Soccervision

It’s long been accepted wisdom, in the UK at least, that Americans don’t get football, and most likely won’t ever get it. They’d much rather watch hillbillies drive round in circles for hours on end, or padded freaks of nature crash into each other than enjoy the sport that the rest of the world recognises as the beautiful game.

It wasn’t for for the likes of them.

Except that in my brief stay over here it’s already clear that there is a growing proportion of American sports fans that are turning on to football. Literally.

This past weekend saw every single match on the closing day of the Premier League season screened live across Fox’s network of sports channels and ESPN, in an event called “Survival Sunday”.

This unprecedented event follows strong ratings for matches, with ESPN recording over a million viewers for the recent Manchester derby, while competitions like the Champions League also consistently draw high ratings.

It’s all the more remarkable when you consider that most of these matches – the Champions League group stages in particular – will take place during weekday afternoons. Many Premier League matches kick off in early morning for West Coast based footy fans.

They’re not prime time events, yet the fans know what they want, and are willing to seek it out, and the television networks have taken note. Make no mistake, if football wasn’t a big draw, Fox wouldn’t give it a second glance, yet it even has a dedicated soccer channel.

The breadth of choice for the football fan in the States is staggering. Coming from a country where live coverage of much of the sport is in the iron grip of vastly overpriced subscription channels, it really is a breath of fresh air.

And it’s really not that surprising. The sport is growing in popularity all the time. It’s the most popular team sport for under 13s, and 60% of soccer players are under the age of 18. It’s this new generation of football fans that will continue the sport’s rapid growth, as their love affair with soccer blossoms.

The missing link is in the domestic game. Attendance at MLS matches continues to grow thanks in large part to some very smart expansions in recent years – the end of the 2011 season saw MLS rise to 3rd in average attendance at professional sports, behind NFL and MLB. Yet, the television ratings still disappoint. Only 70,000 tuned in to a recent New York vs New England match, and it’s a rare event that sees the ratings nudge towards 500,000.

It could be a snobbishness towards MLS, considering it an inferior product, that lies behind some of the ratings disparity. Perhaps it’s the (relative) lack of history or drama that the final day of the Premier League season threw up, or the major European competitions regularly do.

While MLS is clearly not on the level of a Premier League or La Liga in terms of overall quality, the football is improving all the time. It is, however, difficult to increase quality greatly when a career in soccer can’t yet offer the same financial rewards to those kids playing the game that other major American sports can.

The average salary of even the NHL is over $1.3 million, a figure only a select few can hope to earn playing Major League Soccer. The average salary of NBA players dwarves even that of an MLS teams entire salary cap. This bleeding of talent from the game lowers the pool available to MLS clubs, though they may hope to plug this leak with the development of youth academies that will funnel the best players to the top.

Growing the sport at the grassroots, and bringing through fresh, exciting local talent will help to turn eyes towards the league. Tapping urban areas for the kinds of players that are largely lost to soccer will also be key to increasing the sports broad appeal.

But it shouldn’t be an either-or situation for football fans in the States. MLS and European or South American football can happily co-exist and even compliment each other as anyone who has followed Clint Dempsey’s career from MLS to Premier League could testify.

There is still a resistance to soccer among many American sports fans, but there’s been a shift in recent years away from trying to court these casual fans to the game. This older generation are not the market that soccer is aiming for any more, and it’s allowed MLS in particular to be more focussed on delivering a strong product to those that already love the game, but haven’t yet fallen in love with the American flavour of soccer.

The outlets are certainly there as the big sports broadcasters in the States have all awoken over the past few years to the huge potential of football. Advertisers clearly see value in placing their ads during shows, and footballers such as Lionel Messi, Frank Lampard and Sergio Aguero are seen as viable ambassadors for brands like Pepsi across even non-soccer specific channels.

This summer will see every match of the European Championship broadcast by ESPN, with over 200 hours of coverage dedicated to the event, as well as the continued coverage of MLS who may hope for a ratings bump as a result.

More people are playing it. More people are going to matches. More people are tuning in.

It’s safe to say soccer is here, and it’s here to stay.

