Five reasons why soccer will eventually surpass football in the US – #3: Soccer is already blowing up in America

Part three in a series.

Thanks to expanding TV deals, smart entrepreneurs in the MLS and a Millennial-fueled supporter culture, soccer is the fastest growing spectator sport in the country. 

There has been a good bit of talk over what pro soccer in the US will do now that Becks has departed the Galaxy. It is a little hard to fathom how much he did for the visibility of MLS, but there’s no question they got good value for their $250 million (or whatever insane sum of money they invested in him). Overnight it went from being a third-tier league to respectability. No, MLS can’t yet attract top world stars in their prime, but it can attract outstanding developing talent and established world stars who aren’t yet ready for the glue factory. Beckham, as we saw, still had some good years when he came over (and will probably be viable for a couple more, depending on where he goes).

Thierry Henry is playing the back nine of his career, but again, is nowhere near done. Robbie Keane is a right Spurs bastard, but there are a lot of teams in Europe that would love to have him right now. The rumor mill says that Kaka, just a few years removed from being the most terrifying attacking midfielder on the planet, is on his way to LA to replace Beckham. Or maybe it will be Chelsea’s Super Frank Lampard. Who knows? In any case, while MLS isn’t yet a top league, it has certainly become a credible league in a nation not driven by a long, deeply entrenched culture of proper football. Considering that it’s not yet 20 years old, that’s significant, if not outright remarkable.

While nobody is yet doling out NFL-type dollars, the major TV networks are clearly interested. In recent years FOX and ESPN have fought it out for rights to televise both MLS and European matches in the US (and both have been recently blindsided by new entrant beIN Sport. None of these deals holds a candle to the latest, though, as NBC has jumped into the fray with a $250M bid for the English Premiership. Whereas previous packages have offered American viewers a game or three each week (on one channel, for the most part), NBC plans to use all of its properties to show most, if not all the Prem games (and this, it is expected, might even include live matches on NBC proper).

Give this piece from ESPN FC a read, and as you do, pay attention to something. The jewels of MLS are obviously the two biggest clubs in the two biggest cities: Galaxy in LA and the perennially underperforming Red Bulls in New York. But that’s not where the backbone of the league’s future necessarily lies. It will avail nothing to build a couple of rich sides if everybody else is the Washington Generals, and it’s the emerging entrepreneurship in places like Portland and Kansas City that are shining the light forward.

But in towns like Portland and Kansas City, soccer has become a cacophonous totem of local pride. Young fans attracted by an intoxicating supporter culture and intimate soccer-specific stadiums have themselves become symbols of the self-confidence and momentum surging behind the game in the United States.

Whereas pioneering owners Lamar Hunt and Anschutz Entertainment gamely propped up a gaggle of teams in the league’s early days, the new energy in MLS has been catalyzed by the arrival of a new breed of young entrepreneurial investors — hands-on leaders who fuse strategy and vision with a passion that reflects their teams’ rabid supporter cultures.

Would you like to go see a Portland Timbers game? Good luck. They seem to be permanently sold out, and that supporters club – the Timbers Army – is the equal of anything in Europe for enthusiasm. (Sit next to one of them on a cross-country flight sometime, like I did earlier this year, and make sure he knows you like soccer. Let me know what you learn.) Pan around the crowd on game day – you’d be hard pressed to tell much difference between them and all but the largest clubs across the pond.

In July, several of us from the Rocky Mountain Blues Chelsea FC Supporters Club tripped up to Seattle to see our beloved Blues take on the Sounders as part of their pre-season tour. It was quite an event. Wherever we went the day before the match, the locals were clearly clued in: “are you here for the Chelsea match?” Everyone in town knew, not just the diehards. And we were well represented. I’m not sure how many of us Chelsea interlopers there were in the north stands, but we acquitted ourselves pretty nicely.

