Not Your Older Brother's MLS: Soccer Matters America

Major League Soccer is a league and a sport that is on the rise, but where does it go from here? Can it overtake America's "national pastime," baseball?
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First things first. We're talking about Major League Soccer not Multiple Listing Service here. However, soccer in America is taking up major real estate as it is a league and a sport that is on the rise. A recent report shows that Major League Soccer's attendance is skyrocketing and has passed both the National Hockey League and National Basketball Association in average attendance. CBS News reports that it appears that soccer is well on the road to becoming America's third favorite sport, after American football and baseball.

So why is MLS and the sport of soccer having so much recent success? Many factors contribute to this formula. Soccer is no longer just for "hipsters" or people who like to be different in the America sports culture. I have seen this up close with the growth of Kansas City's soccer franchise Sporting KC. A re-brand from the KC Wizards to Sporting KC, as well as the opening of the state of the art, soccer-specific Livestrong Sporting Park has taking soccer in Kansas City to the next level. This is happening all over the country with the number of soccer-specific stadiums being built. Currently 13 of the 19 MLS franchises have soccer-specific stadiums with one more on the way and one being proposed. This has changed the all-around fan experience and made the in stadium intimacy unlike any other in American sport. Throw in supporter and member sections like the Kansas City Cauldron and you have a recipe for a lively experience at every match. The members section in Kansas City is comparable, if not better than, the bleachers at Wrigley Field or the student section at a major college football or basketball game. Brett Bates, a founding member of Sporting KC's Brookside Elite supporters club believes, "No other sports league in America has the supporters culture that MLS does and that's what sets it apart. The individuals at the top know how important the average Joe is to building a passionate fan base in the city and region." Not only is this happening in the Midwest, it is also happening in the Pacific Northwest. The Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers have formed a great rivalry very quickly and their supporters sections are incredible. The Seattle Sounders are number one in MLS merchandise sales by a large margin and their attendance is setting records. Have you seen the Portland Timbers Army sing the national anthem on ESPN?

Chilling isn't it?

The MLS has done a great job expanding in recent years and now sits in nine of the ten top television markets in the United States. They are in every region of the United States except the Southeast. Young ownership groups like the ones in Kansas City led by Robb Heineman, in Portland led by Merritt Paulsen, and in Chicago led by Andrew Hauptman are keeping the sport "fresh" and are shying away from the old-world sports mentality through interaction with fans via social media and in the public domain. These guys are the Mark Cuban's of the MLS. They are pushing for more digital initiatives and progressively innovating the fan experience. Seriously, how great is it to be able to tweet, facebook, interact and text inside a stadium. Digital media is allowing soccer and MLS content to be consumed more readily by fans. Mainstream media channels are recognizing the thirst for this and MLS fans are seeing more television coverage on ESPN and the NBC Sports Network, who recently signed a three-year television agreement with MLS. We also are seeing more and more ESPN Sportcenter "Top 10" lists involving a soccer goal or highlight.

So where does Major League Soccer in America go from here? Can it overtake America's "national pastime" baseball? Most observers would agree that the NFL has already passed MLB. The debate between fan attendance at soccer games versus baseball games has already started on Kansas City sports radio with the the early 2012 success of Sporting KC and the continued lack of wins by the Kansas City Royals. Don't get me wrong I love baseball and grew up going to countless Kansas City Royals games with my family and friends, but am I wrong to believe that Major League Soccer will pass Major League Baseball by in the next 25 years? It just might. According to a 2010 New York Times piece, youth soccer participation has doubled since 1990 and high school soccer participation has the fastest growth rate of any major sport. In a recent ESPN study, pro soccer is now the second most popular sport among individuals between the ages of 12 to 24, only behind the NFL. MLB finishes fifth on this list and pro soccer is first in the study with Hispanics in the same age group.

The avid fan of pro soccer was at its highest level ever in 2011. It looks like today's youth enjoy the faster pace of soccer more than baseball. A fluid game with constant movement and action has been embraced by the younger demographic despite its lack of goals in some matches. This generation enjoys a product that they know will last two hours. They don't want to sit through a potentially three to four-hour baseball game. Is it a lack of patience, perhaps, but I see as more of a generation that likes being able to knowingly plan other activities around a sporting event. Baseball needs to find a better way to market its star players to today's youth. With everything mentioned above combined with the growth and performance of Team USA, the World Cup's popularity, more international star players coming to play here, national and local television and radio network's beefed up soccer programming, and the FIFA video game generation, soccer is poised and positioned to potentially overtake baseball in popularity in this country in the future.

Major League Soccer in America: it's time to jump on the bandwagon.

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