a matter of the quality of the football on display. After decades of ups and downs, mostly of despair, I’m now hopeful for the future, alhough I’ve reached the age where I may not be around to see it.

 

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