Still, the total attendance at the game was in excess of 53,000, mostly Seattle loyalists. The game was held in CenturyLink Field, where the Seahawks play, a remarkable showing for an exhibition match. The Sounders feature some of the best organized fans in MLS, and it’s worth noting that very few stadia in England are large enough to hold that many attendees.

Sporting Kansas City’s Robb Heineman is ambitious: “Our business plan will allow us to be one of the world’s four or five best leagues within the course of the next eight years.” Hmmm. Well, based on current realities, that means behind England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France, but ahead of Holland and Portugal. Seriously ambitious. But maybe not out of the question, depending on what criteria you use to define “best.”

Tomorrow: The children are the future…

Image Credits: The Roar, Rocky Mountain Blues

12 replies »

  1. 5 Reasons Anyone Who Believes This Is Delusional

    I guess the out word in the post is “eventually.” Because eventually, the U.S. will speak Spanish or Hindi, and when that happens, maybe. But until then…..

    5. Real football
    4. Baseball
    3. Basketball
    2. Hackeysack
    1. Driving out to the airport and watching planes land because that is more exciting than more soccer games.

    • I once would have agreed with you on the excitement level of a soccer game, and it’s still far from my favorite sport … but it’s not that bad. And a good match between good teams is quite exciting. People can (and do) say the same thing of baseball; the reply to which is often “if you’ve played the game it’s not boring at all”. Sam’s about to tell us how all the kids grow up playing soccer now. That’s what’s changing the dynamic.

      As to complaining about excitement and using the phrase “real football” in the same post without a hint of irony, well …

      I like football. I watch quite a bit of college football. How anyone can call the NFL’s product exciting is beyond me.

    • Haters gonna hate.
      Oh, and NFL is not “real” football. It’s pointy ball. REAL football has been around for over a century. Your pointy ball has only been around a couple decades. Deal with it, copy cat.

  2. It’s always cute when people pretend that facts don’t exist. But hey, I understand that some of you are football fundamentalists.

    Speaking of which, Proper Football even has its own version of Tim Tebow. Kaka, who may be heading to LA, LOVES him some Jesus.

  3. Interesting article and one close to my heart.
    I’m English but have lived in the United States for 32 years (on and off) and have witnessed the modern game build through many a setback. Take Portland for instance; back when I lived in the City the Timbers used to play in the old (and I mean old) Beavers minor league baseball ground. There wasn’t a good seat in the house! Not surprisingly the atmosphere was zilch (not helped by a bizarre commentary delivered with gusto, but not much insight, over the PA), the players did their best, but it was always an uphill struggle to control the ball on the incredibly bouncy AstroTurf, and when the ball went into the bleachers on the far side from the spectators it often took the ball boys minutes to retrieve it.
    Needless to say the spectacle failed to hold my interest and the games I attended were few and far between. Now I see that things are changed dramatically. I’m not surprised the good people of Portland have rallied around their soccer team, as the Trail Blazers are the only show in town and not altogether totally popular with large swaths of the market – a perfect market at that!
    So in many ways I’m not surprised that “soccer” has taken off in these sophisticated markets – large cities currently under-represented by the big sports. It’s the hinterland where soccer has, and in my opinion will continue, to hit a brick wall!
    Take Texas for instance. Can anyone see a soccer team eclipsing the Houston Oilers or Dallas Cowboys? Then there is the fact that ‘American Football’ is nurtured with the complicit support of the country’s major universities. Football is very very big business at practically every college campus you wish to name. Sure people (men and women these days) play soccer… but it is generally an underfunded and slightly patronized sport when compared to football, baseball, basketball and even hockey in many parts of the country.
    Don’t get me wrong – I would love to see America embrace the beautiful game, and ever-so-slowly it is making what I can see as permanent gains – but where I have to disagree with your analysis is in your prediction that it will one day take over from football, baseball, and basketball at the top of the sporting tree. Try as I might I just cannot see it.
    The reason for this has little or nothing to do with the points I have just raised but everything to do with one word: advertising. It has been my experience when attempting to watch a game of American football, the NBA, or baseball that the screen is more often than not filled will repetitive commercials! Time outs, quarters, halves, you name it… a moment’s lapse in the action and BAM! another commercial. But it’s not just that. The way Americans watch their sport is interesting. They seem to ‘hover’ over a game rather than sit glued to the screen as we soccer fans do, only giving it their full attention when they sense something interesting has happened, or is about to happen.
    What this means is that they have been conditioned to accept sport as a living billboard for commercials… even stretching to the point that during the Superbowl many people at the bar I was in freely admitted that they were indeed only there for the commercials. Quite bizarre!
    So even if by some amazing shift in sentiment the American population suddenly forsook their traditional sports for this ‘foreign interloper’ you can bet your bottom dollar that the big fat corporations, who see each game as an excellent platform for their commercials, will have something to say about the fact that soccer has the audacity to kick off… then basically ignore the outside world for a full 90 minutes.
    It’ll be interesting to see how NBC handles the Premier League next season. I have my concerns over Fox, but better the Devil you know. Once I’ve seen how a major American TV network (Fox Soccer can hardly be labeled as that) handles the world’s most exiting league I’ll have a clearer idea of where we soccer fans stand in this country. Will NBC stop the feed to show their adds? It’s possible. Will that help to bring this foreign game home to the majority of their perplexed viewers? Probably. Will it be a good thing for the game? Most certainly not.
    Anyway, thanks for bringing this up – a very important subject for lovers of the beautiful game.