Viva la Fútbol

10 thoughts on “Soccervision

  1. I’m not convinced it’s smaller salaries that keep North Americans away from playing soccer. I think it’s the competition from other sports that attracts youngsters. Lots of tots play soccer, but not as many older kids. Little league baseball is huge. High school football (American) is HUGE. I think the key to the future of North American soccer would be to make high school soccer as prestigious as football (American). But I have no idea how to do this.

    1. I’m sure it’s not the only reason, but I do think if you’re a kid who, let’s say, has potential in soccer and baseball, and you’re looking at a career where you can hope to earn maybe $150,000 at top level soccer in this country, or ten times that in baseball, there’s going to be a pull towards the bigger money. Especially among some parents. Even if you lose only 10-20% of talent that way, it’s still a significant pool of lost players.

  2. One marketing idea that someone mentioned that makes sense to me is a regular TV feature along the lines of Monday Night Football. This guy’s idea was Friday Night Soccer. Maybe Wednesday Night Soccer would work as well.

    1. I’d love to see something like this. At the moment, MLS just seems to be shunted around the schedule. In the UK you have Super Sunday – you know you’re going to get 1 or 2 big games every week at that time. A marquee, banner night for MLS would at least allow it to establish a beachhead in TV schedules and fans will know where to find it. Being able to say “Hey, Friday night, I know there’s MLS on tonight” and have an event made of it would be nice, but it’s a vicious cycle – MLS doesn’t have the ratings hold right now for a big network to justify it, and it’s hard to build up the following when it’s here, there and everywhere on the schedules.

  3. I’ve frequently said that if golf only permitted commercial breaks every 45 minutes, golf would NEVER be aired on television. Same goes for NASCAR.

    The biggest challenge thus far is to make soccer more profitable for mass media. Once it is, the television coverage will actually be promoted / advertised, and the audiences will follow.

    1. That’s very true, though they try their best with those, to my UK sensibilities, goofy ads read out by the commentators. Unfortunately, the desire to cram as many ads in as possible around the halves means that you get only the bare minimum or pre, mid and post match analysis, which is a pet hate of mine. It’s one reason why I love watching football, or sports in general, on the BBC.

  4. I played Little League baseball as a kid, and coached it as a young father. Yet I have close to zero interest in MLB, especially on television. Nobody drove stock cars as a child, yet millions (of idiots) watch NASCAR. My point being that having played a sport as a youngster is not related to enjoying it as an adult fan.

    MLS is doing a great job of promoting attendance in person. I think they also do the cause justice by insisting on using traditional terminology (pitch, match, club, etc.) even though it is unfamiliar to American ears. It creates a feeling of being an “insider” when you know the jargon. All of this will gradually translate to a TV audience. Patience (not an American virtue) is required.

    NFL didn’t start out with a big TV audience. Children didn’t play the sport (and, even now, don’t in demographically significant numbers). Words like blitz, sack and nickel weren’t sports terms in the public imagination of 1965. Look at the NFL now. Maybe MLS will be in a similar place in 30-40 years.

  5. Another thing maybe worth considering since we are talking about demographics. Not counting the three Canadian teams,
    11 MLS teams are in traditionally blue (Democratic) states
    4 are in Blue (Republican) states–SKC,Hou FCD,RSL
    1 is in Ohio, a perennial battleground state.

    Not really sure what to make of this, if anything.

  6. Worth noting that I ran across a summary of American soccer history earlier this week, and in the 1920s, our top professional league drew larger crowds than the NFL and paid so much more for top talent that the British and Scottish leagues protested. It was destroyed in 1928 by a pointless “soccer war” between team owners, and before it could win back the sport’s alienated fans, the Great Depression wiped soccer out. The NFL, which avoided such strife, continued its long, slow rise.

    The problem today isn’t the sport, but the issue of introducing it as a televised sport. Americans love bowling, but don’t generally follow bowling on TV. I think we’re making progress, and maybe it’s more rapid than we realize. I was only a casual soccer fan before August 2010, and now it’s my favorite sport and I’m a dedicated MLS fan.

  7. As a viewer, though, the lack of commercials is a huge plus. It’s made watching other televised sports very annoying.

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