Now that the United States' magical World Cup run has ended, it's time to focus on the future of soccer in the U.S.
Soccer is clearly on a roll, but a big part of its growth will fall with the media and public perception. It's time to get the media and the public to start recognizing soccer as the fifth major sport in America and to start calling it that.
Traditionally, people refer to the four major professional sports: baseball, football, basketball, and ice hockey. Soccer is typically lumped with perceived minor sports, such as lacrosse and tennis. Media coverage tends to skew heavily towards the four traditional major sports throughout the year.
Every four years during the World Cup, soccer haters come crawling from under their rocks to bash soccer as a sport. This year, conservative columnist Ann Coulter called soccer un-American due to immigration. Randy Smith wrote in the Chattanoogan, "... I don't get what soccer is all about. If you are thinking about inviting me to your house to watch the World Cup on TV, invite someone else. I would rather stay home and count the tiny tiles on my bathroom floor."
Soccer haters should get a red card. Clearly, the sport is emerging in this country.
Since its inception in 1996, Major League Soccer has grown into a successful league. There are now 19 teams in MLS, and it plans to expand to 24 teams by 2020. The Seattle Sounders averaged over 44,000 fans per game in 2013, making it among the top 50 in world club soccer, according to SI.com. The Portland Timbers sold out 54 straight MLS games through 2013. The MLS average attendance tops that of the NBA and NHL, according to Forbes.
According to the Seattle Times, "Average MLS attendance is up 35 percent since 2000. Two new expansion teams in 2015 will give the league 21 compared to 14 in 2008. Forbes says the average MLS team is worth $103 million, up from a $37 million valuation in 2008."
According to TheStreet.com, "Major League Soccer's 19 clubs had roughly 6 million fans come through the turnstiles and 18,700 show up on average for each match."
Hardly anyone in the U.S. paid attention to the World Cup when the United States first started qualifying for the tournament on a regular basis in 1990. Clearly that has changed. Over 24 million people watched the U.S.-Portugal match on ESPN. According to TechZone 360:
"ESPN's 2014 World Cup coverage is posting significant viewership increases over 2010 and 2006. ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC have combined to average 4.27 million viewers and a 2.6 HH rating through the first 32 matches, marking increases of 50 percent and 109 percent (vs. 2.9 million in 2010 and 2.05 million in 2006), and 44 percent and 86 percent (vs. 1.8 in 2010 and 1.4 in 2006), respectively."
There is a clear generational shift, as young people have grown up with soccer and become fans of the game. I notice this in my university classrooms, as I see many students wearing soccer jerseys of MLS players and players from the English Premier League. American kids don't just play the sport, they are fans.
According to the Seattle Times:
"In March, the ESPN Sports Poll Annual Report found that, for the first time, MLS had caught MLB in popularity among 12-to-17-year-olds. The poll, managed by Luker on Trends, stated that roughly 18 percent of those surveyed listed themselves as 'avid' fans of both leagues. A Pew Research Center study in January found that 40 percent of young American adults aged 20-29 were looking forward to the World Cup, compared to only 13 percent among those 50 and older."
According to the poll, the NFL and NBA are the most popular leagues.
According to the Boston Globe, "Among 12-to-24-year-olds, soccer was America's second most popular sport in 2012, behind only the NFL. The NHL lags far behind the other leagues, with 8.86 percent of those 12-to-17-year-olds surveyed saying they were avid fans."
Where MLS needs to improve is television ratings. That's where perception falls in. ESPN has tremendous influence over our sports culture. If it starts referring to the "five major sports" it can help to shape a positive perception of MLS. Same thing with newspapers, magazines, and sports talk radio around the country. It's time for them to give soccer and MLS the same amount of respect and coverage that they give the NHL.
Soccer is most comparable to the NHL. It's a niche sport with a passionate following on the local level. Attendance in both sports is solid, but the national television numbers for both are weak. The NHL is considered a major sport even though it has regional appeal. Most NHL fans follow their own city's team passionately, but could care less when their team is eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Soccer's television numbers are likely to change due to the continued exposure of the league. In May, MLS reached new, eight-year agreements with ESPN, Fox Sports, and Univision that will run through the 2022 season. According to Forbes, the three deals are reportedly worth a combined $90 million per year, which triples what the league received before. Don't forget that the league is only 20 years old, but it is growing in leaps and bounds.
It's time to give soccer a seat at the grownups table as a major sport. The media needs to take the lead.