    • Thanks for the comment, Martin. The argument is a big picture one with lots of shifting dynamics. If you didn’t read parts one and two, go back and do that because it lays some important groundwork re: “throwball.” Tomorrow’s analysis of generational dynamics is important, too.

      • Thanks, I read parts two and three but I’ll find part one and read that too as you make some very astute points. The head injuries for instance. You know there are people on the periphery of the game who would like to see heading eliminated from soccer believe it or not. And I think I’m right in saying many school districts already forbid players to head the ball until they are a certain age. Tackling is also a bit of an issue too.
        But I do still maintain that advertising is the 800 pound gorilla in the room. At the end of the day people will watch precisely what they are shown and if the big networks can’t reap in their huge advertising dollars I suspect soccer at some point will level off below the sports that have sold their profitable soul.

  4. Having never been a huge soccer fan, is it one of those games that is exponentially more fun to see in person? And how’s the cost of attending an MLS game? If the latter is reasonable and the atmosphere is fun, MLS will put more and more people in seats.

    • It’s certainly fun live, but it’s also about culture and community, too. If you’d been in the building for Chelsea’s semi-final matches vs Barca or the Champs League final against Bayern last year you’d know what I mean. On TV from a different continent and it was the most exciting thing I’ve ever seen.

      As for our football fundamentalist, next time you come to town you’re going to the Bulldog for a game. Rather than try and tell you, I’ll just show you.

      One final note – that old “soccer is boring” argument always makes me laugh. In a typical football game the ball is in play what, seven minutes total?

  5. The atmosphere is completely different to American football games, especially if you attend a Sounders/Timbers/Whitecaps match. You can hear people singing songs on the TV from these teams. The streets for the matches also have people with flares and songs marching to the stadium. I know that Rapids tickets often come dirt cheap (to the point that gas to Commerce City costs more than the actual tickets) but the Rapids do a poor job of promoting their team (building a stadium in the middle of nowhere didn’t help). I agree that it’s hard to see places like Colorado, New York or Texas being able to compete with the NFL/NBA but I think Seattle, Portland and Vancouver can be a model for promoting footy around the United States

    • Your point about the Rapids is spot on. I like the stadium okay, but damn, I wish it were somewhere near Denver. That would make a difference in how often I’d go. Imagine if it were somewhere downtown near Mile High and The Can.