Americans fall for soccer but can MLS cash in?
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